A boring relationship

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 8, 2011


The upcoming visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador by President Barack Obama has understandably generated public opinion interest and media attention. Although the final schedule has not been announced, Obama visit will happen the week of March 21. Being also a world celebrity, Obama’s visit will be memorable. Yet, the attention and excitement that already surrounds his visit has more to do with him personally than with the unexciting bilateral agenda. Latin American will be thrilled to welcome the American President once again, but no significant progress will be made to reactivate talks of free trade, democratic consolidation or cooperation on migration or on fighting drugs.  


For the U.S., there is Mexico and Latin America. Since the signing of the North American Free Trade in 1993, Washington has separated its relation with Mexico from its Latin American agenda. Because of a shared border, a solid trade relationship and a conflicting agenda on immigration reform, Mexico has a more complex and urgent set of issues with the United States than the rest of Latin America. More than 10% of those born in Mexico currently reside in the United States. Mexicans and Mexican Americans account for two-thirds of the almost 50 million Latinos in the U.S. More than 60% of all illegal immigrants—undocumented workers—in the U.S. are of Mexican origin. It is normal that new American presidents visit Canada and Mexico even before they take office. Obama has visited Mexico three times and bilateral high level summits are common.


American relations with the rest of Latin America are less fluid, less intense and, it seems, less important. In some cases, the agenda is uni-dimensional, as with Cuba, where the ghosts of the Cold War still linger. In other cases, there is a lot of oral bickering, as with Venezuela, but trade continues to go unaffected (at least oil trade). In other cases, relations are friendly and cordial, but not very exciting and little progress is being made in expanding the agenda.   


No news is good news only when, in fact, there is no news. In recent years, news has come from Latin America. In addition to a consolidation of electoral politics—though with democratic systems still largely imperfect—the region has also embraced market-friendly economic policies. The exceptions of Venezuela, Argentina and a few others should not cloud the overall commitment to the tenets of the Washington Consensus. In fact, the region follows those recommendations, especially on fiscal responsibility, more strictly than Washington itself.


The conversion to market friendly policies has happened almost independently of Washington’s watch. True, the United States has signed free trade agreements with Chile (2003), Central America and the Dominican Republic (2005) and Peru (2008) and agreements with Colombia and Panama have not been signed because of hurdles in the United States. Yet, the U.S. seems to have no agenda to deepen and expand trade and commerce. While Latin America has decisively moved to consolidate market-friendly policies, the U.S. has dragged its feet to strengthen trade and political relations with the region.


Unfortunately for Washington, that void has been filled by others. China has rapidly increased trade with Latin America. So far, the Chinese seem more interested in securing access to commodities than on meddling with the political affairs of countries in the region. That is bad and good news. Washington historically supported governments that shared its values and principles. During the Cold War, the U.S. supported authoritarian anti-communist governments in the name of democracy and free markets. Since then, the U.S. has shown a stronger commitment to foster democratic consolidation. However, China does not seem interested in democracy or the protection of human rights. Supporters of democratic values and human rights will not have an ally in China as they do, albeit occasionally lukewarmly, in the United States.


Obama will travel with his wife and two daughters. The full family trip sends mixed signals to the region. On the one hand it shows the president’s interest in the region and the American trust in the security and stability the region offers. On the other, it undermines the political significance of the trip. The big news will be the first daughters, not the message Obama delivers or the announcements made. As if the White House was anticipating an uneventful trip, the presence of the Obamas will guarantee media coverage. Yet, Obama’s visit will at best elicit as much attention as the 2010 visit by Chinese premier Hu Jintao, and for the wrong reasons.


Washington recent policy of benign neglect to Latin America is an improvement over the old Cold War active engagement in support of human rights-violating dictatorships.  Yet, there is no excuse for lost opportunities to consolidate relations, expand trade and more actively integrate the continent. There is no other region of the world friendlier to the U.S. than Latin America. Washington has insisted on making the mistake of failing to strengthen relations with the region. The Obama trip will not change the roadmap of the U.S. foreign agenda. Unfortunately for Washington, more than for Latin America, that roadmap does not go through Latin America.