The administration should have seen the death of Hugo Chavez as a chance to recast the relationship with that substantial group of left-leaning leaders in the region. After all, Obama and those around him not so secretly harbor the desire to bring the U.S.-Cuba relationship into the 21st century by developing a roadmap to end the embargo, one of the all-time greatest flops in U.S. foreign policy history. That would win some points. And some of the region’s top officials from the left, like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa, have been more constructive on issues like drug-enforcement cooperation and even seemingly more open to progress on some trade issues. And given that the left has so much clout in many of the region’s most important countries – like Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, not to mention Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Nicaragua, Cuba and perhaps Chile, where former President Michelle Bachelet is poised for a comeback – it seems that would be worth our while. (Not to mention the fact that making nice with the Pacific half of Latin America to the exclusion of the Atlantic half seems strategically silly.)
Since the U.S. is perfectly happy to work with left-leaning governments everywhere else in the world (and others that are authoritarian or worse – yes, I mean you, Vladimir), we have to ask, why is the Latin American policy establishment having such a hard time getting over the 1980s? Or the 1960s? (The joke in the community goes that there are two factions in the Latin American policy community – those still living in the ’60s and those still living in the ’80s. But all seem more familiar with the Cold War’s tactics and inclined to discuss import substitution and old school North-South politics than they are with the new realities of this century.)
If the answer is hard to fathom, the consequences could not be more obvious. The absence of any real focus on the region except to complain about trade disputes or quibble with the likes of Chavez (an understandable pursuit but not a suitable basis for a regional policy) has created a void that means when something goes wrong, it actually is seen as the totality of U.S. policy in the Americas.
So it loomed larger than it otherwise might have when there was a fiasco concerning the grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ flight in Europe because he was thought to be ferrying Edward Snowden to a new destination. It inflamed Morales’ colleagues throughout the region. The big bully of the North was dissing them again, extra-legally violating their sovereign prerogatives. And then, when it was discovered that the NSA was actively intercepting communications with millions of Brazilians, the United States actually succeeded in sending U.S. relations with the region hurtling back to the periods of the last century in which some of our policymakers seem most comfortable. It certainly hasn’t helped that it has also been reported that the surveillance efforts extended to Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica and others. The U.S. intelligence community was in everyone’s business again. The United States was treating them like second-class citizens again. And it was hard to name major countervailing positive initiatives – as you might find in the case of China or even Russia – that could counterbalance and at least keep the relationships “complex” rather than just lousy.