Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

President Obama’s Trip to Latin America: Now What?

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President Obama’s trip one week later:  Did it matter?  It barely made a splash in the U.S. media, but at a regional and personal level it did.  Talk to Brazilians, Chileans or Salvadorans and they appreciate the fact that he went there.  Sure, he couldn’t do it with the festive, family-oriented aura that he had hoped, given world events, but it was precisely the frenzied swirl of those events that gave his trip to the region that much more credibility in the region. 

For many of us (here I speak not of Latin Americans but Latin Americanists) rooting from the sidelines, his trip meant, “Yes, yes he does care!!!”  (Maybe we’re just really needy.)

But the proof now is in what happens next.  The personal relationships President Obama developed with Presidents Rousseff, Piñera and Funes are immeasurably important.  There may be no tangible, obvious benefits of personal chemistry (speaking at least from a diplomatic standpoint), but these things are important.  They allow a president to make a phone call, personally press a position and establish the foundation for the sort of partnership that he talked about. 

What comes, though, of the speeches, declarations and commitments signed

Much of the U.S.’s credibility on these will hinge on what it does on the Colombia and Panama FTAs—the issue that, for the time being at least, the White House has kicked down the road.  It’s understandable that the President may have wanted to avoid the FTAs on this trip, since they were—and here I’m thinking optimistically—under a larger strategic rethink that would lead to their presentation to Congress.  But any commitments he made south of the U.S. border still hinge on his willingness and ability to follow through on the issues left by his predecessor, namely the FTAs.  If not, Presidents Rousseff, Piñera and Funes can legitimately wonder whether even the most seemingly politically innocuous promise (such as scholarships) will be fulfilled. What good is a trade and investment agreement with Brazil or a promise of collaboration on innovation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Chile if the U.S. President isn’t willing to put his political muscle behind the largest U.S. pending policy issue in the region: the free trade agreements? 

It’s funny. Among us (needy) Latin Americanists, the measure of success of democratic regimes is policy consistency—the carry-over of political initiatives from one government to the next, rather than wrenching changes.  In this we have the success stories of the governments of Mexico from the PRI to the PAN on matters of economic policy and some elements of social policy (Oportunidades); the continuity of municipal development and security policies in Bogotá, Colombia from one administration to the next; the persistence of basic macroeconomic policy from the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso to that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and now Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; and in Chile the smooth economic and social policy continuity across the Concertación governments since the transition to democracy in 1989 and now with the transition to a non-Concertación government under Sebastian Piñera.  

So, what happened to policy continuity in the United States when it comes to Latin America?  Unfortunately, it’s gotten wrapped around partisanship and 1980s-era advocacy groups. 

Just as the U.S. evaluates and applauds countries in the region on their policy consistency, we should do the same across our administration and ideological divides.  Sadly, we’re (and here I refer again to needy Latin Americanists, because quite frankly, this debate wouldn’t occur among Asia-focused groups) falling short.

So, as much as we applaud the President’s trip to Brazil, let’s understand the basic policy credibility that undergirds the relationships he developed.  I wouldn’t want a Republican administration to tear them down simply because they were made by a Democrat.  Similarly, we can’t have Democrats who care about stable relations in the hemisphere raze the goals and proposals of the last administration.  Criticize, yes.   But place unattainable or excessively long-term goals for the next administration, no.  Let’s be honest.  We wouldn’t want the same in Brazil, Bogotá, Chile or Mexico—so why do many Latin Americanist groups promote it in the U.S.?


Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

Tags: Colombia FTA, Panama FTA, President Obama’s trip to Latin America, trade
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