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Summit of the Americas: Obama Goes to Trinidad

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An Opportunity to Build a Coherent U.S.-Latin America Policy

  • President Obama travels to Trinidad on April 17 with a unique opportunity to redefine U.S.-Latin American relations
  • The time for taking stock is over, and the U.S. must present a coherent plan composed of inclusiveness, constructive engagement and a definitive end to a Cold War mentality to its southern neighbors
  • In the absence of a seasoned Latin Americanist in the White House, Washington may well struggle to meet even minimal expectations
  • The reconstruction of a meaningful inter-American relationship must involve the dismantling of the Cuban embargo and Washington’s singling out Cuba for special treatment
  • The world knows that there are scores of worse human rights violators than Cuba, over which the White House loses no sleep

  • President Barack Obama will travel to Trinidad and Tobago on April 17 with the opportunity to define the approach his administration will take towards Latin America. The region’s presidents, many of whom enthusiastically welcomed Obama’s election in November, now must hope that the new leader in the White House makes more use of this unique forum than was the case with his predecessor. George Bush’s approach to the 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, was to render it more an occasion for exchanging mutual insults than for carrying on meaningful dialogue on a regional policy that would pay off for all concerned. Obama now has the chance to resurrect the Summit of the Americas as an effective forum, and with it promote the prospects for much needed hemisphere-wide cooperation.

    Latin America took a back seat in U.S. foreign policy during the eight years of the Bush presidency, most likely due to the Iraqi distraction, when most of the administration’s diplomatic capacity was expended on Baghdad, with little left over for the Americas. The region has to date remained largely unaddressed by the Obama White House, but there are several key policy areas which the U.S. president will be expected to comprehensively address in Port of Spain. Political orientation has altered, outside competition has grown more fierce, and attitudes towards the U.S. have shifted significantly since Washington last engaged to a serious extent with Latin America. Consequently, the scope – indeed, the need – for a new approach is pressing. In fact, many of the moves Obama ought to be considering are not costly in monetary terms, but could prove profitable in terms of diplomatic coinage. However, while the vacuum on Latin American issues which currently characterizes the Obama White House persists, it is unclear whether or not the U.S. president is prepared to come forth with big policy initiatives or has the capacity to grasp the importance of such measures to hemispheric relations.

    Treading the Line between Listening and Lecturing
    Much of the discussion in Washington in the weeks preceding the Summit has centered on the question of the role the U.S. president should play at the Port of Spain forum. Debates have largely been wasted by the vastly oversimplified question; should Obama go merely to listen to other countries’ concerns, or should he arrive with a plan of action? Listening to the views of the rest of the hemisphere is a prerequisite for the kind of improved U.S.-Latin American relations that Obama has promised, and which was routinely ignored by his predecessors. On the other hand, a number of Latin American presidents have made it clear to him in no uncertain terms over the past two months what the region expects of him. Brazilian President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, acted as Latin America’s emissary when he visited Washington on March 14. Lula’s message could not have been clearer. “I’m going to ask that the U.S. take a different view of Latin America,” he said before meeting Obama. “We’re a democratic, peaceful continent, and the U.S. has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime.”

    The White House must now move to outline a plan of action based on the information it has accrued over the past three months in office. To date, Washington has failed to present a coherent strategy for its Latin America policy. This has widely been put down to the fact that the administration remains distracted by events elsewhere in the world and at home. However, this interpretation overlooks the relatively simple nature of the steps it would take for Obama to begin to formulate a consistent and effective policy for the hemisphere.

    The administration’s preoccupation with the welfare of domestic U.S. industries is certainly understandable, but the current state of the economy must not be used as an excuse for President Obama not to take action in the other crucial areas in which the U.S. shares interests with the rest of the western hemisphere. It seems inevitable that such economic factors will be at the top of the agenda in Port of Spain – and the countries of Latin America quite clearly have a vested interest in ensuring that the U.S. does not attempt to fix its economy in a fashion which may be detrimental to them – but the Obama administration has a whole set of important agenda items to address at the summit, and the approach it takes will dictate not only the direction of U.S.-Latin American relations, but will also have a significant bearing on other aspects of its foreign and domestic policy.

    For example, action on Cuba will generate diplomatic repercussions worldwide; the way in which the U.S. addresses subjects which are urgent to Latin America will help dictate the future shape of its international trade; and the future stipulations of regional anti-drug policy will eventually have a direct bearing on hemispheric security, particularly along the U.S.’ southern border. In short, arriving with a spelled-out and wide-ranging plan of action that is sympathetic to the grievances of Latin America’s governments, may well hold untold benefits for Washington, and is the only way it can balance being considered sufficiently sensitive to its neighbors’ most fundamental requirements.

    The Cuban Question
    President Obama will travel to Trinidad in the knowledge that the biggest diplomatic challenge he will face is most likely the question of U.S. policy towards Cuba. COHA, along with an ever-growing chorus of governments, media, Afro-American groups and church and business organizations, repeatedly have called for the Obama administration to sweep away the clutter and make a clean break with a shameful past by normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba. This would immeasurably improve the goodwill shown to the White House by the rest of the hemisphere and should be no more difficult to do than it was for the Bush administration to normalize ties with an essentially lawless society in the case of Libya. Praiseworthy steps already are being contemplated, like slackening the restrictions on travel and ability to send off remittances imposed on Cuban-Americans by President Bush, and Obama has promised to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo within one year. The administration will attempt to use these moves as bargaining chips. However, the fact that the decades-old trade embargo on the island remains in place – which was so effectively denounced by Richard Lugar (R-In), the minority ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – cannot be overlooked.

    On his recent visit to Chile, Vice President Joe Biden restated the administration’s muddled unwillingness to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “We think that Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom and have some prospect of economic prosperity,” said Biden, using rather contorted logic to suggest that Washington still, after 47 years, believes that regime change is a prerequisite for the embargo’s lifting. The regrettable maintenance of the status quo on this front means that Obama cannot be expected to “bring Cuba in from the cold,” as the Guardian recently suggested he would use the Summit to do.

    Whether or not the promises Obama makes on Cuba at the summit will placate his barrage of right- and left-wing critics or can be expounded upon in a respectable manner is a matter for the future, but the problem will not go away, just as it has not disappeared over the decades. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez recently called the U.S. embargo against Cuba “absurd and stupid,” and has asserted that the issue “has to be discussed” in Port of Spain. The AP reported that the Venezuelan president went on to criticize Havana’s exclusion from April’s forum, saying, “Cuba is in Latin America … With what right, for example, am I going to go to a summit where all of Latin America is there … and Cuba isn’t there? Why?” Chávez’s ability to drum up sufficiently vociferous support for what the Economist has labeled “the ghost at the conference table” will likely dictate the intensity of the hostility Obama will have to face. In any case, the U.S. president certainly will be passing up the most cost effective method of healing the U.S.’ image in Latin America. By doing so, he will lead his administration into an increasingly isolated position at a time when Costa Rica has recently repaired relations with Havana which were first broken off in 1961 and El Salvador has followed suit after the election of Mauricio Funes on March 15, which will make it the last Latin American nation to restore full relations with Cuba.

    Taming Caracas
    U.S. relations with Venezuela, which deteriorated drastically during the Bush presidency, remain strained. While President Chávez initially welcomed Obama’s election, their subsequent exchanges have largely been tense and disagreeably unpleasant. Chávez said on March 18 of his government’s preparations for April’s summit, “Our artillery is being prepared. There’s going to be good artillery.” He went on to ask, “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don’t know. We’re going to see. We’ll see what the pitcher throws.”

    Suspicion of Caracas remains unabated in the corridors of Capitol Hill. Chávez has hardly helped his cause lately by launching what it is hard not to see as a power grab since his impressive February 15 referendum victory, or at least an excess of activity that adds up to an antipathetic strategy that can only lose him more friends internationally and domestically. By seizing control of foreign-owned food manufacturers and a sizeable portion of Venezuela’s aviation infrastructure, Chávez not only arms more of his enemies with bad as well as good arguments, but, even more importantly, fills his agenda with far too many items than he or anyone else can effectively address or properly administer. Nevertheless, it is imperative that Obama makes an effort to distance himself from the hostile rhetoric that continues to emanate from the Hill, and occasionally from within his administration.

    Caracas seems almost certain to become a less important focus in U.S. foreign policy under an administration which is anticipated to be more attentive to the substantive issues Latin America faces. However, accepting the fundamental fact that Chávez is democratically elected, and taking a rational approach towards a creative engagement with Venezuela in the hope of diminishing its president’s incentive to spout vitriol, will help pave the way for a calmer and more productive relationship between Washington and Latin America as a whole, both during and beyond the Summit. Recall that even under the Bush administration, the State Department had come up with a pro-dialogue tactic, which Chávez either cagily or foolishly rejected. But he now seems to be looking around for an honest broker like Lula to intercede with the White House, and one should also recall that constructive engagement was the habitual advice that Fidel had imparted to his protégé. Whatever the source or the message, the surly, dismissive content of the Bush White House when it came to Venezuela had nothing to persuade Chávez, and hopefully will be replaced with wiser words and policy formulations under its new tenant.

    Drugs and Violence: Looking Beyond Mexico
    One aspect of the U.S.-Latin American relationship which has begun to be addressed by the Obama administration is the Mexican security situation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico on March 25 and 26, and the president himself will travel to Trinidad for the Summit via Mexico City on April 16 and 17. These trips, coupled with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s January visit to Washington, demonstrate the high value that the U.S. is placing in its relations with its southern neighbor.

    During her visit, Secretary Clinton made several promising remarks that admitted, “what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity … to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible.” Moreover, she went on to accept U.S. culpability in exacerbating the violence, taking responsibility not only in failing to halt it, but acknowledging that, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”

    The true test for Washington will be whether or not it can find the answers to the questions Clinton has posed. How will the administration prevent the smuggling of weapons that at times are far more lethal than those the Mexican security forces possess? How will it quell the insatiable demand for drugs in the U.S.? Identifying the problems is a welcome and praiseworthy start, but until Washington stops merely analyzing, and begins implementing rational and effective policies to address those problems, any progress towards finding solutions will undoubtedly be highly limited.

    In order to make a mark, Obama is going to have to adopt some imaginative, and inevitably controversial, policies. By far the best strategy – and perhaps the only effective way to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the hands of Mexican cartels – is to place greater restrictions on the sale of arms in the U.S. The demand for drugs in this country is only likely to be suppressed with a massive redirection of funds from crop eradication programs in the Andean nations towards domestic schemes, and it will likely take the adoption of a more serious approach towards the question of legalization – recently described by the Economist as the “least bad option” for governments to take – to make a significant dent in U.S. consumption.

    Moreover, the common problems which U.S. and Mexican authorities face are symptomatic of a malaise which also affects much of the rest of Latin America. While Mexico, given its proximity, is naturally Washington’s most pressing concern when it comes to drugs, violence and crime, the Obama administration cannot afford to ignore the rest of the chain of drug trafficking and associated violence, which stretches through Central America to the Andes and beyond, reaching as far as West Africa and then on in the form of smuggling routes going into Europe.

    The administration now has to reiterate that it comprehends the drug-related problems plaguing Latin America by publicly acknowledging the fact that President Calderón’s crackdown in Mexico is pushing cartels, and the associated violence, not only into U.S. border cities, but also across Mexico’s border with Guatemala and into Honduras and El Salvador. This forces all concerned to devote additional scarce resources to fight this expanded conflict which they are bound to lose. Achieving a reduction in violence and cartel influence in these embattled countries should be high on Washington’s list of priorities: it must be concerned about the ramifications of Mexico’s situation, but if it is serious about helping, it must show a willingness to embrace multilateral solutions, and throw a lot more funds into the kitty.

    It is a brave American president who touches the issues of gun control and drug legalization, and Obama does not appear willing to break the mould of timidity regarding this subject. Speaking at a March 26 press conference, he made light of the legalization question, saying, “I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” to “laughter and applause,” reported Politico. Obama will inevitably fail to broach such an unmentionable subject in Trinidad, despite its patent relevance. Action on stemming the cartels’ activity in Central America is somewhat more likely – the upcoming forum certainly provides Obama with a perfect opportunity to talk to the region’s presidents, and the election of a new administration in El Salvador may well spark a renewed dialogue with the area – but the results of any such progress will inevitably be limited due to a relative lack of executive bravery and a disinclination to throw more money at the problem.

    Trade: Avoiding Another Mar del Plata
    The last Summit of the Americas, at Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November 2005, was the scene of violent protests against President Bush, and culminated in his failure to gain hemispheric support for the U.S.’ proposed region-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA has been a source of much contention throughout the history of the Summit, with negotiations beginning in 1994 in Miami, and violence marring Quebec City’s turn at hosting in 2001. Indeed, the recurring presence of Bill Clinton’s FTA at these meetings has led the Economist to argue that regional power Brazil regards the Summits as being “indissolubly linked to the doomed FTAA.”

    The question of trade is also set to feature prominently in the proceedings in Port of Spain. Obama is being pressed by many policymakers on Capitol Hill as well as in Colombia and Panama to achieve progress on the U.S.’ pending FTAs with those two countries at the upcoming summit. The president must take on board two considerations while deciding on his course of action on this front. Firstly, he should realize that there are good reasons why the Colombian agreement is being held up in Congress, and that similar reasons could justifiably preclude a deal with Panama. Secondly, he needs to, unlike his predecessor, acknowledge that the notion of free trade with the U.S. on Washington’s terms is not an attractive proposition for a good portion of the hemisphere’s governments.

    Colombia’s record on human rights, along with the endemic corruption which is a disturbing feature of President Uribe’s government, has stalled the progress of the U.S.-Colombian FTA in Congress since 2007. Despite Bogotá’s recent attempts to revive the process by dispatching its ministers to Washington in February, as part of a huge PR blitz put on by Uribe, events in Colombia continue to provide Congress with good reasons not to proceed in a positive direction. The recent exposure by Colombia’s illustrious news magazine Semana of the Colombian security service DAS’s wiretapping practices is just the latest evidence of unremitting government corruption and human rights abuses that have become synonymous with the Uribe administration. Similarly, COHA recently warned the Obama administration against engaging with another “toxic partner,” in the form of Panama. The Central American country’s murky financial establishments, and the whirlwind of obvious lies and corrupt practices surrounding its upcoming presidential election, should make Obama think twice about promising the FTA enactment which Panama craves but unfortunately, ill deserves.

    The Obama administration additionally should realize that the enthusiasm shown by these two countries to sign up to trade deals with the U.S. is not a universally held desire in Latin America. Since the failure of the FTAA under Bush, the region has developed its own vision of regional trade cooperation. Bodies like Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) have emerged, alongside the Brazilian-led UNASUR, and all have in common a focus on supplementing trade with other forms of cooperation, be it political in the case of UNASUR, or social among the ALBA countries. Obama must seek to detach the Summit of the Americas – which clearly has the potential to be an invaluable forum – from the ball and chain of the failed FTAA. By reassuring Latin America that the Summit is not merely a vehicle for the U.S. to realize unadulterated free trade, he may succeed in achieving more in Trinidad than his predecessors have managed at previous hemispheric meetings.

    Bringing Latin America to the White House: The Case for a Special Envoy
    The agenda for U.S. action in Latin America that the U.S. delegation will be taking to Mexico and then to Trinidad, could ultimately be realized, given a sensitive and highly responsive approach from Washington. There is, however, a question mark hovering over the administration’s ability to do this while its current staffing and planning configuration continues unmodified. Former President Bill Clinton revived the role of White House Special Envoy to Latin America when he appointed Mack McClarty to the post in 1994, and Otto Reich subsequently served a grossly undistinguished tenure in a similar role under George Bush. Previously, Reich narrowly escaped being prosecuted in the Iran-Contra affair along with former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American affairs Elliot Abrams. However, the then-president abolished the special envoy position in 2004, leaving the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the State Department as the highest ranking administration representative charged with dealing with the region on a daily basis. This role has been filled since 2005 by Tom Shannon. Shannon remains in his post under Obama at least through Trinidad, and while he is a well-respected and a seemingly moderate figure, this still means that there is no Obama appointee prominently positioned in either the White House or State Department tasked with specifically addressing U.S.-Latin American relations.

    Jeffrey Davidow, a career Foreign Service officer who served as Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the Clinton administration, and has been the U.S. ambassador to both Mexico and Venezuela, was recalled by the Obama White House to act as the president’s special advisor at the Summit. However, a permanent Obama-appointed special envoy is a necessity, and would go a long way towards rectifying what could be described as underrepresentation when it comes to having a major spear carrier to do the new administration’s work. A bona fide Latin Americanist would be a welcome addition to his administration. After all, Washington must still come up with a specific methodology to implement any measures or program of action it announces at the summit. At the very minimum, it needs to establish some kind of consistent means of engaging with regional leaders beyond episodic gatherings in a conference hall. The uncertainty over Latin American policy that has characterized the first three months of Obama’s presidency, and the schizophrenic nature of U.S. relations with the left-leaning leaders of Venezuela and Bolivia, as well as some of the equally populist members of ALBA, is not something that many of those whose interest is centered in the region wish to see continue. Establishing an influential, and consistent and focused link between Washington and the region is an essential way of stabilizing relations, even if difficult ones.

    An Opportunity Not to Be Missed
    This coming weekend’s Summit of the Americas has long been anticipated as the meeting at which the Obama administration would reveal its grand plan for U..S.-Latin American relations. Indeed, the president must clarify his position on at least some of the range of policy issues across the region, if he is to take advantage of the optimism and good will which has to date characterized most of the assembled governments’ positive attitudes towards his election.

    Ending the uncertainty surrounding the administration’s policy thrust in Latin America should be seen as a priority. The White House has made it clear that Tom Shannon is very much an interim member of the administration, but has shown no signs of having considered his replacement. Announcing the appointment of a successor – ideally someone with a strong background in Latin American relations and not some warmed-over Clintonite who gave us NAFTA – to a post in the administration, as well as outlining a strategy which addresses some of the key policy areas set out above, would send the strongest possible positive message to the rest of the hemisphere that the U.S. is back, but this time is ready and willing to establish mutually cordial and gracious relations, and is ready to become literate in such issues as poverty abatement and the promotion of social justice. After all, those values that the U.S. shares or should be sharing with Latin America are either too pressing, or too dangerous, to be neglected.

    However, even if Obama does defy expectations by announcing the appointment of an envoy who is bold and dashing, and not some centrist wannabe, the shape his administration’s policy has begun to take suggests that the region’s anticipation may remain largely unsatisfied by this week’s Summit. Latin America has never been looking more to the left than it is today. Consequently, the approach of limited engagement which the president has taken on the all-important question of Cuba will delight few, though it may placate those who still believe that the voiding of the extra layer of restrictions that President Bush laid on Cuba earlier in the decade is sufficient to masquerade as a new and enlightened Cuba policy. When it comes to Havana, the U.S. should normalize relations across the board, and then negotiate whether these are to be warm or chilly ties. Regarding Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman, he almost certainly holds less sway today than he did in the earlier part of the decade. Nevertheless, he still is vital and has some good ideas. What he now must do is reflect more and speak less. But he has much to contribute to the hemisphere.

    Any movement on the ‘drug war’ will have to see more aid directed at Central America in addition to the current focus on Mexico. In short, the administration’s approach will hopefully assuage some of Latin America’s immediate concerns, but is unlikely to solve anything like its litany of problems. These signs suggest that some luster might come off the significance of Obama’s emergence in Latin America from the region’s unique perspective. The president is now expected to trade in the concept of ‘change’ for the specific policies on which he will be judged, such as immigration, drugs, trade and protectionism, national security, Cuba, Venezuela, and economic and political pluralism in Latin America. Of course, Obama’s record on the ground will ultimately be the determinant of his status, defined by the Economist, of being “as widely admired in Latin America as Mr Bush was disliked.”