Inter Press Service
While U.S. officials took strong exception to outgoing Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva's recent complaint that "nothing has changed" in Washington's relations with Latin America two years into the Barack Obama administration, many independent U.S. analysts ruefully nodded their heads.
"(The administration) began very well," noted Abraham Lowenthal, a veteran Latin Americanist and founding president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), at a forum last week at the Brookings Institution, where he serves as a senior fellow. "But it went awry."
On key issues, Obama fell far short of his early pledge at the Trinidad Summit of the Americas in April 2009 to pursue "engagement based on mutual respect" with Washington's southern neighbors.
These notably include the administration's failure to move more forcefully toward normalizing ties with Cuba and to close the Guantanamo detention facility; its clumsy handling of the 2009 coup d’état against the Honduran president; its failure to consult with allies on the since-aborted agreement with Colombia over access to military bases; and its harsh rejection of Brazil's efforts to defuse growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Similarly, the administration's failure to persuade Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform or to pass new laws making it harder for drug cartels behind the explosion of violence that has wracked Mexico to import arms from the U.S. has also contributed to growing disillusionment, according to Latin America experts here.
"It's more than disappointment," said Lowenthal, co-editor of a new book published by Brookings, "Shifting the Balance: Obama and the Americas".
"In Latin America, there is great appreciation for major differences [from the George W. Bush administration] on key issues, but there's a lot talk about 'deception', or …being misled," he said.
That disappointment, or sense of deception, could deepen over the next two years, according to experts here who are concerned that the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is almost certain to make improving inter-hemispheric relations more difficult.
Already, the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and veteran anti-Castro militant from Miami, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has indicated that she will do what she can to thwart any further moves by Obama or Congress to ease the half-century-old trade embargo with Havana or reduce tensions with Venezuela and its partners in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), such as Nicaragua and Bolivia. "If Obama had hoped to make any dramatic changes in policy, which he has yet to do, it will be harder now," said Geoffrey Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) told IPS.
"He's facing a Republican House that's likely to beat the drum every chance it has about threats to U.S. security from Venezuela, Iran, and others in a reconstituted 'axis of evil'," he added. "Coming out of Congress will be the kind of black-and-white rhetoric that alienates almost everyone in Latin America."
Indeed, a memo released this week by the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute(AEI) and authored by Bush's former top Latin America aide, Roger Noriega, called for Congress to "subject Venezuela's oil-dependent regime to crippling sanctions unless it changes its aggressive, illegal activities".
In particular, the memo, entitled "Latin American Action Agenda for the New Congress", accused President Hugo Chavez, among others things, of providing "Iran's terrorist state with a strategic platform from which to operate near U.S. shores" and urged sanctions against Venezuela's state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA) if it cannot prove "that it is not doing business with Iran".
While the administration and the Democratic-controlled Senate are all but certain to turn back such ideas, Congressional hearings held to promote them are likely to move the public debate substantially to the right.
"That could play into Chavez's hands," noted Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings who also warned that the chances of Obama taking further executive action to ease the embargo on Cuba – a key test of ties between the U.S. and Latin America – were now "slightly better than zero".
"Cuba is changing, and …we're just completely missing the boat," he said. "We're stuck in a Cold War mindset (and) the politics of Florida."
Moreover, Republican gains in Congress make it virtually inconceivable that major immigration reform will be possible over the next two years.
For its part, the administration insists that it has indeed improved relations with Latin America substantially over the past two years, especially by, in the words of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, "reversing the dangerous depletion of goodwill toward the United States that had occurred during the prior decade".
He noted, in particular, that two-thirds of the population in most Latin American countries held favorable attitudes toward the U.S., "an increase of 10 to 20 points above 2008 levels", according to a recent poll by Latinobarometro.
Speaking to the same Brookings audience as Lowenthal, Valenzuela touted, among other measures, the limited steps taken by the administration to increase contact between Cuban-Americans and their families in Cuba and resume bilateral talks on migration, even as he indicated any further steps will be dependent on Havana's release of a USAID contract worker who has been detained for more than year without charges.
He also cited the unprecedented amount of aid Washington continues to provide to Haiti in the aftermath of last year's catastrophic earthquake; its continued support for the Merida Initiative to combat organized crime in Mexico and Central America; and what he called the forging of "especially strong partnerships with Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Chile".
Lowenthal and others concede that the administration has made some progress in improving hemispheric relations and that Lula's unforgiving assessment may be too bleak.
The administration, he said, has generally relied far more on multilateral mechanisms in dealing with Latin America, in contrast to the unilateralism of the Bush administration. It has dropped the rhetoric of "regime change" on Cuba, and generally reduced its emphasis on counter-terrorism in the hemisphere.
And it has broadened its counter-narcotics agenda in both Colombia and Mexico to include more institution building, and pursued discrete and more nuanced policies towards different ALBA members, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, which the Bush administration tended to lump together.
Obama, however, has yet to articulate a "strategic vision" to reshape inter-American relations consistent with his Trinidad pledge, Lowenthal said. He noted that the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's launch of the Alliance for Progress on Mar. 13 could offer a new opportunity.
Rebuilding a strategic relationship with Brazil, whose influence is fast becoming global, as well as regional, should be given priority, according to Lowenthal, who called the decision to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Jan. 1 inauguration of Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, "an important symbolic gesture".