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Obama's Disappointing Year in Latin America

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
January 12, 2010

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The Obama administration has so far missed out on opportunities to place U.S. relations with Latin America on sounder footing, says Julia E. Sweig, CFR's director for Latin American studies. The administration's first year, she says, began with promising steps, including new gestures on expanding ties with Cuba. It also included a consultative approach with regional actors on trying to resolve the crisis caused by the June 28 military coup in Honduras that displaced President Manuel Zelaya. But Sweig says the Obama administration failed to follow through with substantive efforts to end the coup. On Cuba, she says, the Obama administration so far has been "perpetuating the policy of its predecessors" by apparently sticking to a formula in which Washington demands Cuban political reforms before lifting pieces of the decades-old U.S. embargo. Sweig says the administration also mishandled the announcement of a base agreement with Colombia, which aroused regional concerns.

The Obama administration was determined to change the tenor of U.S. relations in Latin America. It ran into maybe its biggest test with the Honduran coup last June. How would you rate the way it handled that coup?

Initially, the administration came out very forcefully condemning the coup and calling for the restoration of the democratic order, which meant the restoration of President Zelaya. That very positive opening set of statements from the White House, from the State Department, was then not matched by aggressive actions to implement that aspiration, for a couple of reasons. One is this is an administration that does really have a genuine respect for the views of others, and in the first part of 2009, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participated in large regional summits--the Summit of the Americas, then the OAS [Organization of American States] general assembly.

Likewise, in the [presidential] campaign, Obama struck the chord of multilateralism and working with partners and allies. So the impulse became to see to what extent the Organization of American States, other regional actors such as [Costa Rican President Oscar Arias], and other governments could help the process along so that restoring Zelaya was not just a unilateral action executed by the big guy on the block. The Honduras coup became a chance on the front end to repudiate the history of American support for coups in the past, most recently the 2002 coup in Venezuela that the Bush administration had given a wink and a nod to, albeit without direct support.

The second half of 2009, from the period of the coup until where we are today, was a period of disappointment. [There's] the perception that the administration was lacking in seriousness with respect to its stated goals of restoring the democratic order and getting Zelaya back in power. [This was] evidenced by the slow pace over the summer in pressuring the de facto government to agree to the San Jose accords that Oscar Arias negotiated and in otherwise using the real tools in the toolbox, such as freezing bank accounts and withholding visas in order to demonstrate and substantiate its opposition to the coup and to pressure the de facto government to negotiate a serious agreement.

[There's] the perception that the administration was lacking in seriousness with respect to its stated goals of restoring the democratic order and getting Zelaya back in power.

Let me touch on another issue: the revelations leaked about the United States and Colombia reaching a new security arrangement. That was long in the works, but when revealed, it was denounced by countries like Chile and Brazil, as well as, not surprisingly, Venezuela. Why was the reaction so strong?

The base agreement itself had been under negotiations since several months before the Obama administration even took office. Once the Ecuadorian government declared that it would not renew the base agreement in Manta, Ecuador, the Bush administration didn't stop and say, "Well, do we really need this to stay in the region?" It, instead, looked where else in the Andes it could station the operations. I would argue that the drug interdiction surveillance capacity that Manta provided is incredibly important, but the content of the base agreement, and also some of the documents that were floated around, were, let's say, very twentieth century in the context of a new twenty-first-century ethos of independence in Latin America.

In addition, there was this scandal of an Air Force document that was released that described quite explicitly the purpose of the bases as allowing the United States to counter threats from neighboring countries, and that was a reference implicitly to Venezuela. But it was also a departure from this sort of understanding over the last ten years under Plan Colombia [U.S.-supported effort by the Colombian government that involved counternarcotics, security, and rule of law reforms] that the U.S. support for Colombia was very clearly limited to the Colombian territory and very clearly directed at terrorist, guerilla, and drug groups and not at neighboring countries. So in the context of a bad mood already, the mood soured even more. It wasn't just [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez but the rest of the region that really went nuts over these bases.

And overall, how has the administration managed the relationship with Colombia?

From what I can tell, Obama has neither effectively addressed the still egregious human rights practices of Colombian armed forces, nor, since the trade agenda has floundered, has he or the Democrats in Congress tried to leverage Plan Colombia support or the [pending] Free Trade Agreement into better human rights performance. In that context, the base agreement looks like sheer muscle flexing with none of the trappings of a more comprehensive approach to Colombia and the region. For example, [this is] a country that has the third-highest number of internally displaced refugees in the world, most of whom are women and children and Afro-Colombians. It seems to me that someone with the concerns and expertise of Hillary Clinton must surely understand, and have the tools to address, the multiple dimensions of peace and security in Colombia on which the United States might be helpful beyond military training and bases alone.

[T]he base agreement looks like sheer muscle flexing with none of the trappings of a more comprehensive approach to Colombia and the region.

You have written that there has been too narrow a focus in U.S. policy vis-a-vis Latin America on counternarcotics, along with democracy promotion and trade liberalization. Going forward, what are some areas where the Obama administration has the potential to start to change this?

On counternarcotics and drug eradication, the good news is that the Obama administration has appointed key people working on the issue of domestic drug consumption, such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and elsewhere in the executive branch, who also have an understanding of the relationship. [The] new understanding and willingness to be explicit about the relationship between demand and supply in the Obama administration is incredibly refreshing, and it is complemented by voices from South America that have been over the last two years driving this point home and leading a discussion about how Latin Americans should deal with their own demand for drugs and also with production. A discussion about targeted decriminalization has begun, with some laws too, in both Mexico and Brazil, along with a focus on law enforcement, rather than pure eradication, to deal with both supply and demand.

Much has been said about the rise of Brazil and its importance to the United States. But there have been some wrinkles over the Honduran coup, the U.S.-Colombia base deal, and the recent visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Is this relationship getting even more complicated?

It would be a mistake to see Brazil's rise and competition for influence as a zero-sum game with respect to the United States, as some in both countries seem to. The relationship is getting more complicated for very good reasons. Brazil is a major emerging power that's right here in the Americas. That alone raises wonderful questions for a United States that is clearly adapting to a multipolar world in which [in order to get] anything done on most global issues--climate change, global finance, pandemic disease, poverty, proliferation--the United States will need partners and vice-versa.

So Brazil and the United States are in the middle of a dance to figure out on what global issues (and regional) they can work together and where are the hiccups going to be. For example, [Brazilian President Luiz InŠcio Lula da Silva's] government has aspirations to become a player in the Middle East, both as a peace-broker with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict and also as an interlocutor with Iran. In Iran's case, Brazil has boasted that its peaceful civilian nuclear program can be a model for Iran to emulate, and the Lula administration seems to see itself as a neutral interlocutor whose participation in talks with Iran might help avert violent conflict between Iran and the West.

[Ahmadinejad's visit] was probably more controversial within Brazil than it was in the United States. In the lead-up to the visit, there were conversations between the United States and Brazil about the intentions behind the visit as there have been about Iran's nuclear program since last year. As far as I know, the administration didn't tell the Brazilians "thou shalt not host Ahmadinejad," because it's a different world now and this is a different administration. But that doesn't mean the optics--and Iran's announcement just after the visit of ten more reactors and Brazil's abstention on a related resolution at the IAEA--isn't a cause of tension. Whatever was said between Lula and Ahmadinejad on Iran's nuclear program, and whatever was or was not accomplished,†the images of a warm embrace were hard to take even for the most hardened realist.

The United States and Brazil have several areas of mutual interest but also inherent tension. The sooner each can develop a strong sense of how the other sees these interests and tensions, the sooner the two countries can identify where they can work together and where they can't, or won't. That's the kind of complexity befitting of a relationship important to the United States in the Americas and globally.

That new understanding and willingness to be explicit about the relationship between [illicit drugs'] demand and supply in the Obama administration is incredibly refreshing.

Cuba was one of the early issues dealt with by the Obama administration--it moved to ease resistance to joining the OAS and allow Cuban-Americans to travel back to the island. How do you gauge where the relationship stands right now?

When Obama came into office, there was a great deal of expectation raised for what he might do on Cuba. During his campaign, he went to the heart and soul of the Cuban exile community, the Cuban-American National Foundation's headquarters, and made a speech on Latin America that included this proposal of beginning to ease relations by eliminating restrictions on family travel. [He also] talked about talking to adversaries. So expectations were high generally in the United States; they were also high in Havana. They were high in Havana also because of the succession there: Fidel Castro in February of 2008 stepped down so there was a new president, albeit the same family, in office.

Leading up to the Trinidad and Tobago summit especially, the administration, really in the first half of 2009, spent a lot of energy on Cuba, first putting together this package of initiatives that included lifting restrictions on family travel and remittances, allowing American telecom companies to negotiate deals with Cuba, and then standing back as the OAS passed a rather benign resolution creating a pathway for Cuba to return to that body under certain circumstances over time. The first half of 2009 was very Cuba heavy; it also included some bilateral contacts between the two governments. They began to put back into place the twice annual immigration talks that had taken place since 1994; they had one set of talks about a potential postal service agreement, and Cuba put forward a proposal, still unanswered they say, on deepening collaboration on counternarcotics and other regional security issues.

There's an overlay to all of this that has contributed to initial momentum really slowing. Number one is, and most important, the executive branch doesn't have ultimate authority to unilaterally lift economic sanctions. Congress has to do that because of the Helms-Burton law.

Knowing that Congress must do the lion's share of the heavy lifting, the administration has either genuinely or likely just politically made the decision that further steps to unilaterally lift pieces of the embargo--which it can and should do, for example, it can significantly liberalize travel for Americans without a vote from Congress, or it can take Cuba off the State Department's State Sponsors of Terrorism list--will not be done without gestures by the Cuban government, such as releasing political prisoners, becoming more democratic, taking steps politically that this Cuban government seems to have no intention of doing.

[It's] the same equation of, you commit suicide domestically and then we'll lift the embargo. That's been the equation essentially for the last fifty years, so without shifting that paradigm, the Obama administration really is perpetuating the policy of its predecessors. The main difference is that in poll after poll, Obama has the American public, including South Florida, now supporting a much broader set of openings than he's delivered to date.

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