Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

U.S. at a Standstill; Brazil Moves On

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This isn’t another confirm Tom Shannon as Ambassador to Brazil or confirm Arturo Valenzuela as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs essay—though I support both of those positions, and understand that things may be moving. This is an expression of wonder at the inability of the U.S. government to walk and chew gum at the same time when it comes to Latin America policy. 

Let me be clear.  I’m not one of those persistent whiners who always complain about the lack of attention paid to Latin America.  The last administration of George W. Bush paid plenty of attention to the region, traveling there more frequently and receiving more Latin American heads of state in the White House than any past president, and launching a series of serious initiatives for the region: the free trade agreements with Peru, Panama and Colombia, the Merida Initiative with Mexico, and a series of genuinely exciting efforts with Brazil, Uruguay and Chile—starting with, but not limited to, trade.  

Sad thing is, despite a time during the campaign when it seemed that all a potential President Obama needed to do was show up to be more effective, his administration is at real risk of losing the gains of the last eight years. 

I never thought I’d say that. 

I publicly lamented the decline of the U.S.’s moral authority. I applauded the rhetoric to de-instrumentalize support for democracy and to talk to our enemies and gadflies in the region.  And I support our policy on Honduras.  In fact, the effort to cooperate with our neighbors on the Honduras crisis could help to reverse a lot of bad blood from the past. 

But our policy remains frozen in Central America. Part of it is for lack of leadership. For that the blame lies squarely at the feet of the Senate.

But the vacuum also reflects the fundamental lack of depth of our policy.  It is astounding that a policy toward the region and, more specifically, toward the most important country within it—Brazil—is being held hostage to only two appointments.  Surely the machinery of the bureaucracy can grind on…but it hasn’t. 

Under Bush, the U.S. launched a series of initiatives spanning biofuels, deeper commercial relations and anti-discrimination.  Inexplicably, these have slipped, much to the frustration (and bewilderment) of Brazilians.   Discussions before the UN Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen continue, but without the steam of before.  Deeper commercial and trade relations, that demonstrated the potential of diplomatic and commercial contacts outside an FTA, have slowed. 

This is no small matter.  Of all the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) Brazil looks poised to bounce back in a particularly strong position.  Growth for 2009 will likely be just below zero with the country positioned for serious economic growth in 2010.  Not coincidentally, before the crisis and since, the Brazilian government has engaged in a massive campaign of global embrace—reaching out to trading partners in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. 

Yet, despite our massive bureaucracy, we remain in a holding pattern.  Whatever our problems in Congress, we remain oddly paralyzed at a bureaucratic and presidential level.  

We can move on these issues.   In the midst of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and healthcare we could make, at a minimum, symbolic gestures.  But we don’t.  Why not have a cabinet or presidential-level trip to, or discussion about, Brazil? 

For all its reluctance to take on regional issues (or perhaps because of them) Brazil is looking to move on.   And we’re on the sidelines—though perhaps we deserve that.  It was never ours to lose, but our leadership and the basis of our partnership in the hemisphere—moral, economic and diplomatic—is slipping in light of our bureaucratic paralysis.   Surely we’re greater than Tom Shannon and Arturo Valenzuela, for all their strengths.


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: Arturo Valenzuela, Brazil, Honduras crisis, Tom Shannon, U.S.-Brazil Relations
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