Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Hemisphere

Reading Time: 12 minutesThe U.S. moves beyond traditional diplomacy.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Let’s shake on partnership: U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet schoolchildren on the tarmac in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Reading Time: 12 minutes

The United States has never experienced a more auspicious moment to advance its fundamental national interests in the Americas. Today, most nations of the hemisphere are building on democratic success, economic growth, expanding capacity, and regional integration to overcome past inequities and to drive major internal transformation.

At the same time, they are confronting powerful new challenges that will require smart and strategic responses on their part—and on ours.

The shift to this new era has happened so seamlessly that perhaps the biggest risk is that we will fail to recognize its dimensions and adapt our approach accordingly. This is not just true for policymakers but for academics and U.S. and regional media as well. For too many, the old narrative in which the U.S. tries to mold feckless neighbors into compliant partners—or worse, struggles against those who disagree with us—continues to hold powerful sway.

That narrative is utterly at odds with the remarkable partnerships flourishing throughout the hemisphere. As Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, I have been given a remarkable vantage point from which to take stock of how much the hemisphere has changed for the better.

When I began my academic career four decades ago, U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean reflected Cold War priorities. We sided automatically with anti-communist regimes regardless of the wishes of their people, and often at the cost of undermining the consolidation of viable democratic regimes.

Since assuming the post in 2009, I have made more than 60 visits to two dozen countries in the Americas. Those visits, as well as my daily contacts with political, civil society and business leaders, and with our outstanding ambassadors and country teams in the region, brought home to me the dramatic shift in post–Cold War U.S. policy.

Respect and Partnership

As a growing number of countries experienced domestic pressure in favor of democratic reform, support from Washington helped achieve a dramatic reversal of previous patterns. At first, the region’s embrace of elected governments left many entrenched interests untouched by the new democratic order. Traditional elites were protected and rigid social orders reinforced, while little attempt was made to provide greater mobility for traditionally excluded sectors of society.

But over the past decade, innovative policy approaches have helped address the most persistent challenges to the hemisphere’s development—poverty and inequality. Today, notwithstanding the stark security challenges faced by many countries—and the resurgence of populism in a few—the Americas are more democratic, just and equitable than at any previous point in history.

In this transformed political landscape, the overarching story of our hemispheric relations is how we are collaborating to meet the challenges of transnational crime, climate change, energy and food security, racial and gender equality, education for all, and a host of other twenty-first century tests—all vital to prosperity and competitiveness.

This interaction builds on many different national experiences to forge partnerships that are advancing our peoples’ well-being. These partnerships between tremendously diverse peoples find expression in many ways. We see it in the increasingly global nature of the region’s trade relations. We also see it when countries work together to defend democratic processes and rights, or when they share responsibilities and coordinate national policies to fight transnational crime, or to address climate change.

We are at an historic moment. Having moved decisively beyond the stale and paternalistic narrative of U.S. neglect or intervention, hegemony or decline, our peoples, businesses and governments are more connected than ever, in a region that trades more with us, is the source of more of our energy imports and destination of our direct foreign investment, and supports more U.S. jobs than any other region. In our geographic expanse and diversity, the Americas now comprise the largest and most dynamic community of shared interests in the world.

Still, there is more to be done.

Many citizens throughout the region remain excluded. Women, Indigenous people and people of African descent, youth, LGBT people, and people with disabilities continue to encounter discrimination, violence, intolerance, and exclusion. We are working with governments in the region and others to address the needs of traditionally marginalized groups. This is more than a question of defending universal values. It is key to the advancement of the region.

Shared Interests

U.S. policy in the Americas aims toward building a new architecture of cooperation that serves our highest national interests and advances a shared purpose.

Three profoundly important developments influence and facilitate our efforts.

First, most of Latin America today is experiencing a period of unprecedented social, political and economic success—as measured by rising levels of political and personal freedom, greater economic prosperity, and increasing global relevance. That success rests in large measure on a commitment to democratic development that is as widespread as it is strong.

We applaud that commitment. Where it is incomplete or uneven, we share with other nations a crucial stake in its expansion. Where it is imperiled, we as a democratic community share a crucial stake in its protection.

The coup in Honduras is a stark reminder that the hemisphere cannot accept the replacement of an elected leader through force. The country’s return to the Organization of American States (OAS) sends the message that problems of democracy must be solved with democracy.

The U.S. has no greater national interest than the sustained success of open societies across the Americas, served by effective institutions able to meet the needs and aspirations of their peoples. This is a formula for growth, human dignity and stability—each of which is critical to drawing out the region’s truly vast reserves of talent, knowledge and experience, and is needed to shape our quality of life in the decades ahead in response to the twenty-first-century challenges we all face.

Second, most people in the hemisphere now understand that national success depends first and foremost on sound policy anchored by strong institutions and respect for the rights of all. Where there is insufficient commitment to these, or where the will to build institutions and protect rights is thwarted or nonexistent, no amount of external partnership can make up the difference. Governments across the political spectrum recognize this, and are implementing effective policies for macroeconomic stability, social inclusion and expanded rights.

In this digital age, citizens have more access to information and are more skeptical of governments’ attempts to blame outside forces for their failings. They increasingly hold their governments accountable for concrete results.

Third, the countries of the Americas are more integrated, economically and socially, with the rest of the globe than ever before. This integration has generated a number of common interests and powerful incentives for cooperation on issues such as peace and security, observance of universal rights, sustainable growth, energy and food security, and environmental protection—and the cooperation extends not only across national borders, but beyond the hemisphere.

Diverse Partnerships

In April 2009, President Barack Obama pledged a new era of partnership with all the elected leaders of the Americas at the Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain. He was thinking in clear, ambitious and literal terms.

Over the past two years, leveraging our diplomatic, development and defense capabilities, we have reached beyond traditional approaches to advance new networks of cooperation. The President’s March 2011 trip to South and Central America highlighted many of the new, sustained region-wide partnerships that are central to this new approach.

The three countries he visited—Brazil, Chile and El Salvador—embody the diversity of the challenges and opportunities the Americas face.


Brazil’s last two presidents completed a peaceful democratic revolution that stabilized and grew the economy, cemented democracy, lifted tens of millions out of poverty, and set Brazil on a path to greater global influence.

Brazilians have shown that democracy is not about ideology and that markets are not about privilege. Rather, both are practical means by which a developing country can build stability, social consensus and enduring success. This powerful example has helped anchor the region’s democratic development and stability. It also resonates globally.

Obama brought President Dilma Rousseff and Brazil’s people a message of respect and support for Brazil’s expanding role and responsibilities in the world. He also outlined a vision of a robust and multifaceted partnership, particularly in areas that Brazil identifies as critical to its global success, such as infrastructure, security, human capital, and regional stability.

We believe that affinities of interest and values set the stage for strategic partnership with Brazil in many areas. This has proven an elusive goal, but we should not conclude that it is unreachable. Our two countries might now have the best opportunity in a generation to reorder our relations.

Significant foreign policy differences with Brazil, over issues such as Iran or Honduras, captured headlines last year even as our private sectors and civil societies forged ever more dynamic links.

The 10 agreements signed between the U.S. and Brazil at the time of the President’s visit testify to an intensification of our bilateral engagement in a broad range of areas that involve huge interests of both countries (see chart on p. 31). Our formal intergovernmental dialogues involve multiple U.S. and Brazilian agencies that report directly to both presidents on issues relating to politics, economics, trade, finance, agriculture, energy, technology, innovation, the environment, defense, and nonproliferation. On June 1, in Washington DC, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota held the second round of our Global Partnership Dialogue with Brazil.


Chile exemplifies the consolidation of democratic and market transformation and a rapidly growing ability to contribute regional and global public goods. These qualities, and Chile’s high human development index, were recognized when it was invited to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). With more than 60 free-trade agreements (FTAs) globally, no state in the region has more successfully leveraged the opportunities of a globalized world.

During the visit, I was struck by how the scope of issues discussed with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera represented the kind of agenda that President Obama would cover with the leader of any of our closest partners in the world. The visit took place shortly after a powerful earthquake triggered a nuclear catastrophe in Japan. Accordingly, Chile’s experience with disaster preparedness figured high in the discussions. The two presidents’ agenda also included talks to combat transnational crime, promote efficient, clean energy, and protect the environment.

Turning to the hemisphere, they focused on promoting regional integration and agreed to strengthen the OAS charter to better defend democratic rights, rule of law and civil society.

El Salvador

President Obama’s visit to El Salvador was a recognition of the historic significance of that country’s democratic transfer of power in 2009, when the victorious FMLN, a former guerrilla movement, signaled its intent to govern in a democratic, inclusive and responsible way. With President Mauricio Funes, he visited the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the human rights defender who was assassinated by a right-wing death squad in 1980, to highlight Salvadorans’ long struggle for justice and rights, and the importance of the ongoing, difficult process of national reconciliation.

Discussions between the two leaders moved on to the importance of a vibrant economy for the future of Central America, and President Funes underscored how vital it was to put in place the fiscal policies needed to fund effective and modern institutions across that region.

El Salvador is also emblematic of another struggle—one shared by the U.S.—against the deadly gang and drug violence that is assaulting citizens and institutions in Central America and Mexico.

We are working closely with the region’s governments to bolster their capacity to resist narcoviolence. Here, our partnership is taking new forms. This year, the State Department spearheaded a new process to more effectively coordinate the work of the international community, including Canada, Mexico, the EU, and development banks, to help Central America address its security challenges.

Budgetary constraints alone make it crucial to maximize the impact and effectiveness of all our efforts. The President formalized these efforts when he announced in El Salvador the Central American Security Partnership, a new framework for coordination of security assistance. Particularly significant to the success of this partnership will be the participation of other Latin American countries that have gained hard-earned experience fighting transnational crime. Colombia’s new partnership to assist Central American countries is emblematic of the leadership of newly capable partners to help solve regional problems.

Bumps on the Path

The President’s trip showcased our engagement with three countries that are profoundly different, but share with many other nations in the region the desire to establish a broad and pragmatic partnership with the U.S. to advance common interests.

This reflects the recent uptick in how the U.S. and its policies are viewed by publics in the region. Polls, such as the 2010 Latinobarómetro survey, document overwhelming majorities—modern highs—expressing favorable views of the United States and its influence in the region. This includes a big jump in perceptions of “respect” from the United States.

However, in a few countries, our relations are challenged in ways that have impeded the development of mutually beneficial partnerships. Those countries are on trajectories that, contrary to their stated goals, complicate their societies’ quest for sustainable and equitable development. Despite policy challenges between governments, the U.S. should try to find ways of working with the people of these countries in ways that do not ostracize or create long-lasting antipathies. Whatever the outcome of these current governments, we must recognize that countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador are undergoing profound social change, brought about by democratic openness, that must be recognized.

With Bolivia, we have worked hard to find common ground on which to establish a partnership, and those efforts continue. Ecuador’s recent unjustified expulsion of our ambassador was a serious blow to relations. However, our ties with Ecuador and its people are old and deep, and we share many interests. We hope that in time it will be possible to enjoy a strong relationship based on those interests.

We respect the rights of people in all societies to choose their future. But we will speak up for their other universal rights. In Cuba, our policy is intended to support the desire of the Cuban people to live their future in freedom. Cubans deserve to enjoy their rights as much as people in any nation, and we are working toward that goal through policies intended to empower Cuba’s civil society.

These beliefs guide the steady, measured steps we continue to take to increase contact between our peoples, facilitate remittances that help Cuban people, and promote the free flow of information within Cuba.

The coup in Honduras, challenges in Haiti’s recent elections, and preparations for Nicaragua and Guatemala’s elections underscore that democratic progress is complicated in many countries. We are particularly concerned for Venezuelans, with whom we have long historical ties. There, an elected ruler continues to undermine democratic institutions, restrict freedoms, mismanage the economy, and centralize power. Venezuelans are increasingly dissatisfied with growing insecurity, ineffective services, failing infrastructure, and lost economic opportunity.

Signs abound that Latin Americans do not buy attempts by Venezuela’s ruler to blame its problems on false enemies. Polls such as Latinobarómetro also document a collapse in favorable views of President Hugo Chávez among Latin American citizens, only a small fraction of whom now express favorable views of him. We will continue to speak up for rights in Venezuela and look for appropriate and concrete ways to support them, so that Venezuelans have the civic space to build a democratic future. The growing voices of support for that space, from governments and civil society in the region and beyond, tesitfy to the broader interests at stake.

We should recognize the clearly hopeful signs we see, too. We welcome the growing détente between Colombia and Venezuela that has contributed to a reduction in polarization. Although some still see Latin America and the Caribbean through a Cold War prism, the reality is that the region is increasingly seeking to forge ever more pragmatic partnerships in the pursuit of concrete objectives. Further evidence may be found in Peruvan President-elect Ollanta Humala’s strong public commitments to pursue a moderate and democratic approach to governing his country.

Working Globally

The growing global integration of most of Latin America and the Caribbean is producing dynamic new trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific economic ties, and it has sharply raised the region’s global profile. Consultations on regional developments are now staples in our dialogues with important global players, including China, the EU, Israel, Japan, Korea, and Russia. Similarly, our policy consultations with hemispheric countries now routinely focus on our policies in Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as on the new multilateral groupings that facilitate Latin America’s extra-regional engagement.

We are not inclined to automatically see this integration, or the competition that can flow from it, as a zero-sum game. I emphasized this point in Beijing last year, when I met with government, party and business leaders as part of our annual dialogue with China on Latin America. Rather, I said, we believe that on a level playing field, transparent trade and investment flows can benefit all and be powerful engines of development. In other spheres, such as the G20, Latin American nations are part of crucial new dialogues on global norms and governance.

Within the Americas, the architecture to support the integration that will be vital to the region’s economic competitiveness is growing more effective. We strongly support regional and subregional integration in the Americas, as we did in Europe following the end of World War II. The Americas, in fact, have long been at the forefront of this process. The world’s first regional organization was the OAS. Although formally created in 1948, its roots date back more than a century—and it remains the hemisphere’s premier and most inclusive multilateral forum, with a unique juridical basis.

From peace talks and disarmament in Central America to the evolution of electoral observation standards to the reversal of coups and power grabs in Paraguay, Guatemala, Peru, and Haiti, the OAS has brokered the kind of collective action we should be proud of. We must continue to build on that foundation, and strengthen the ability of the OAS to protect the gains in democratic rights that are so pivotal to the region’s success and development.

Just listing the abbreviations of the region’s economic groupings attests to the Americas’ dynamic development of mechanisms that can facilitate policy and infrastructure coordination in the service of wider integration: NAFTA, CARICOM, SICA, MERCOSUR, UNASUR. Most recently, the Alianza del Pacífico was created by Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru to pursue expanded integration and coordinated trans-Pacific ties. Where these and other constructs can foster positive and concrete steps toward integration, they should be welcomed.

Other new partnerships, such as Pathways to Prosperity and the Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas, draw in the private sector and civil society to facilitate leadership in critical areas such as expanding trade benefits and advancing a secure, clean energy future.

Across the Americas, networks of FTAs, some reaching across the globe, are fueling new social opportunity and economic growth. In April, President Obama announced that the U.S.–Colombia and U.S.–Panama Trade Promotion Agreements will soon be submitted to Congress for approval.

The implementation of these agreements will further spur investment, boost exports by the billions, create thousands of new jobs in the U.S. and partner countries, and cement key relationships. The FTAs are an integral part of the administration’s overall strategy to deepen our ties within the hemisphere in ways that promote our collective prosperity.

Far from feeling challenged by new subregional associations that do not include us, we welcome efforts that can contribute toward the collective good. We will seek meaningful ways to partner with them. We are confident that where new multilateral forums fail to deliver useful public goods, or where they promote divisiveness, they will be unlikely to find long-term traction among people in a rapidly integrating hemisphere.

There are positive signs all around us of a new impetus toward cooperation in the Americas on a number of other fronts.

The unprecedented hemispheric response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti bridged every divide and culminated in successful democratic elections there barely a year after the disaster. Our expanding partnership with Canada, the epitome of a true global ally, is bringing tremendous new capacity and dedication to help advance a vast array of common interests.

Mexico is showing courageous determination to destroy the ability of drug cartels to compromise that great nation’s future. Our support testifies to the huge national stake we have in its success. I have had the great privilege to meet with the visionary leaders of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and other South American nations who are building positive new platforms for integration. In the Caribbean, strongly democratic countries are joining with multiple partners to develop new initiatives to ensure economic success and security.

And across the Americas as a whole, ordinary citizens have joined together in civic campaigns in defense of human rights and rejection of violence.

We know that building a region capable of thriving amidst new global opportunities and challenges is a work in progress. We face enormous obstacles. But the momentum is taking us forward together. On the part of the U.S., we remain steadfast in building and sustaining our common success.

Tags: Arturo Valenzuela, Barack Obama, U.S. Policy
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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