An expert's point of view on a current event.

Adios, Amigos

How Latin America stopped caring what the United States thinks.


As Hillary Clinton travels through Latin America this week, the U.S. secretary of state will find it profoundly transformed from the relatively serene and accommodating region she encountered as first lady in the 1990s. During that period between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the 21st century, Latin America lacked the political stirrings, fragmentation, and disarray that now define much of the landscape.

It was also much more willing to hear advice from its neighbor to the north. In sharp contrast to the environment that prevailed when President Bill Clinton presided over the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 (when the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas was launched), today the region, led by Brazil and Mexico, is a rising force in its own right. Many countries have global aspirations and interests, and they expect Washington to treat them as such. The secretary of state is no doubt getting a taste of that shift as she visits South America’s Southern Cone of Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, as well as Central America’s Costa Rica and Guatemala.

To be sure, there is a reservoir of personal goodwill for Clinton in the region, as there is for President Barack Obama. Despite some disappointment in government circles, the administration remains popular with most Latin Americans, and Obama is likely to be cheered when he heads to South America for the first time in the next several months. But personal popularity aside, there are underlying frictions and misunderstandings between the United States and Latin America that are profound and growing. Building that oft-invoked "partnership" between Washington and South American countries looks harder now than ever.

The fissures began to show as early as Obama’s first Latin America event, the Summit of the Americas last April in Trinidad and Tobago. Many hoped that Obama’s appealing rhetoric would translate into concrete progress on issues ranging from economics and energy to drugs and the environment. Such hope, however, proved ephemeral. On this visit, Clinton is essentially batting cleanup. Nearly a year (and much diplomatic disappointment) later, Clinton will have to reassure key allies that Washington really is serious about pursuing common hemispheric goals.

In the year since Obama so eloquently laid out his agenda for the region — one that resonated with Latin Americans — common goals got sidetracked by disappointment over the Honduras political crisis, suspicion following a U.S.-Colombia military cooperation pact, and continued displeasure over the invariably divisive issue of Cuba.

Finding common ground on these issues has been especially hard because what Latin Americans see as matters of principle tend to get entangled in U.S. domestic politics or tied up in bureaucratic inertia. For the most part, Latin Americans wanted Washington to act more forcefully and impose a solution after the coup in Honduras; shorten, not extend, military involvement in the region; and end the fruitless embargo against Cuba once and for all.

The United States did none of those things. On Honduras, Obama’s administration was irritated when Latin Americans urged a more aggressive posture after they had been counseled to be more multilateral in dealing with regional problems. The administration was meanwhile getting flak from congressional Republicans, who expressed their displeasure at supporting a key ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez — Honduras’s ousted President Manuel Zelaya; key senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) held up administration appointments to make the point. Then, Washington was stung by the Latin American (particularly Brazilian) reaction to what the Pentagon surely regarded as a routine and innocuous deal with Colombia. And the Obama administration has been disappointed by the lack of any insistence among Latin Americans for democratic progress in Cuba. The frustration, it is fair to say, has been mutual.

Matters have been further aggravated by the sensitive matter of Iran’s involvement in the region. The concern is less about Chávez’s predictable anti-U.S. alliance with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than Brazil’s unexpectedly indulgent posture toward Tehran’s nuclear program. Ahmadinejad visited Brazil in November, and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is scheduled to go to Tehran in May.

As a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council, Brazil will have a say about adopting a tougher sanctions regime against Iran. Whether Brazil can be persuaded to go along with U.S. policy will be the biggest test of Clinton’s diplomatic skills this week, and perhaps the most important part of her regional tour. Her warning to Latin America last December — that "if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them" — is unlikely to help. For Latin Americans, such an admonition hails back to the old days of U.S.-Latin American relations and seems at odds with the spirit of the new Obama administration.

These days, most Latin American countries don’t depend on the United States as much politically; nor do they have to listen like they used to. Brazil in particular is not just a regional power but is increasingly assertive on the global stage. Within the G-20, Brazil is more inclined to form an alliance with China, India, and Russia (the so-called BRIC group) than it is with the likes of the United States, Canada, or even Argentina or Mexico. On Iran, Brazil wants to please some domestic constituencies who long for national greatness, while flexing its foreign-policy muscles to show that it can defy Washington’s attempts to set the agenda.

Iran is not alone in trying to take advantage of Latin America’s gradual metamorphosis and enhanced confidence in global affairs; China, India, and Russia are all jumping in. And though less worrisome than Iran, these new actors certainly pose a challenge to Washington’s traditional mindset and way of operating in the region.

But Latin America is hardly just waiting for others to point out the growing distance between itself and Washington; regional meetings and negotiations are also moving that way. Just a week ago in Cáncun, Mexico, Latin American governments moved to create a new regional organization made up exclusively of Latin American and Caribbean countries — and not the United States or Canada — to challenge the current Organization of American States (OAS), which does include them. Countries in the region have vowed to do this countless times before. In fact, several smaller groups have already popped up, including the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), headed by Chávez.  This time, however, it appears that the all-in Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations will actually get off the ground at next year’s meeting, to be held in Caracas. Although there are many doubts about the viability of such an organization — its mandate, for example, remains nebulous, and Latin America has hardly been a model of unity — its likely fruition won’t go unnoticed in Washington as a not-so-subtle hint.

What, then, will become of the OAS? The world’s oldest regional organization, housed in one of Washington’s most majestic buildings, has been particularly maligned in recent years. True, the OAS has always had image problems, but now they have become acutely visible — a reflection of other disputes now appearing the region. The many good deeds done (not least election monitoring and an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that has shone a necessary spotlight on violations of the rule of law) are slowly being overshadowed by mutual suspicions between Washington and its southern neighbors — decades after they first cropped up in Cold War days.

On March 24, OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza will probably be re-elected for a second five-year term. Although the Chilean diplomat has his share of critics — Washington Post editorials and a minority report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have accused Insulza of being politically selective in responding to democratic problems in the region — he is the only serious candidate and has already garnered support from major Latin American countries.

The key question, though, is whether anyone in the hemisphere is prepared to take the OAS seriously anymore. It won’t take much to keep the organization alive, despite its acute financial difficulties (the United States provides some 60 percent of its budget). But it is less likely to be useful in tackling the myriad, shared problems that afflict the hemisphere. With persistent irritation with the inter-American agenda — and with the emergence of a parallel bloc that excludes Washington and Ottawa — the main temptation of many U.S. policymakers will be to simply let Latin American countries go their own way and maintain only a perfunctory involvement in the region and the OAS. In many ways, this is happening already.

That temptation should be resisted. U.S. withdrawal from Latin America would be myopic and counterproductive. U.S.-Latin American country relationships, for all their occasional drama, require less and give back more than most bilateral ties that Washington has. The Americas’ economies are tightly intertwined, to the benefit of all sides. Most U.S. citizens, for example, probably don’t realize that their country exports as much to Latin America as to the entire European Union. Meanwhile, if threats such as drug trafficking and criminality are not tackled head-on, and jointly, they will imperil the entire region’s security, including the United States’. And at the end of the day, the United States and Latin American countries are neighbors whose similar values and increasingly shared cultures really ought to mean that it’s pretty easy to get along.  

Perhaps the shock of Washington’s first real (if gradual) "ouster" from the region in this new regional grouping should get the message across: The United States will have to jettison its often patronizing attitude and engage patiently in hard diplomatic work if it hopes to work with its neighbors.

These days, Washington’s quick and generous responses to the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile won’t be enough. Clinton’s visit to Chile indeed shows solidarity and sends the right message, gaining regional goodwill. But if the warm feelings grow cold, Washington will be left with a host of issues that are too pressing — and the opportunities too fleeting — to allow Latin American disillusionment to set in once again.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.