Obama’s Long Overdue Relationship With Latin America

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“It’s time for a new alliance of the Americas.”
– Barack Obama

Two words dominated the rhetoric of the 2008 campaign and election of President Barack Obama: “Change” and “Hope.” From healthcare to the economy, and to America’s various conflicts abroad, Obama pledged to begin a new era in Washington and U.S.-Latin American relations. At the Trinidad and Tobago Inter-American Summit in 2009, the delegates who attended had reason to assume that “change” meant an end to US intervention in Latin America along with an effort to renew relations without the aggressive tactics that characterized the Bush administration. As for “hope,” this meant no more special privileges for domestic or regional overlords, a respect for human rights and social justice, and most of all, good behavior without hypocrisy from the State Department. President Obama assured hemispheric leaders that there would be “mutual respect” and an “equal partnership” between the U.S. and Latin America and that he was committed to new policy changes that instilled a sense of optimism for many political leaders throughout the Americas.

However, after two years of the Obama administration, there has been a steady flow of domestic and international criticism aimed at U.S. foreign policy. The international criticism has highlighted Obama’s failure to focus on regional issues and come up with guidelines and policy missions that would significantly address the serious shortcomings and structural weaknesses of U.S.-Latin American interactions under the Clinton and Bush administrations. In Cuba, signs of progress and the Castro brother’s willingness to negotiate have not persuaded Obama to drop Washington’s grossly unpopular embargo. In Colombia, Obama’s lack of open diplomacy and funding of now failed policies have profoundly hindered U.S.-Latin American relations. Finally, in Honduras, Obama’s reaction to the 2009 coup coup d’état exemplified his lack of coherent leadership. Obama must keep his promise to advance cooperation and engage Latin American nations as equals or risk losing them as allies.

The following analysis does not presume to be comprehensive, but will instead, explore some of the more pertinent issues that exemplify the State Department’s and the Obama administration’s troubled approach to its inter-American policy. Issues such as the U.S. trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, the U.S. military presence and war on drugs in Colombia, as well as the U.S. sanctioned coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras will be examined.


U.S.-Cuba relations have been either neglected by Washington or reduced to intermittent and meager negotiations since the formal end of the Cold War in 1991. However, at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Barack Obama became the first president in almost 30 years to express interest in mending relations with Cuba. The White House said that the U.S. would adopt a “wait and see” stance toward Cuba. Any changes to this policy would be contingent on Cuba’s commitment to human rights reforms, political transparency and the transformation from a state to a private economy. Nevertheless, in spite of a number of reforms over the past two years in which President Raúl Castro has evidenced some commitment to an opening and reform of the state-controlled system, Washington has failed to reciprocate. Serious alteration of U.S.-Cuba policy has yet to materialize as Obama neglects the opportunity to normalize relations with Cuba.

Modest Changes in Cuba

One cannot charge that no progress has been made regarding White House initiatives since Obama took office in January 2009. For instance, travel and remittance restrictions were relaxed for Cuban-Americans within the first days of Obama’s presidency. In mid-January of 2011, the president went further and lifted travel bans for cultural, academic, and religious organizations, and regulations were loosened on remittances for all Americans, who are now allowed to send up to USD 500 per quarter to Cuban citizens. Additionally, more charter airlines will be permitted to fly to the island from new U.S. locations.

While such a liberalized policy undoubtedly is a step in the right direction, sustaining the remaining restrictive practices—such as the trade embargo and travel limitations—continue to cast a shadow over the island. The trade embargo imposes major restrictions on U.S. exports and discourages trade between Cuba and U.S. enterprises. Not only does this hurt Cuba, but also batters the U.S. agricultural sector, whose exports could increase significantly if the embargo were lifted. Daniel Griswold of The Guardian explains, “The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free. At the same time, it … has cost U.S. farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports.”2 The trade embargo and penalties applied to Cuban business transactions block Cuban access to medicine and other means to fight disease. Additionally, the remaining travel ban—which prohibits most U.S. citizens from traveling to the island—hinders the Cuban economy, especially the tourism industry, which could grow exponentially if the restrictions were to be lifted.

Since Raúl Castro formally took power, he has expressed an interest in a dialogue with Washington, saying that he is open to discussing “anything” with the United States. Not long after in the autumn of 2010, Fidel Castro expressed his growing concern that the Cuban economic model was no longer working. For the first time since Fidel took office in 1959, Cuba has taken steps to reorganize the labor force through the privatization of businesses and by cutting as many as one million state-sector jobs. Additionally, by easing restrictions imposed on private enterprise, Cuba hopes to increase employment in the agriculture, education, and industrial sectors—all areas in which employees are greatly needed. The government further plans to reduce its handouts (such as food rations) to boost productivity.

In mid-November of 2010, Raúl called for the first congress of the Communist Party to be held in fourteen years (it was supposed to convene every five). He explained that the Sixth Congress would concentrate on necessary changes to the Cuban economic model and would outline the social policy of the party and the revolution. At the congressional meeting to be held this April, the president will publicly reveal his document entitled, “Economic and Social Policy Guidelines”, presenting his game plan for the future of the Cuban economy. It will maintain socialist policies, but reduce the state’s hold over the market, bringing an updated economic policy for the island.

Cuba’s release of political prisoners should also be seriously taken into consideration when evaluating Cuban progress toward liberalization. Raúl Castro announced last July that he would release 52 human rights activists from prison who would seek asylum in Spain over the subsequent three or four months. A small number of political prisoners are still waiting to be released, but Castro exhibited a willingness to address a sensitive issue and to comply with outside pressure. It is irresponsible for Obama and his advisers and even Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, to ignore these gestures.

A Weak Response from Obama

Today, as Cuba presents golden opportunities for reconciliation, the Obama administration’s response remains weak and hesitant. Cuban confidence over Obama’s proposed policy shifts is now waning. Furthermore, by failing to alter policy amidst changing circumstances, Obama is ignoring overwhelming international opinion. Most U.N. member nations have condemned the embargo by a huge margin for the 19th consecutive year in 2009, deeming it an “uncultured act of arrogance.” While just two nations (the U.S. and Israel) voted in favor of upholding the U.S. trade embargo, 187 member states voted in favor of its termination. In fact, Russia, China, Venezuela, and even close U.S. allies such as Canada and Brazil continue to invest in Cuba’s natural resources, tourism, and biotechnology. Most notably, a new generation of Cuban-Americans in Miami—a community formerly known for their hard-line views on the issue—now support normalizing relations with their homeland, and have been waiting for years to see that change occur in person.3

If the Obama administration wishes to promote democracy in Latin America, it should start by removing barriers that stand between Cuba and itself. If Cuba is no longer a threat to democracy in the United States, as it may have been during the Cold War, then it is superfluous and misguided to continue such restrictive isolationist policies. Although Obama has previously emphasized the importance of a democratic transition in Cuba, U.S. policy hinders this process and threatens any chance of a strong diplomatic bond between the two nations. At the present time, U.S. policy is thoroughly contradictory, given that the U.S. continues to trade and negotiate with dictators in nations such as China, which are far more powerful, and far more of a legitimate threat to the U.S than Cuba.

Obama made a commitment to the American people and to Cuba that he must try to change U.S.-Cuban relations if he is to maintain the integrity of his administration. The president should persuade his fellow Americans that it is time to completely—not partially—reform the United States’ outdated policies toward Cuba and enter a new and revitalized era of hemispheric relations.


Plan Colombiai4—a major policy involving the United States and Colombia—has resulted in souring U.S.-Latin American relations rather than improving them. The initiative involved renewing both the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), which would increase the number of military bases and U.S. personnel in Colombia, and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI) to continue the fight against narcotrafficking. Unfortunately, the Obama administration missed achieving genuine progress in its relations with Latin America because of flawed diplomacy and failed anti-drug strategies.

U.S. Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA)

During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to maintain Plan Colombia, which had been established during the Clinton Administration in order to “advance peace, fight drug trafficking, revive the Colombian economy, and strengthen the democratic pillars of Colombian society.”5 The now defuncti DCA would have added U.S. personnel and expanded use of military bases in order to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The negotiations were kept secret until their existence became public in July 2009 in the pages of the Colombian newspaper Cambio.6 As a result, at the August 2009 Summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), heads of state from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil voiced their concern that added U.S. personnel could pose a threat to their national security, with Hugo Chávez warning that “the winds of war” were blowing over Latin America. In response to the criticism, the Obama administration clarified that the added military support was in no way tied to an offensive military strategy. However, Obama’s explanation was not enough to placate the threats perceived by Latin American leaders of the increased U.S. military presence in the region.

Given the suspicion of militarization that is still prevalent in Latin America today, Washington should have been more open about the negotiations and engaged in multi-lateral diplomacy with area leaders before the media found out about the DCA. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has strongly opposed the Bogotá initiative, exclaimed that, “If the Colombian president wants his bases to be used, I say I want a referendum in South America so the people of Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and all twelve countries can decide.”7 Bilateral agreements might appear to involve only two nations, but when neighboring countries will be affected, the U.S. should anticipate their reaction. A referendum might not have been an ideal solution, but what underlies the idea—Latin America’s desire for transparency—should seriously be considered by Washington.

Now that the Colombian military conflict is blowing over and relations are being mended, Obama should take the initiative and “engage” with Latin America as he promised. Open communication through diplomatic channels could prove to be the most effective means of improving U.S. ties with Latin America. Undisclosed agreements, if handled improperly, will only fuel the fire and lead to strained relations and destructive misunderstandings. Indeed, as one specialist at a private Washington think tank observed: “The costs could have been easily avoided with more skillful and sustained diplomatic work by senior U.S. officials.” Only after improving diplomatic relations will Obama be able to fulfill his promise to fight against the FARC and drug cartels.

Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI)

Obama has continued to fund Plan Colombia in order to further the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI) as well, but the results have been lackluster. In particular, he stated that he would “continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges.”9 Obama should be given credit for funding counterdrug programs; however, these programs have translated into very little being accomplished with Plan Colombia in order to meet evolving challenges. Funding was initially pushed into law enforcement measures to more effectively patrol maritime and air transport drug routes, but that led drug traffickers to seek other land routes to the U.S. through Mexico. The net result is that violence has drastically increased in Mexico, whose government has blamed consumption patterns in the U.S. for their countries’ increased homicide rates, with Calderon calling the U.S. “the biggest drug addict in the world.”10

The United States also carried out a systematic burning of cocaine crops in the region, “but aggressive replanting on the part of coca growers means Colombia remains a key producer.”11 In addition to burning crops, the U.S. has attempted to neutralize drug cartels in the region, and succeeded in many cases. However, the gap was quickly filled by the FARC and other vigilante gangs which tripled or quadrupled in size.12 Thus, any efforts to reduce narcotrafficking in Colombia in the long run have been ineffectual. After multiple failed counter-trafficking policies, Colombia continues to have one of the highest murder rates in the world and cocaine production has remained virtually unchanged.13

Colombian Cocaine Production Has Not Changed

In February of 2009, the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil and representatives from Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica proposed alternatives to current regional drug policy such as legalizing the personal possession and use of drugs.14 Latin American figures called upon Obama for support, but there was no evidence of any U.S. interest or presence in these talks. It is doubtful that the U.S. would cooperate given that, in the past, Obama has laughed off inquiries relating to the legalization of marijuana. His reaction could offset the revitalized engagement that Obama has called for. However, as long as U.S. drug consumption continues to fuel drug trafficking throughout the Americas, Washington needs to be involved and must be prepared to consider every alternative.

In January 2011, U.S. Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske spoke at the Embassy of Colombia in Washington and announced a shift in policy from counter-trafficking strategies to reducing U.S. domestic drug consumption through prevention and treatment programs. He told Colombian officials that “the Obama Administration has asked the U.S. Congress for an additional [USD] 203 million for programs to prevent drug use before it starts…[and] an increase of [USD] 137 million to support drug treatment programs that will work to help those addicted to drugs recover from the disease of addiction.”15 However, reducing U.S. drug consumption in the past, with programs such as DARE, has not only failed to achieve its objectives, but has fueled increased drug consumption.16 Thus, Washington must redevelop its treatment programs or an increase in funds will only result in an increase in U.S. drug consumption.

After two years, Obama is still committed to Plan Colombia despite the pressing reality that continual funding is not producing the desired results. During his campaign, Obama vowed to support the initiative only if significant changes were made to the policy. Yet today, little progress has come from Washington. In January 2010, Senators Feingold, Leahy and Dodd wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “given U.S. record budget deficits, we cannot afford to continue assistance that is not achieving sufficient results.”17 In the final two years of his administration, Obama must address the concerns surrounding the ACI and Plan Colombia and update his policies if the anti-narcotics campaign is to improve.


Learning from the U.S. Role in the 2009 Honduran Coup and its Aftermath

In the tumultuous aftermath of the 2009 coup d’état, international support is necessary to strengthen the long-unstable country of Honduras. The nation continues to struggle with rampant corruption, a failing education system, and a shockingly high murder rate. Two years after the coup, the U.S. is only one of a few active supporters of Honduras in tackling its numerous domestic problems and reconstructing its foreign ties. On the other hand however, a number of influential leaders from neighboring countries are denying the legitimacy of the current Honduran government because of the illegitimacy of the 2009 coup. Despite President Obama’s pledge for an “equal partnership” with Latin America a few months after his election, the U.S. is ironically left alone to assist Honduras in rebuilding its nation.

Scores of political analysts have noted that the Honduran crisis provided Washington with the opportunity to show its commitment to a democratic and constitutional order throughout Latin America. The U.S., however, acted prematurely without thoroughly analyzing the situation and conducted itself with a shocking lack of democratic conviction. Washington failed to act aggressively in reinstating the constitutionally-elected President Zelaya. After initially denouncing the coup, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs had no problems recognizing the illegally installed government and acknowledging the tainted election. Had Washington understood the implications of its actions more profoundly, the U.S. would have seen that restoring Zelaya in power was essential to uphold the democratic process in the Central American country, and was an opportunity to renew U.S.-Latin American relations.

Looking Back at the Mistakes

On June, 28, 2009 President José Manuel Zelaya was ousted by a coup that involved all branches of his government. Roberto Micheletti, the former head of the Liberal Party, was illegally installed as interim president. To rapidly restore constitutional order in Honduras, several rounds of multilateral talks were staged by former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, Micheletti, President Zelaya, and U.S. and Organization of American States (OAS) top officials; three months after the coup, the San José Accord was officially signed. It stated that the Honduran congress would vote on whether or not Zelaya could carry out the remainder of his term until the previously scheduled presidential election in November.

A few days after the San José Accord was signed, a number of political commentators were perplexed by Washington’s changed position from condemning the coup to recognizing the Honduran election. A number of analysts viewed the applying of a democratic standard in Honduras as duplicitous, and were concerned that the U.S. could be setting a dangerous precedent in Latin America. U.S. officials led by Secretary Clinton rationalized their decision by saying that the election was the only way to bring back democratic order to Honduras. Arturo Valenzuela, Washington’s Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, asserted that “There has to be an exit. And an election that was a preexisting process, a legitimate expression of the will of the Honduran people, is a perfect step out of this crisis.” But some other analysts gazed at Valenzuela’s rhetoric as self-serving and manipulative.

However, supporting Zelaya’s return to power would have been a symbolic gesture of commitment to democratic ideals by the U.S., given that he had been unconstitutionally removed from office. The Honduran president mainly had been ousted on the bases of a series of allegations that he had sought an extension of term limits through a radical reform and had defied a Supreme Court ruling. Furthermore, Washington received several unconfirmed reports from its diplomats that Zelaya had ties to “organized crime.”18

These allegations gave Washington second thoughts and an excuse about not lending its support to Zelaya’s reinstatement. Nevertheless, restoring Zelaya would have been facilitated by a fair trial for the alleged charges against him—an action that would have signaled democratic and constitutional order existed in Honduras. Surprisingly, given his volatile personality, Zelaya’s attitude over restoring constitutional rule was moderate and responsible. After all, he insisted that, “Even if I did [attempt to extend term limits], why wasn’t I charged and tried in court instead of removed before dawn by the threat of soldiers’ bullets and flown away?”19

Furthermore, because a majority of neighboring Latin American presidents initially had demanded the return of Zelaya to the presidency, the Obama administration should have deferred to the regional consensus in order to show respect to and improve relations with Latin America. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, then still in office as Brazil’s president who took the lead for the pro-Zelaya forces, insisted, “The international community demands that Mr. Zelaya immediately return to the presidency of his country, and must be alert to insure that inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras.”20 After the promise that Obama gave at the summit, the U.S. president had the chance to fulfill that commitment—yet he squandered away the opportunity.

Washington should have aggressively taken the side of Zelaya’s pro-constitutionalist stand from the outset. But as Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, “It [the U.S.] went from indignation with the coup to indifference, confusion, and, finally, acquiescence, all in less than five months.”21 There were strong pro-democratic and practical reasons for supporting the reinstatement of Zelaya. Thus maintaining support for Zelaya could have restored the democratic process in Honduras and improved U.S.-Latin American relations.

In the future, Washington must have a consistent democratic strategy for Honduras in order to improve its overall ties with the rest of the hemisphere. As it did in the Honduran crisis, the U.S. cannot afford to alter its position as the situation evolves. President Obama firmly believed that the U.S. must cooperate with Latin America for the maintenance of democratic order. This approach has to be the groundwork for future Washington policies toward Tegucigalpa if U.S. policymakers are to gain respect from Latin American leaders and citizens alike.


With high hopes, foreign leaders abroad have waited in anticipation for the “new alliance” that Obama articulated. However, after two years in office, the best to come out of Washington is flawed and minimalist diplomacy. Such listless policies at best retread old territory and at worst prevent US and Latin American leaders from progressing in their search for inspired leadership. As a result, Washington has missed its opportunity to rehabilitate its frayed relations with Latin America once again.

In the next two years, Obama will need to place an increased emphasis on Latin America if the U.S. is to improve its hemispheric ties. In Cuba, Obama must engage in a more concerted effort to lift all bans affecting trade and travel in response to the gestures being offered by the Castro brothers.

In Colombia, the U.S. must update its drug and security policies dealing with Plan Colombia. By recognizing President Juan Manuel Santos’ interest in maximizing its relations with Venezuela and other Latin American countries, the U.S. can join Colombians in expanding its efforts to the rest of the hemisphere and become important bridge-builders.

In Honduras, Washington should be more perspicacious in promoting democratic principles while attempting to redress the enormous injustice it displayed in formulating a response to anti-constitutional occurrences during the 2009 coup in Tegucigalpa.

i Under pressure, Santos decided to not submit the Defense Cooperation Agreement to congress, thus putting a stop to any additional U.S. personnel from entering the country.

References for this article can be found here.