Obama’s Latin American Trip

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 15, 2011


When President Obama arrives in Latin America on March 19, the world attention will lay elsewhere. News of the visit will find it difficult to compete with the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan and the ongoing developments of the nuclear crisis. If the potentially destabilizing crisis in Libya, with its worldwide impact, is already struggling to remain atop the world news section, it will be difficult for the expectedly uneventful Obama visit to capture media attention beyond the region.


Even within the United States, the ongoing debate on budget cuts will divert attention. The American reporters travelling with the President will be more concerned with the negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in Congress to avert a government shutdown than with the progress El Salvador, Chile and Brazil have made in consolidating their democracies and achieving sustained economic growth. The problems within the region, like the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border dispute, the Kirchner government feuds with Washington, and the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela, seem unimportant and almost irrelevant when compared with the potential ramifications of the Libya and Japan crises.


If the world will not be paying much attention to the U.S. President's visit to Latin America, many in Latin American will also be more concerned with the impact the earthquake in Japan will have over economic development in Asia and over the demand for Latin American export commodities. After all, increasing exports to Asia is the main force behind the rapid economic growth in most of Latin America in the last few years.


Obama will be a welcome guest, but due to international circumstances, the visit might also be a bit untimely. This is poetic justice of a sort. The U.S. President chose to come to Latin America after suffering heavy losses in the midterm election. When presidents lose midterm elections, they travel abroad. Obama chose to visit Latin America to reinforce his image as a world leader. In choosing to visit Latin America, Obama had in mind his re-election more than the issues that concern Latin America. Ironically, when he comes, the rest of the world and the American public will also have other issues in mind, not his presidential trip. The visit will take second priority, thus undermining the ultimate objective of casting Obama as a respected world leader.


To be sure, relations between the U.S. and Latin America are strong, but have recently made slow progress in eliminating trade barriers and cooperating in technological development, education and crime prevention (especially drugs). Though there is room for growth, the opportunities to advance are somewhat limited. The American president does not have the leeway to make any promises to help Latin American countries develop. There is no budget for foreign aid. Economically, the U.S. is not what it used to be. Nowadays, it is not politically feasible to propose a modern version of Alliance for Progress. Latin American countries are in need of trade opportunities more than foreign aid. They would be happier with unlikely announcements of the elimination of trade barriers in the U.S. than with promises of insufficiently funded aid programs. Besides, Latin American countries are trading more with Asia than with the U.S. and prospects for growth in exports seem stronger in Asia than in the United States.


Obama's trip will bring about some positive results. Visiting the region is symbolically important. Obama will seek to open Latin American markets to technological developments made in the United States. There will be progress in expanding opportunities in the field of energy, with countries with an ample supply of energy like Brazil and energy-consuming countries like Chile. Obama is also very popular in a region that has historically been friendly to the United States (except during the difficult Cold War years). While some will denounce the Obama visit as an attempt to reassert a colonial relationship with the region, the reality is that Latin America is now in a much better position than ever before to talk and discuss issues and explore opportunities with the United States. True, the United States is now going through a difficult period—and Obama finds himself in a weak political position—but Latin America can take advantage of the opportunity to redefine the terms of future relations with Washington. After all, the United States will remain an attractive and powerful trade partner for the region.


As Obama arrives in Latin America, it would have been better for Latin America to have shown the world the positive evolution of U.S.-Latin American relations in recent years and to diffuse the new road map in future relations based on expanding trade and mutual respect between Washington and consolidated Latin American democracies. However, world events have packed the international agenda. This is worse news for Obama than for Latin America. Though the world will not be paying much attention, Latin American countries can take advantage of the opportunity to redefine the terms under which relations between the United States and Latin America will evolve in the years to come.