Like a Hollywood Flop

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 23, 2011


President Barack Obama’s official trip to Latin America ended in the same tone as it began. Before the trip, friends and foes questioned whether developments elsewhere would justify rescheduling the President’s visit to the region. After the trip, the mostly symbolic message led many to wonder whether it would have been better to wait until Obama had more substantive and specific details for his plan to build a new partnership between the United States and the region.


When Obama announced in his State of the Union address last January that he would be visiting the region, the immediate reaction in Latin America was highly positive. In fact, some countries expressed their frustration, privately and publicly, with not having been included in the visit. Because Obama has remained very popular in Latin America, many leaders wanted the photo opportunity. The White House explained that the tight presidential schedule only allowed for a visit to Brazil, the largest and most powerful country in the region, and to one South American and one Central American country. Obama selected Chile and El Salvador to send a message to all the countries in the region. The selection of Chile, passing over Colombia (a country seen as closer to the United States) and Argentina (the second largest economy in the region) was justified based on Chile’s commendable recent record of democratic consolidation and economic growth based on a social market economy. In addition, the lack of pending issues with the United States made Chile a neutral country to send a message to the entire region.


The decision to visit Brazil responded to a different logic. The United States is increasingly seen Brazil as a world player in politics and economics. Former President Bush sought to strengthen relations with Brazil despite the fact that President Lula was on the opposite ideological pole. For Obama, strengthening relations with newly inaugurated president Dilma Rousseff is a no brainer. After Lula infuriated the White House by trying to broker an agreement with the Iranian government, the pro-American gestures made by the new Brazilian government were welcome in Washington. Obama wanted to pay a visit to Brazil.


Yet, he also wanted to send a message to the rest of Latin America.


World crisis cast shadows

The triple tragedy in Japan, especially with the worrisome nuclear emergency developments, fed rumors early last week that Obama might decide to cancel his Latin American trip. The decision by the United Nations to authorize the enforcement of a no-fly zone in Libya—and the subsequent bombing against the Gadaffi forces undertaken by the United States and its European allies—provided the perfect excuse for Obama to reschedule his visit. The President wanted the world to pay attention to his message for a new partnership, based on equality, between the United States and its Latin American neighbors to the south. Because the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan and the tension in Libya would divert attention from the Latin American trip, Obama had good reasons to delay his trip to the region.


However, when the White House confirmed the trip and insisted in that Obama had a message to deliver to the region, there were immediately high expectations about a new roadmap for US Latin American relations. The Santiago speech was expected to be a momentous time for hemispheric relations or, at least, one of the great speeches that Obama has delivered in his two years as Presidents.


Comparisons where immediately made with the speech he delivered in Cairo in 2009.

The trip, both in Brazil and Chile, did live up to the expectations in terms of the extremely high security, the impressive delegation, the rock-star status that Obama has and the additional interest in the presence of the first family. Yet, in terms of content, the trip was a bit disappointing. The message to Latin America delivered in Santiago was a combination of well intentioned words with reiteration of announcements already made by American officials. There was nothing new. At least, there was nothing sufficiently important as to justify a Latin American tour. Moreover, the message Obama delivered in Chile made it evident that Obama wanted to speak to the entire region. He touched the most important items of the regional agenda. In doing so, it became evident that different countries have different priorities and concerns. In trying to speak to all the countries, he ended up sending an overly general message that left no one fully satisfied.


Unsophisticated message

The Obama trip ended up looking like one of those Hollywood super productions, where everything — from the cast to the special effects — seems impressively well done but the plot is too weak. As a diverse region with various interests and countries at different stages of democratic and economic development, Latin America was expecting a more developed and sophisticated message. The rest of the world had other more immediate concerns to worry about. Perhaps, had Obama rescheduled his trip to Latin America, the US president could have worked a bit harder on the message he wanted to deliver to the region.