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Is Obama’s Latin America Policy Finally on Track?

Is Obama’s Latin America Policy Finally on Track?

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue is one of the more astute observers of Latin American affairs in Washington. His analyses are usually a reliable barometer on the prevailing inside-the-Beltway sentiment on U.S.-Latin America relations. The concluding paragraph of his recent article on the Obama administration’s failed policy to develop good relations with Ecuador’s obstreperous President Rafael Correa thus merits particular attention.

Shifter writes:

In the second Obama administration, a slight shift can be discerned. U.S. officials now appear somewhat less inclined to invest scarce diplomatic resources in repairing relations with Ecuador and other unfriendly governments. Rather, the focus is on deepening ties with allies in the region, especially Pacific Alliance members — Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile — and, of course, Brazil, given its strategic importance.

If that is the case, it would mark a huge and welcome turnaround in U.S. policy toward Latin America. For five years, administration policy has been just that: squandering scarce diplomatic resources in a misguided effort to establish normal relations with the region’s leftist leaders (presumably as a way to expiate the historical sins of the United States in Latin America — real and imagined — or at least deny justification for these populists’ anti-American behavior.) 

Now, the administration should not be begrudged for at least making the effort in its first few months. The problem is that the administration clung to this policy long after it became painfully clear that governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia had no interest in reciprocating. The result being that, rather than leading to any moderation of these governments’ behavior, it only emboldened them to further trample on democratic institutions, concentrate power, and openly snub U.S. attempts to cooperate on important issues like counter-narcotics.

I have written repeatedly on Shadow Government that U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere are best served instead by embracing those countries that have made the choice to look forward rather than backward and pursue (at some cost internally) an outward-looking trade regime.

Clearly, there is not much time left in this administration, but late is better than never. Last week, it announced an encouraging new initiative "Look South," which is described as "a coordinated federal government effort" help U.S. companies do business with Mexico and the other 10 partners with which the United States has free trade agreements in Latin America.

Indeed, the best answer to the mess of pottage that the Rafael Correas of the region are offering their citizens is to demonstrate the tangible benefits of democratic pluralism, open economies, and free trade. Admittedly, countering demagoguery is not easy, but the laws of economics have a way of exposing these false messiahs — witness the disaster that Venezuela is today. The administration needs to help demonstrate that there is indeed an alternative; it is not easy, but it does work if countries are willing to make the commitment.

This is not to argue that the United States should ignore what is going on in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Whether the administration likes it or not, democrats abroad look to the United States for solidarity when their fundamental rights are being trampled on by their governments. The administration needs to speak out on principle in order to provide some semblance of international scrutiny to the anti-democratic actions of these populist governments; the returns will be worth it.