FPI Analysis: President Obama’s Trip to Central and South America

March 11, 2011

- Download a PDF copy of this analysis

President Obama’s trip to Central and South America comes at a turbulent time in hemispheric relations. In 2009, President Obama pledged “a new chapter of engagement” across the region “based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.” Unfortunately, the optimism that followed the President’s speech was short-lived. In the first year alone, priority was given to relations with anti-American governments as key American allies begged for assistance. As a result, many across the region now feel neglected by an administration distracted by domestic politics and other international challenges. Support for Washington has diminished while Chinese and Venezuelan influence continues to expand. Past initiatives remain incomplete, democracy and security funding slashed, and few new policy proposals have emerged from the White House. President Obama’s trip is an opportunity to reverse course and prove that the United States remains a top ally and friend for democratic governments across the region.
One of the fastest growing economies in the world and the largest economy in South America, Brazil is America’s second largest Latin American trading partner. Brazil’s rapidly growing economy represents a growing market for American goods, as overall U.S. exports to Brazil grew seventy-one percent from 1998 to 2009. President Obama should broaden export opportunities to Brazil and emulate the success of the US-Brazil Commercial Dialogue established under Presidents Bush and Lula da Silva in 2006.
Though the overall trade balance between the United States and Latin America pales in comparison to balances with Asia and Europe, the region did represent America’s fastest growing market between 1998 and 2009. Under the Clinton and Bush administrations, economic growth centered on bilateral and multilateral trade agreements designed to liberalize trade and investment regulations across the region. President Obama praised regional trade in talks with his Brazilian counterpart in 2009, noting “it is very important for all countries to recognize that trade is an important engine for economic growth.”
Unfortunately, further economic integration has been halted by the administration’s reluctance to move forward on key bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. Failure to implement both agreements, wrote 19 former government officials - including 11 former Assistant Secretaries of State in a recent letter, “risks damaging our relations with Colombia, Panama, and throughout the hemisphere by raising doubts about America’s reliability as a partner.”
Colombia, like the United States, continues to face the daily threat of terrorism, though the situation is markedly improved from a decade ago when Colombia’s democracy was on the brink of destruction. By the late 1990s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Western Hemisphere’s most powerful insurgent group, controlled large swaths of land across the country. Thanks to efforts by the Colombian government and billions of dollars in American aid under Plan Colombia, the group has been relegated to operations in remote portions of the Andean jungle. The group does maintain the ability to carry out attacks at any given moment.
The threat of narco terrorism does not stop at the Colombian border. As Colombia’s army and police clashed with FARC forces over the past decade, much of the group’s senior leadership found refuge in Venezuela. By 2010, the Colombian government amassed evidence of 75 FARC camps harboring 1,500 rebels on Venezuelan soil. Though Venezuelan support for the FARC has decreased in recent months, President Obama should press newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to develop a regional strategy to pressure the Venezuelan government to take increased actions to contain the FARC.
Finally, President Obama should use his trip to reinforce America’s commitment to democratic allies in the region’s ongoing war against powerful drug traffickers. President Obama has rightly continued implementation of the Bush administration’s groundbreaking $1.3 billion Merida Initiative, implementation of the program remains imperfect. The Washington Post notes “The money was to be delivered in three years; in four, Mexico has received $500 million.” In March 2010, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton outlined the changing dynamic of the Merida Initiative, though the administration has offered few details in the subsequent year. The Obama administration should outline details of a continuation to the Bush administration initiative and work in greater cooperation with the Mexican government to curb the escalating violence that plagues our neighbor to the south.
The President’s decision to visit El Salvador gives indication his administration understands the growing threat posed by drug cartels in the region. In Central America, the greatest near-term threat to security lies in Guatemala, El Salvador’s neighbor to the North. Already, Guatemalan officials face increased levels of gang violence and organized crime and well funded drug cartels gain power throughout the country. As the drug war moves south, El Salvador’s democratically elected government faces spiraling violence and regional uncertainty. President Obama should boost ties and American commitment to this regional ally desperate for United States assistance.
In recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary Arturo Valenzuela stated “the United States has important national interests at stake in the Western Hemisphere, and the best way to advance these interests is through proactive engagement with all of the countries of the Americas.” Two years into his administration, it is time for President Obama to finally implement such a policy.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More