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Feature 060214 Sanchez

Monday, June 2, 2014

President Obama's Lasting Indifference towards Latin America

By W. Alejandro Sanchez, VOXXI

President Barack Obama's vision on foreign policy –unsurprisingly– does not look like it will be focusing much of its attention on Latin America.

The May 28 foreign policy speech at West Point Academy by the head of state highlighted the perception of Latin Americanists, including myself, that the Obama administration will maintain cordial but unexceptional relations towards the rest of the Americas in the immediate future.

In the address, Obama explained his vision for U.S. foreign and defense policy for the last two years of his presidency.

Unfortunately, references to Latin America were few and far between.

POTUS (briefly) mentions Latin America

One important section of President Obama’s address discussed how the United States has reduced military operations in Afghanistan, since “Al-Qaida’s leadership [in] Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated.” Moreover, Obama took a jab at Russia and China; arguing that their recent actions, in Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively, worry their neighbors.

In contrast, the only Latin American nation President Obama addressed by name was Brazil, when he mentioned the rising middle classes in Brazil and India and how their governments seek a greater presence in global forums. He also addressed Brazil and other U.S. allies in a discussion on cybersecurity. President Obama declared, “we are putting in place new restrictions on how America collects and uses intelligence — because we will have fewer partners […] if a perception takes hold that we’re conducting surveillance against ordinary citizens.”

While this statement does not mention Brazil directly, it does reference Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the 2013 revelations that the NSA spied on Washington’s allies. The Brazilian leader went so far as to cancel a trip to the U.S. in October to protest Washington’s conduct.

President Obama’s praise of Brazil’s middle class and his promise to place greater restrictions on intelligence operations can be interpreted as a message that Washington still wishes to strengthen bilateral relations with Brazil.

Finally, the U.S. leader renewed his pledge to close the controversial detention center in Guantanamo Bay, “because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” Whether the U.S. leader can accomplish this within the next two years is debatable. For years he has promised to shut down the detention center but, so far, little progress has been made.

Hypothetically speaking, if the Democrats were to gain a significant majority in November’s mid-term elections President Obama could have enough support to (finally) stay true to his promise. Nevertheless, a realist would argue that the U.S. President’s intention to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison is an objective, alas not a priority.

From 2014 to 2016

On a personal note, I must confess that I did not expect the U.S. leader to only vaguely refer to Latin America. Over the past months, I have discussed the various visits of senior officials to Latin American nations: President Obama’s trip to Mexico, Vice President Biden’s visit to Chile, and Secretary of Defense Hagel’s visit to Mexico and Guatemala, to name a few. However, as previously noted, Brazil was the only regional country referred to by name in the president’s speech.

The U.S. head of state did stress the importance of partnerships and coalitions. The U.S. continues to profit from having allies in Latin America but, rather than creating military coalitions to invade Iraq, these nations have focused on operations like combating drug trafficking. Washington provides financial and military assistance to regional allies – case in point Guatemala – and we should expect this trend to continue.

Interestingly, President Obama failed to mention drug trafficking and other security challenges facing the Western Hemisphere. The absence of such a discussion suggests that U.S. military aid to the region under the umbrella of Southern Command (the component of the U.S. military that oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean) will remain scarce for the foreseeable future.

As a final point, on the issue of the possibility of military interventions, the President stated that “international opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people.”

While it would be natural for any country’s commander-in-chief to issue such a statement, the remark raises the question of future U.S. military initiatives in Latin America. The U.S. armed forces have recently carried out humanitarian missions in Central America; nevertheless, farther south the situation is grimmer.

Namely, when Secretary of State Kerry recently commented on the situation in Venezuela, Venezuelan Foreign Affairs Minister Elias Jaua stated that Kerry should “mind his own business.” Over the past months (and years) the Venezuelan government has regularly accused Washington of trying to destabilize the country.

It will be interesting to see how President Obama’s speech is interpreted across Latin America, particularly by governments at odds with Washington.

Predictably, President Obama hardly mentioned Latin America in his speech on the future of U.S. foreign and defense policy. One could argue that this demonstrates that Washington does not see the region as a priority. If no other new initiatives a la JFK’s Alliance for Progress occur in the next two years, hopefully President Obama can at least be successful in shutting down the Guantanamo Bay prison. But even this seems unlikely.

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"President Obama’s foreign policy vision does not include Latin America," by W. Alejandro Sanchez, first appeared at VOXXI on May 29, 2014.  "VOXXI™ is an independent voice for Hispanic America.... (Its) goal is to become 'The Voice of the Hispanic 21st Century….'”  W. Alejandro Sanchez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs where he focuses on geopolitics and security issues.

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