It is currently fashionable to criticize President Obama for paying insufficient attention to Latin America. He offers no grand strategy, no lines in the sand, no soaring speeches, few high-profile visits and no “big stick.” What the critics miss is that his low-key approach has been highly effective.
When the United States pays close attention to Latin America, the results are often negative. Just in the past half century:
• President John F. Kennedy’s close attention to Cuba helped embarrass the United States and entrench the Castro regime.
• President Richard Nixon believed Chile to be critical, and his attention encouraged a coup and subsequent brutal military dictatorship.
• President Ronald Reagan’s insistence on Central America’s importance cemented a decade of war and destruction.
• In the 1980s and 1990s, several U.S. presidents oversaw drastic market reforms that increased poverty and inequality, which helped lead to populist regimes now viewed as hostile.
• Finally, President George W. Bush’s focus on terrorism led him to alienate several Latin American governments and to meet complete failure with his vaunted Free Trade Area of the Americas.
President Obama’s strategy has been different. Instead of highly public initiatives, his administration has been working hard on the ground and mostly off the radar. There is a lot of personal attention. Vice President Joe Biden has frequently traveled to the region, and next month will visit Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew was recently in Brazil and Mexico. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson has been all over the region, most recently at the Organization of American States summit in Paraguay.
The president has not announced large new economic initiatives but rather has strengthened ties with Pacific Alliance countries — Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, with Costa Rica and Panama still to join — which will deepen further.
A recent report from the Atlantic Council outlines how much the United States has engaged economically and how much more could occur, such as through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Even with Brazil, where relations have sometimes been tense, the Congressional Research Service noted in March 2014 that “the countries continue to engage on issues such as trade, energy, security, racial equality and the environment.”
He has worked to pass immigration reform, which would be beneficial to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean but has been stymied by Congress. The immigrant prison industry is a troubling development, but no one can deny the uphill battle the president has faced in getting any substantive reform passed.
Diplomatically, the Obama administration has avoided unnecessary wars of words with presidents suh as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and has supported dialogue in that country’s political crisis even while feeling intense pressure to impose new sanctions. He has similarly backed the difficult negotiations taking place between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana.
In his recent speech at West Point, the president emphasized the need to avoid costly and unnecessary foreign-policy errors. Unlike so many of his predecessors, he has been largely successful in that regard. By no means does that mean perfection, since there are plenty of decisions that deserve both scrutiny and criticism. But overall, it deserves some praise.
The result? Contrary to what you commonly hear, Latin Americans currently view the United States in very favorable terms. In countries where the administration has worked on expanding social and economic ties, those views are especially positive.
Engagement is beneficial to the United States, and the Obama administration has been pursuing it actively in Latin America. Just not loudly.
Gregory Weeks is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science & Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.