Obama Heading for Latin America

Jim Lobe*

HAVANA TIMES, March 16 (IPS) — On the eve of President Barack Obama’s first-ever visit to South America, administration officials and independent analysts say that the emphasis throughout his five-day trip will be very much on the positive aspects and possibilities of U.S.-Latin American relations.

Almost exactly 50 years after President John F. Kennedy’s launch of the Alliance for Progress, however, Obama, constrained as he is by record deficits and the highly polarized nature of U.S. domestic politics, is unlikely to announce any major new policy initiatives. This includes those bilateral issues that matter most to most Latin Americans, notably trade, migration, drugs and insecurity, particularly if they cost money.

“It’s not going to be heavy on substance,” according to Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank. “But politically it will be symbolic, and it will be important that Obama conveys the right message.”

The March 19-23 tour takes him to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. It is likely to steer clear of the most contentious political issues – Guantanamo, Cuba, the Honduran coup, secret U.S.-Colombian base agreements, and Brazil’s scorned efforts to defuse tensions over Iran’s nuclear program – that have reduced the high hopes of many Latin Americans that had been raised by Obama’s election and his subsequent pledge at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad to pursue “engagement based on mutual respect” with Washington’s southern neighbors.

“This trip fundamentally is about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports, and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States,” Mike Froman, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, told reporters at a pre-trip briefing this week.

Indeed, in addition to his wife and two daughters, Obama will be travelling with key economics- and energy-related cabinet officials, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Not coincidentally, a passel of CEOs from some of the U.S.’s biggest corporations will be joining Obama at a business summit in Rio de Janeiro, no doubt in hopes of capturing some of the hundreds of billions of dollars Brazil plans to plans to spend on infrastructure – particularly in the run- up to the World Cup and the Olympic Games – and oil development in the coming years. They are also interested in capturing the consumer tastes of the fastest-growing middle class on the continent.

Most analysts here consider the Brazil stop the most significant of the three destinations, although Obama is expected to give a major policy address – perhaps something comparable to his famous Cairo speech in 2009 – directed to all of Latin America during his stay in Santiago.

That significance derives not only from the sheer size of its economy, now considered the world’s seventh largest, but also by its emergence as a truly global power, as recognized by its membership in the Group of 20 and the increasingly active and independent foreign policy it pursued under the administration of former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva.

In travelling to Brasilia within the first three months of the inauguration of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, Obama appears to be trying to dramatize Washington’s understanding of Brazil’s global importance – although the administration has reportedly still not decided whether to announce its backing for Brazil’s bid to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as it did for India when Obama visited there last year – and the important changes that have taken place in the hemisphere’s power relations.

“This is the first time that the bilateral dialogue (between Brazil and the U.S.) starts at the highest levels in Brazil,” noted Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center here.

Until now, recent Brazilian presidents-elect would travel to Washington because they felt they “needed some form of benediction”, he added.

Rouseff’s first foreign trip as president, by contrast, will take place next month, to China.

That is not only true for Brazil, according to Sergio Bitar, a senior IAD fellow who has served in cabinet positions in three Chilean governments, but for the continent as a whole as well. “This visit is happening at a moment when the U.S. is less influential, and Latin America is more powerful.”

Indeed, adds Adam Isacson, a analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, “a generation ago, the region was a bit like a solar system, its countries revolving tightly around the ‘sun’ of U.S. political, economic and military power, but today that power is diminished, (and) the ‘planets’ are now determining their own independent orbits, with some becoming ‘suns’ in their own right, while other ‘stars’ – China, India, Europe – are exerting more gravitational pull.”

“To the extent that Obama publicly acknowledges that reality, if he does adopt a tone of humility in that sense, and starts to portray the U.S. as one of many players, then it will go over extremely well in the region,” Isacson said. “It will be a message they’ve never heard before from a U.S.

That could indeed be a major feature of Obama’s address in Chile, which, like Brazil and Peru, now trades far more with China – Beijing’s hunger for raw materials helped the region weather the 2008 financial crisis – than with the U.S.
despite a free-trade agreement between the two countries.

“I think he’ll also say we have a lot to learn from Latin America” in his Chile speech, said Shifter, who added that all three host countries “have come up with a formula that should be very appealing to the American people – economic progress, advances on the social agenda, and democratic politics.”

That applies in particular to El Salvador’s president, Mauricio Funes, the first member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) to be elected to the nation’s highest office.

“Obama has decided that his go-to partner in Central America is President Funes,” according to Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Costa Rican vice president currently based at the Brookings Institution.

Funes, he said, will press Obama on immigration issues – some 2.5 million Salvadoreans in the U.S., about 10 percent of them on Temporary Protected Status (TPS) which El Salvador wants extended – and more aid under the Merida Plan for Central America to deal with security issues related to drug-trafficking and gangs.

While he will get a sympathetic hearing from Obama, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives is considered unlikely to increase aid, particularly given the less military-oriented direction in which the administration has pushed the Plan over the past two years.

“The U.S. is trapped by its domestic politics,” said Shifter in a reminder of the relative decline of U.S. influence in the region. “And frankly, if it can’t be helpful in Central America, it’s hard to imagine how it can make a real difference in South America.”

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*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.