Need for New Policy, Not Just New Head

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 17, 2011


The upcoming departure of Arturo Valenzuela as Under Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs has already launched the search within President Obama’s administration to find a new person to lead Washington’s relations with Latin America. It should also constitute an opportunity for the administration to redefine its policy towards the region. If Obama fails to adopt a new road map, the new point person for Latin America will have the same limited effect that Valenzuela had during his two-year tenure.  


Despite the overall negative worldwide perception about the legacy of the Bush presidency, his administration had outstanding accomplishments in its Latin American agenda. Free trade agreements were signed and ratified with Chile, Peru, Central America and the Dominican Republic. Additional agreements with Panama and Colombia were signed, but not ratified by Congress. The OAS ratified its democratic charter (on September 11, 2011). The U.S. reaction to the failed military coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002 was certainly a low point. However, there were many more successes than failures and reversals in Washington policy towards Latin America under Bush.


Precisely because relations with Latin America strengthened under Bush, there were high expectations for Obama. If relations with the world were bound to improve under Obama, relations with Latin America, already on good standing, should have improved even further. Besides, democratic presidents historically had more ambitious and less controversial policies towards Latin America. Because Obama campaigned on a platform of international dialogue, multilateralism and friendly engagement with democratic leaders around the world, Latin American democratic leaders represented a perfect opportunity for Obama to show his new policies to the world.


The appointment of Arturo Valenzuela confirmed the suspicions that U.S. Latin American relations would flourish under Obama. A respected academic with impeccable democratic credentials and good relations with leaders all over the region, Valenzuela was a perfect fit for the position. He could embody the message of respect and cooperation that Obama had offered. After years of building trust and cooperation, the U.S. and Latin America were ready to take the relationship to a new level.


Unfortunately, shortly after taking office, the Obama administration had to face ghosts of the past on its Latin American agenda. The military coup against Manuel Zalaya in Honduras brought the conflictive cold war logic back and reopened wounds that had begun to heal in the 1990s, when democracy became the only game in town in the region. In the U.S., conservative politicians pressured Obama to get tougher on Hugo Chávez and his alleged master plan to destabilize democracy in the region and to convert Latin America into a communist area of influence. In Latin America, democratic leaders demanded that Obama showed his commitment to democracy by forcing the Honduran military and de facto government to restore Zelaya in power.


Arturo Valenzuela—and President Obama, by extension—were caught in the middle of a tense arena. On one side, Latin America doubted the U.S. promise of a new partnership. On the other, influential conservative American politicians still feared communist penetration in America's backyard. There was no way for the administration to move forward when everyone else was still trapped in the past, where suspicions and misgivings inevitably prevented cooperation.


After the Honduras coup, trust had to be rebuilt between the U.S. and Latin America. The opportunity window closed and high expectations quickly vanished. Even Valenzuela's own confirmation was delayed because of the opposite views on the political developments in Honduras. Latin Americans felt that Obama made too many concessions to conservative Republicans and doubted whether progress could be made to move beyond the issues that provoked so much tension during the cold war.  In the U.S., conservatives renewed their fear of a communist threat in the region and criticized Obama for failing to realize the imminent danger.


Ironically, for Valenzuela, the hurdle he had to pass to get confirmed limited his ability to be an effective envoy to the region. He had to show toughness against Chávez and his allies and, at the same time, reach out to Latin American leaders with a message that the Obama administration was ready to move forward with a new era of cooperation. That was an impossible task to accomplish.


To be sure, Valenzuela made some mistakes that further complicated his position. However, even a flawless diplomatic would have found impossible to successfully overcome that challenge. Despite Obama’s rhetoric, neither Latin America nor the U.S. was ready to move beyond the mutual suspicions that characterized U.S. Latin American relations during the cold war.


Valenzuela’s departure offers an opportunity to move beyond the Honduras affairs in U.S. Latin American relations. However, in order to avoid being trapped again by the ghosts of the Cold War, Obama needs to send a clear and loud message that his administration will no longer cede to pressure from conservative camps who still mistrust the strength of Latin American democracies. Otherwise, the new envoy to Latin America will face the same impossible obstacles that eventually caused the resignation of Arturo Valenzuela.