United States policy in Latin America, throughout the independent history of the two Americas, has been mostly absent-minded, looking to keep our Latin neighbors from making trouble while we pursue more important objectives elsewhere. This has been on the whole a blessing for the Latin Americans, since when we have paid attention, our actions have usually made things worse.
Consider detaching Panama from Colombia so we could build a canal, or the subjection of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines after the Spanish-American war, or the occupation of several Central American and Caribbean countries between 1910 and 1934, or the overthrow of the elected Guatemalan government in 1954, or the attempted overthrow of the Cuban government in 1961, or the undeclared war against the Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. I could go on, but you get the idea.
President Obama has been pretty much like his predecessors on this. He really hasn’t paid that much attention to Latin America, but he has just completed a historic visit to Cuba, and is now in Argentina.
President Obama has been pretty much like his predecessors on this. He really hasn’t paid that much attention to Latin America, but he has just completed a historic visit to Cuba, and is now in Argentina. He merits a lot of credit for the opening to Cuba, which culminated in his visit this week. Precisely because of its proximity to the US, its Communist regime was like a bone in the throat of every President from Eisenhower to Bush 2. Even after the end of the Cold War, it was politically impossible to even contemplate normal relations with Cuba—until Obama and Raúl Castro found a way to do it.
And major elements of the US embargo remain in effect, pending action by a future Congress that is not controlled by right-wingers. Similarly, the US still has the naval base at Guantánamo Bay, even though it no longer has a serious naval mission. It serves only to hold the prisoners taken by Bush after 9/11/2001. Previous presidents could establish normal relations with China and Vietnam and be called statesmen; Obama is execrated for doing the same with Cuba.
Another place where Obama deserves some credit is Colombia, where he had the wisdom to encourage, rather than obstruct, the peace talks between the government and the insurgent FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). That country is now on the verge of internal peace for the first time in half a century.
In Argentina, it will fall to Obama to apologize for US encouragement of and cooperation with the military regime that seized power in 1976, perpetrating massive disappearances and torture until a popular uprising forced its resignation after it lost the war in the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. Indeed, anywhere he goes in the region, there will be some egregiously misbegotten US action to apologize for.
Obama has his own: the coup in Honduras in 2009 that overthrew elected president Zelaya and replaced him ultimately with a fraudulently elected government that become essentially an oppressive mafia dictatorship in quasi-democratic clothing. The Obama administration was not overtly involved in the coup itself, but showed its hand by the faintness of its condemnation, and the eagerness with which it helped orchestrate new elections rather than demand the return of Zelaya to power. The Honduran military would never have staged a coup without knowing in advance that the US government approved. Hillary Clinton’s fingerprints are all over this one.
The puzzle is why Obama would have lent himself to such a violation of his own clearly stated commitment to both supporting democracy and to nonintervention. I think the answer lies in his lack of a strong focus on or interest in the region. When the White House and State Department are focused elsewhere, the bureaucrats and their friends in the interest groups and think tanks get to frame the policy and have it rubber-stamped by the top leaders. And the old Latin America hands, in and out of government in Washington, are largely carryovers from the Cold War, with a strongly anti-Communist, conservative bent. Why put up with instability when you can bless a military coup?
This also explains the more general absence of innovation in Obama’s Latin America policy. With the sole exceptions above cited, Obama’s policy in Latin America has been unimaginative, essentially indistinguishable from that of George W. Bush. Except that Bush at least spoke Spanish. Like previous presidents, Obama just doesn’t care about Latin America except when something threatens stability.