Washington’s new Latin American friends

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 22, 2016


US President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba and Argentina this week underlines the United States government’s effort to make new friends and rebuild old relationships in Latin America.


However, since Obama is a lame duck president and as there is growing uncertainty about who the next US head of state will be, Latin American countries are only cautiously embracing the most significant change of the past 55 years of their relationships with Washington.


The presidential election campaign has eclipsed almost all other developments on the US political agenda. As the media has obsessively focused on Donald Trump’s path to clinch the nomination of the Republican Party,the priorities of the White House have been mostly ignored. Although US presidents always become lame ducks in their last year in office, Obama’s influence has diminished more quickly than that of his predecessors. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia has given Obama an opportunity to build a stronger legacy by making his third appointment to the Supreme Court but political polarization in Washington threatens to prevent a vote on his nominee. Although Obama could still manage to appoint his third judge, the likely nomination of Trump as the Republican presidential candidate will dominate debate in the next few months, including any Senate hearings to confirm Merrick Garland.


Obama’s much-awaited trip to Cuba — the first by a US president since 1928 — constitutes the most important presidential visit to Latin America since the 1959 Cuban revolution threw regional relations into a Cold War logic, which led Washington to support authoritarian regimes in the region (provided that they opposed communism). With the end of the Cold War in 1989, relations significantly improved but the knee-jerk reaction that had led the US to impose a trade embargo on Cuba continued to generate tension in the region. Seeming as the US did not react so strongly against other non-democratic governments in the hemisphere, Latin Americans resented the heavy-handed approach from Washington to Castro’s revolution in Cuba. Obama’s trip to Havana confirms a much-needed change in the most controversial policy the United States has implemented toward Latin America in the past few decades.


Although the embargo against Cuba is still in place, Obama’s visit to the island represents a significant step forward in terms of improving relations with Latin America. The US has left behind one of the most damaging and ill-conceived legacies of the Cold War. To be sure, the island is not a democracy but the US did little to help foster a transition to democracy by failing to engage with Cuba. As Washington now signals its willingness to strengthen commercial, cultural and political ties, there will be inevitable positive consequences in helping bring about openness and potentially a democratic transition.


After Cuba, Obama will visit Argentina, a country whose recently elected president is much friendlier toward the US than his two predecessors. After 12 years of distant (and occasionally confrontational) relations between Buenos Aires and Washington, Presidents Mauricio Macri and Barack Obama will meet to signal a new era in bilateral relations. Considering that Argentina is a democracy with well-functioning institutions (unlike Cuba), Obama will not have regime change as an objective on his agenda. With Argentina, trade and commerce will head the agenda (even if the visit coincides with the 40th anniversary of the bloody, US-backed military coup which ended democracy and began a dark era of massive human rights violations).


Obama’s choice of Cuba and Argentina as the two Latin American countries for his last visit to the region could not be more symbolic. Unfortunately, the timing of his trip undermines the long-term consequences of the presidential visit. The next US president might choose to redraw Obama’s optimistic roadmap in US-Latin American relations. The leading Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have both embraced more protectionist trade policy than Obama. As presidents, they might revisit their views but the promises they have made as candidates point to a bumpier road for the promotion of trade in the coming years. Thus, Obama’s goodwill and pro-integration initiatives might end up being short-lived or significantly scaled down by the next administration. Given his fiery rhetoric against Mexican immigration to the US, a Trump presidency will surely be far less welcome in Latin America than Obama’s election in 2008. And even if Hillary Clinton succeeds Obama, she will have less leverage in implementing the much-welcomed commitments the president has made in Cuba and will surely make in Argentina.


Since Cuba waited for so long for relations to be improved with the US, Obama’s trip is welcome news. In the case of Argentina, a more cautious approach will be on the cards as Obama’s lame-duck condition weakens the importance of his visit. Still, if the next US president chooses to forge ahead with Obama’s roadmap seeking stronger links between the US and Latin America, the trip to Havana — and to a lesser extent to Buenos Aires — will be significant building-blocks for the post-Cold War relations which can now be forged between the US and Latin America.