Obama and Latin America: A Missed Opportunity

The Hindu

December 23, 2009
Part of the attractiveness of Barack Obama’s candidacy was his commitment to multilateralism. But the commitment has failed with respect to the Americas.

As we approach the first anniversary of President Barack Obama’s inauguration, all eyes are set on health care reform and its ultimate fate in Congress. In foreign affairs, the war in Afghanistan has held centre stage. Less attention has been paid to his policy toward Latin America. With a global financial crisis and two wars going on, there is no reason to think that the western hemisphere would be a priority for the White House.

Yet, the overwhelming feeling about the United States policy towards southern neighbours this year is not so much one of lack of attention as of missed opportunity. During the first half of 2009, despite many other demands on his agenda, Mr. Obama managed to get quite a bit done in the region. A visit to Mexico with President Felipe Calderón, a successful Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain (where Mr. Obama underscored he was there to listen rather than to pontificate), and the hosting of Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Álvaro Uribe of Colombia at the White House, are evidence of that. Much the same can be said about the lifting of the travel and remittance limitations on Cuban-Americans visiting Cuba, as well as of the 1962 Organisation of American States (OAS) resolution that suspended Cuba’s membership.

Perhaps the high point of this “Latin offensive” was reached with the condemnation of the June 28 coup in Honduras. For a change, Washington sided with the democrats rather than with the generals, who evicted President Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya from his home at gunpoint, put him on a plane and sent him abroad.

In the following weeks, hand in hand with regional bodies like the OAS, which voted unanimously to suspend Honduras’ membership, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on the country, stopped a number of aid programmes, cancelled the U.S. visas of prominent Honduran officials (including that of strongman Roberto Micheletti) and otherwise indicated that it would not abide by the first military coup in the region in 20 years. The high expectations generated in Latin America and the Caribbean by Mr. Obama’s election (which even led to the government of Antigua to rename its highest mountain Mount Obama) seemed to have been vindicated. A principled defence of the democratic cause in the Americas, anchored in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, seemed to have gained the upper hand in Washington’s corridors of power, so often dominated by other, less elevated concerns.

Yet, much to the chagrin of the overwhelming majority of Latin Americans, this initial stance quickly unravelled, allowing the policy of the past to raise its ugly head. By putting a hold on two key U.S. State Department appointments — of Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, and of the Ambassador to Brazil-designate, Thomas Shannon — Senator Jim DeMint threw a monkey wrench into all this. In an unprecedented case of “parallel diplomacy,” Senator DeMint flew to Tegucigalpa on his own, brushing off offers of assistance from the U.S. embassy there, met with the head of the de facto government, Mr. Micheletti, and told him to stand firm and refuse Washington’s entreaties to allow President Zelaya to return to office.

Thus emboldened, Mr. Micheletti quickly realised he had Washington’s number, and that it was just a matter of running the clock towards the November 29 elections, after which he would be home safe. The one outstanding problem was the U.S. recognition of the elections. To take care of that, Mr. Shannon was dispatched to Honduras to broker a deal between the de facto government and the forces supporting Mr. Zelaya. Ensconced in the Brazilian Embassy, the latter and his supporters made the mistake of trusting that this was a bona fide negotiation, and signed off on a deal. This made the restitution of Mr. Zelaya contingent upon a vote of the Honduras Parliament, on the not unreasonable assumption that having internationally recognised elections was a powerful incentive.

Yet, the deal turned out to be a Faustian pact between the Democratic administration and the Republican opposition. Back in Washington, Mr. Shannon quickly stated that Washington would recognise the November 29 elections no matter what happened with Mr. Zelaya, thus ending whatever leverage the U.S. might have had with Mr. Micheletti and the de facto government.

From there on, the comedy turned into a farce. The Honduras Parliament did not even meet to vote on Mr. Zelaya’s restitution before the November 29 elections. When it did so in early December, the vote started with a strident PowerPoint presentation on Mr. Zelaya’s alleged misdeeds, ending with a predictable vote against restoring him to office. Back in Washington, the Republicans lifted the hold on Mr. Valenzuela, who was quickly sworn in, and on Mr. Shannon. Yet, in a remarkable turn of fate, the next day another Republican Senator, George Le Mieux of Florida, put another hold on Mr. Shannon and his appointment as Ambassador to Brazil. This left him twisting slowly, slowly in the wind, despite having kept his promise to deliver Mr. Zelaya’s head on a silver platter to the Republican opposition.

Assistant Secretary Valenzuela lamely asked the newly elected Honduran President to stick to the San Jose-Tegucigalpa agreements (which contemplated a government of national unity), a request which was brushed off as so much gobbledygook. At this point, the government won’t even allow Mr. Zelaya to leave the country unless he signs a document giving up on all claims to his former office. Instead of reaching out to the other side, all pretences at a compromise have been abandoned. The de facto government is simply rubbing it in, boasting of how, through the K-Street lobbyists ($600,000 was paid to them, including Lanny Davis, a former Clinton lawyer, for their services) and the Republican Senators, they managed to humiliate the Obama administration, the OAS and most Latin American governments, blocking the reinstatement of Mr. Zelaya and thus the undoing of the effects of the coup.

As John Ruggie has pointed out, multilateralism is much more than just another tool in the foreign policy toolbox. It is an expression of a willingness to work with others in the community of nations. It is a signal that one believes in collective action to promote global public good, and that states are able to see beyond a narrow Hobbesian perspective.

One of President George Bush’s big mistakes was his extreme unilateralism, which led him to waste the enormous sympathy the U.S. earned as a result of the 9/11 tragedy. Iraq, Kyoto, Guantanamo and the policy followed towards the International Criminal Court all reflect this approach. Part of the attractiveness of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, a man who opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, was his commitment to multilateralism. Progress has been made. Steps towards closing Guantanamo, the banning of torture and measures designed to slow down global warming are all examples of it. For the first time, a U.S. President chairs the United Nations Security Council. Mr. Obama’s dream of eradicating nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth points in the same direction.

Where his commitment to multilateralism has failed, however, is in the Americas. By ignoring the unanimous resolution of the OAS that condemned the military coup in Honduras, by ending up supporting the de facto government there and by recognising the November 29 elections held under a cloud, Mr. Obama has disposed of any illusion that he might embody a significant change in U.S. policy towards Latin America.

In outsourcing that policy and delegating it, effectively, to the Republican Party, the message is crystal clear: Washington cares little about what happens South of the Rio Grande, and is willing to let that policy be handled by the Republican Senators from the Carolinas to Florida.

It is thus surprising that the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil raised eyebrows in Washington. In a speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even warned Latin American countries not to deal with Iran, as consequences would follow. Washington is eager for Latin American nations to join the efforts of some members of the international community to isolate Tehran. Suddenly, the Obama administration discovers that it needs emerging powers like Brazil in its multilateral efforts on global fora, and Mr. Obama writes President Lula endearing letters. Yet, it is perfectly willing to abdicate on its Latin American policy and to capitulate to whatever one or two Republican Senators demand in the region.

The notion that this initial outcome of the Honduras crisis is a victory of realism over principles is sadly myopic. It is nothing of the sort. It is simply the triumph of expediency over consistency. This is not the way to rebuild inter-American relations, in a bad state of disrepair after a difficult decade.

Jorge Heine holds the Chair in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and is a Distinguished Fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario. His latest book, with Andrew F. Cooper, Which Way Latin America? Hemispheric Politics Meets Globalization, is published by United Nations University Press.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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