President Obama charmed Argentines by dancing the tango during his visit to the South American country last week, but his trip may be remembered for something much more important: It may mark the start of a new cycle of much closer U.S-Latin American ties.
By design or by luck, Obama may leave office with a totally different Latin America than the leftist populist region he inherited seven years ago.
Argentina has a new center-right president, Mauricio Macri, who gave a warm welcome to Obama. Venezuela’s opposition won legislative elections by a landslide in December, dealing a serious blow to radical leftist President Nicolas Maduro. Bolivia’s radical populist president, Evo Morales, was defeated in a recent referendum to run for a fourth consecutive term, and Brazil’s left-of-center President Dilma Rousseff is fighting an uphill battle to survive an impeachment process.
There is growing speculation in diplomatic circles that by January 2017, when Obama leaves office, Latin America’s political map may be dominated by pro-investment, U.S.-friendly governments in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and several other countries.
It’s ironic, because Obama — who publicly picked Asia as the “pivot” of his foreign policy — has never paid special attention to Latin America. When I interviewed him for the first time during the 2007 presidential campaign, he conceded that he had never visited the region and could not remember the name of any sitting Latin American president.
But Obama’s trip to Cuba and Argentina last week may go down in history as the start of a new cycle in Latin American history (I’m not using the word “era,” because political trends in Latin America rarely last more than 15 years). We may call it the post-populist cycle, or the pragmatic cycle, or the end of Latin America’s authoritarian-isolationist cycle.
Obama deserves some credit for this. His normalization of diplomatic ties with Cuba, his trip to the island last week with a delegation of U.S. businesspeople, his firm repudiation of Argentina’s 1970’s military dictatorship and his vow to declassify U.S. intelligence cables from that dark period of South America’s history are helping to debunk some foundational myths of Latin America’s old left.
Obama’s diplomatic and economic opening to Cuba debunks the excuse of Cuba’s military dictatorship that it can’t allow free elections, freedom of speech or freedom of assembly because the island is under threat of a U.S. military attack. After Obama’s gestures to the Castro regime, that excuse sounds more ridiculous than ever.
And Argentina’s old-guard left, which held big protests against Obama during his visit coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s 1976 military coup, looked totally out of place by blaming the United States as the main culprit for that dark period of Argentine history.
In fact, while Washington looked the other way at Argentina’s human rights abuses during the first months of the military junta, that changed dramatically after former President Jimmy Carter took office in early 1977.
I remember this well, because I left Argentina for the United States in 1976. By 1977, the United States was denouncing Argentina’s human rights abuses at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, while Cuba — irony of ironies — was voting consistently in support of Argentina’s dictatorship. Among other reasons, Cuba voted that way because it didn’t want outside scrutiny of its own rights abuses.
But the main reason for the current political turnaround in Latin America is economic: The world commodity boom that helped Latin America grow in the 2000s is over, and countries in the region badly need foreign investments and renewed trade ties to grow. The populist fiesta is over because there’s no money to pay for it.
“Obama’s trip to Argentina and Cuba marks a very important political change in Latin America,” Macri’s former top political strategist, Jaime Duran Barba, told me last week. “Across the region there is a yearning for a more modern, less authoritarian democracy.”
My opinion: Obama is likely to go down in Latin American history as a good president for the region, even if he never spent much time or energies on it. It would be a historic disgrace if the next U.S. president, who will inherit a much friendlier region than Obama did, failed to build new economic bridges — rather than walls — for both sides’ benefit.
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Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español