Getting Latin America Right

Getting Latin America Right

Mini Teaser: Obama has an opportunity to revitalize U.S. relations with its neighbors to the south.

by Author(s): Julia E. Sweig

SUCH FORWARD momentum on regional affairs came to a halt on June 28, 2009, when the Honduran military raided the home of then president Manuel Zelaya and put him on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas. Obama and Secretary Clinton initially condemned the coup and defended the legitimacy of Zelaya’s presidency. In so doing, they aligned themselves with politically disparate regional voices such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Mexico—and consciously distanced themselves from the legacy of George W. Bush’s controversial endorsement of a failed 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela.

But within weeks the mood changed as the organizers of Zelaya’s ouster and their lawyers pushed hard in the U.S. Congress and the media to promote an alternative narrative. Zelaya, they argued, had provoked his own demise by pushing for a referendum that, though nonbinding, might create the political conditions for him to alter the country’s constitution and seek reelection. The dispute exacerbated a profound polarization in Honduras between status quo forces (represented by the military, the Congress and the Supreme Court) and the base of often poor, poorly organized voters, who saw Zelaya’s ouster as a potentially destabilizing step backward for Honduran society.

Obama’s initial instinct was to side with the consensus in the region to restore Zelaya to power. But American conservatives in Congress who had vowed to make Obama a one-term president would have none of that. Eager to pin the scarlet letter of national-security weakness on the new Democratic administration, they argued that Zelaya deserved his fate, given his affinity with Hugo Chávez in particular. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, championed the Hondurans who organized the coup and quickly found two allies on the committee bent on stopping Obama from moving further on Cuba: newly elected Florida Republican Marco Rubio and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez. The latter was well-known for long-standing warnings to fellow Democrats in Congress and the White House that a more liberal policy toward Cuba would cost his support—whether campaign finance from his donors or his votes on major appropriations bills. Combining forces, DeMint, Rubio and Menendez held up confirmation of the administration’s nominees for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and ambassador to Brazil.

The new administration spent the second half of 2009 tied up in a poisonous confirmation process rather than pursuing the framework it had set forth in Trinidad and Tobago. Ultimately, to secure confirmations, the Obama team backed off its initial position on the Honduran coup and acquiesced in Zelaya’s ouster. Further, the new administration committed itself to Bush-era Cuba programs, for which $45 million had been appropriated for the fiscal year in which Obama entered office. Leaving those programs in place soon blew up in Obama’s face when the Cuban government arrested and prosecuted a USAID contract worker named Alan Gross for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state.” Gross, who was working for a Bethesda-based company that received multimillion-dollar contracts from USAID for Cuba-related initiatives, was convicted of smuggling into Cuba communications equipment that could neither be obtained commercially in the United States nor monitored easily by Cuban authorities. Pushed with particular zeal by Rubio, Menendez and other Cuban Americans in Congress and promoted politically under the more benign rubric of democracy promotion, these activities were widely understood to be part of the U.S. government’s long-standing regime-change efforts directed against Cuba. According to Gross’s 2012 lawsuit against USAID, the risks involved should have obligated USAID to train Gross in counterintelligence and Spanish.

Over the following months, the slog in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Cuba, Honduras and confirmations led to an administration practice of bending to ideological winds in Congress when it came to Latin America—even at the expense of the president’s stated diplomatic objectives. This occurred despite support for the president from key congressional Democrats and a number of Republicans, including Representative Paul Ryan, who backed trade with and travel to Cuba.

This path of least political resistance extracted a cost for the administration in terms of U.S. standing in the region. In the meantime, the noise over Cuba and Honduras reinforced the administration’s strategic instincts to focus on the region’s biggest countries, especially Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. Mexico mattered particularly because of its proximity and the severity of its security crisis, as well as the depth of its commercial and human ties to the United States. Brazil stood out for its sheer size and growing diplomatic and economic weight. Colombia—long tied to U.S. security assistance—represented an institutionalized legacy relationship and an opportunity to involve a model ally in security efforts within and beyond Latin America. With such priorities rising to the top in a low-priority region, Obama’s Latin America policy increasingly resembled his predecessor’s.

IF ANY country warranted such continuity from Washington, it was Brazil. While George W. Bush’s second-term pivot toward pragmatism failed to produce diplomatic breakthroughs with Bolivia, which threw out the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration, or Venezuela, the world’s sixth-largest oil producer, the Bush administration saw that Brazil required a more serious strategy.

As the world’s fifth-largest country in landmass and population, Brazil’s sheer physical scale, together with its vast natural resources, has contributed to its global emergence. Steady growth between 2004 and 2010 served to integrate Brazil into the global financial system, allowing the country to surpass Great Britain as the world’s sixth-largest economy in 2012. Brazil is a world-class player in commodities markets and a leading global producer of iron, oil, soybeans, ethanol, wood, beef, cane sugar, coffee and citrus. It holds 18 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. Brazil’s social programs, a signature accomplishment of the country’s democracy, are responsible for the rapid movement of some forty million Brazilians out of poverty, all made possible by a stable macroeconomic environment of low inflation and steadily declining interest rates.

Good chemistry between Bush and Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, senior Brazilian officials say, helped the Workers Party leader to govern from the center. In bilateral relations, big-ticket items such as free trade agreements fell off the to-do list, but other important initiatives served to slowly pull the two societies together. At the same time, Brazilian foreign policy under Lula and his foreign minister, Celso Amorim, built upon Brazil’s tradition of cautious independence from great-power politics while also emphasizing its identity as a democratic and emerging power with a strategic stake in enhancing its regional bona fides. Indeed, in an era of widespread anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment, Brazil maintained cordial relations with Bush while seeking to rewrite the rules of global governance to reflect new global realities—regarding trade policy at the WTO, peace and security issues at the UN, and voting rights at the IMF. Collaborating with other emerging nations, Brazil carved out a leadership role that at times challenged the traditional powers, including the United States, over the international architecture that had governed the post–World War II era.

Until recently, Brazil’s gigantic internal market, Portuguese heritage and—in comparison to its neighbors—more intensive history of African slavery militated against strong identification with the rest of Latin America. But Lula and Amorim reasoned that Brazil’s geopolitical aspirations required a foreign policy that defined Brazil as the strategic anchor of South America and defined Brazilians as Latin Americans. Following initial steps taken by Lula’s predecessor, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, they pushed for new regional institutions such as the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Brazil began providing assistance to the Colombian government with hostage rescues and intelligence on drug flights garnered from its satellite system. Since 2004, Brazil has won praise for successfully leading the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. And Brazil’s development bank backed Brazilian megacompanies investing throughout the Americas, including in Cuba and the United States.

Lula took some domestic flack for appearing too simpatico with the Castros in Cuba, Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Still, by the time Obama came into office during the last year of Lula’s second term, Brazil had registered a solid regional record. Among the most important: Brazil’s commitments to macroeconomic stability, democracy and improving social inclusion were now regarded from El Salvador to Peru as an alternative to the bluster, executive power grab and poor economic management in Chávez’s Venezuela.

Lula wanted warm relations with Obama, but frictions emerged over the administration’s decision to buck the regional consensus on the coup in Honduras. Moving to consolidate its gains in Latin America, Brazil challenged the United States at the OAS and helped Zelaya return to Tegucigalpa, where he camped out in the Brazilian embassy for four months. Washington and even many Brazilians saw Brasilia’s tough stand over Honduras as a case of overreach into a subregion of the Americas still clearly within Washington’s shrinking domain. Lula and his foreign minister, by contrast, saw the Honduran crisis as an opportunity to champion the very liberal-democratic order that the Americans themselves had long purported to defend. The fact that Central America had been the scene of U.S.-backed oligarchies, military regimes, death squads and counterinsurgencies helped Brazil position itself as the principled, law-abiding regional power. While Obama and Clinton may have seen their position on Honduras as the pragmatic path of least political resistance, especially by comparison with what seemed like more consequential foreign-policy issues, it ended the era of relative good feeling beginning in Trinidad and Tobago and set the stage for another standoff with Brasilia, this time over much higher stakes: Iran.

Image: Pullquote: Latin America and the Caribbean, with a population of roughly six hundred million and a GDP of more than $5.6 trillion, continue to represent a missed U.S. opportunity, economically, politically and diplomatically.Essay Types: Essay