Terms of Engagement

Latin Lovers’ Quarrel

Obama may be well-liked by the people of Latin America, but smiling and waving won't clean up the mess the United States leaves on their table.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

People who care about Latin America worry that the donnybrook over the Secret Service agents who got caught picking up — and then refusing to pay for — prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, has overshadowed the Summit of the Americas, where the agents were tasked with protecting U.S. President Barack Obama. They have it backward: If it weren’t for the scandal, most Americans wouldn’t even know the summit occurred.

Latin America is not a top-of-the-head subject even for foreign-policy columnists, many of whom — like me — have spent a great deal less time there than they have in the conflict zones of the Middle East or the misery zones of Africa (or the wine-and-cheese zones of Europe). The steady growth of democracy and free markets there means that Latin America is not the source of worry it once was, and unlike Asia, where democratic, high-growth states feel menaced by a regional hegemon, Latin America has no China to keep U.S. policymakers awake at night. If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the neglect that Latin America suffers should be seen as a token of regional success.

In fact, the big news out of Cartagena — outside of the Secret Service wing of the Hotel Caribe, that is — was the united front that Latin American countries put up against the United States on several big issues. The immediate (and yet seemingly ageless) provocation was the question of whether Cuba should be admitted to the next summit, in 2015, which the United States and Canada opposed and all 30 Latin American countries, both left-wing bastions like Ecuador and traditional U.S. allies like Colombia, favored, thus bringing the meeting to an end without a planned joint declaration. But Latin American countries were equally prepared to stand up to Washington on the far more important question of drug policy, though they differed among themselves on what needed to be done.

The idea of an "American camp" in Latin America has been an anachronism for some while, but this became glaringly clear in Cartagena. "We need them more than they need us," as Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society, puts it. The United States remains the region’s largest trading partner, the source of 40 percent of its foreign investment and 90 percent of its remittances. U.S. foreign aid still props up shaky countries like Colombia and Guatemala. But trade with both China and Europe has grown sharply over the last decade. And both big economies like Brazil and Argentina, and smaller ones like Chile and Peru, have experienced solid growth at a time when the United States has faltered. "Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs," as a recent report on U.S.-Latin American relations concluded.

The most neuralgic issues are not, in any case, economic. The one significant breakthrough that came out of the summit was an agreement between Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on labor standards that cleared the final obstacle from a pending free trade agreement between the two countries. The big issues that divide the United States (and let’s not forget, Canada) from its Latin American allies are Cuba, drugs, and immigration. On a trip to Latin America last year, in fact, Obama promised Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes that he would push immigration reform through Congress — an effort he later abandoned. But for all their recent maturation, Latin American countries are affected by U.S. domestic issues in a way that no other region could be. Latin America therefore suffers from the paralysis of U.S. domestic politics as Europe or Asia does not.

The summit showed that even Washington’s closest allies in the region have lost patience with U.S. politics, even as they sympathize with Obama’s unwillingness to risk reelection in order to help his neighbors. This year, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general elected as a hard-liner, dramatically reversed course and spoke up in favor of drug legalization. This earned him extraordinary visits from both U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. According to Eduardo Stein, the former vice president of Guatemala, Biden said that the United States was eager to discuss drug reform, just not at the summit, while Napolitano reportedly plainly said, "Don’t think of raising the issue at the summit." Pérez then went ahead and called a meeting of regional leaders, who could not agree on an alternative set of policies but decided to raise the issue in Cartagena. Pérez later said that drug policy was the only issue discussed at the summit’s final closed-door session.

This is, in fact, an important sign of progress. At previous summits, as Sabatini notes, heads of state merely smiled and waved, while donning guayaberas and issuing mind-numbing policy communiqués. This time they argued. And the U.S. president listened — a skill at which he is uniquely gifted. Obama stayed in Colombia for three days, a record in itself. Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, was quoted as saying that he had never before seen a U.S. leader sit and listen to other countries. And this really matters in Latin America, where memories are long for U.S. arrogance and condescension.

Of course, Obama thrilled listeners in the Middle East when he came to Cairo in 2009 and promised a new atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. The era of good feelings evaporated when Obama was unable to deliver what his audience really wanted, which was a Palestinian state. In Latin America, Obama remains enormously popular, but he may not have the maneuvering room to deliver on their issues any more than he could in Cairo. "The best he can do is sit there and listen," as Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, puts it.

The Obama administration has made some progress on Cuba, where Americans can now visit relatives and send remittances. But the U.S. embargo of Cuba strikes Latin Americans as an absurd anachronism and a testimony to the political power of Cuban exiles in Florida — which is exactly what it is. Immigration reform is one of those issues — one of the many, many issues — that hopeful souls believe that Obama will address in his wished-for second term. And drugs pose a catastrophic problem for both the United States and its southern neighbors. A former senior U.S. administration official insisted to me that the administration had begun a "paradigm shift on drugs," from a dominant focus on eradication and interdiction to a wider approach stressing alternative development, institution-building and public health.

The Latin American experts I talked to don’t see nearly as dramatic a change. Most favor the decriminalization of marijuana, an emphasis on treatment, sharp reductions in drug eradication south of the border, and a narrower focus on gangs and high-level operatives. But they don’t expect to see it happen anytime soon.

It’s good to have the United States nearby when Americans are buying the cars you assemble and the fruit you grow, but it’s bad when Americans are sucking up vast amounts of the cocaine you plant and transport. Guatemala, as Stein puts it, has become a "service station of illegality," its institutions corrupted, its streets terrifying. Guatemala has 41 murders per 100,000 people; the rate in Honduras is double that. (In the United States, it’s five.) Whatever progress these countries make is being undermined by an increasingly violent narco trade; they, not the United States, bear the brunt of the United States’ endless war on drugs. The weakness and corruption of Central American states is as much to blame as the U.S. appetite, but that’s only to say that any solution, or even mitigation, of the problem will require collective decision-making and action.

The heads of state at the summit in Cartagena agreed to refer the problem for further discussion to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Cold War body established by the United States to ward off Soviet influence in the region. The OAS is widely viewed as another relic of a bygone era of U.S. hegemony. The local media, according to Stein, described the move as something like "placing it an armoire with many locks." But things don’t stay locked up in Latin America the way they used to. The drug problem, like the immigration problem and the Cuba problem, will keep coming back, and one of these days the United States will have to find a way of dealing with it.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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