When Senator Barack Obama was nominated as the 44th and first Afro-American president of the United States on 4 November, 2008, the entire region witnessed a concerted series of celebrations, heralding the birth of a new chapter of engagement in U.S.-Latin America relations. Indeed, on his first appearance at the regional stage in April 2009, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas hosted in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama effectively improved the mood in U.S.-Latin America relations by unveiling a U.S. policy toward the region that was centred on the idea of multilateralism and equal partnership. He also uttered words that connected well with the region’s leaders when he said:
“I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past. There would be no senior or junior partner to this new engagement; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values”1.
The Summit also provided Obama with a vital opportunity to expand specific proposals made during his campaign. He highlighted two initiatives namely: “Energy Partnership for the Americas”, which aimed at forging a path toward sustainable growth and clean energy and thereafter he promised to increase aid to the Americas through targeted micro-financing, vocational training and small enterprise development2. Moreover, while the 2009 Summit was still unfolding, President Obama made a dignified pledge to seek “new beginnings with Cuba”, which had for nearly five decades not enjoyed diplomatic relations with the United States, yet the two are separated by a narrow sea straight3. Obama also declared that: “Fifty years of United States policy toward Cuba had failed and that it was time to seek a policy of engagement rather than hostility and isolation with the small island nation”4.
The Obama administration’s initial approach towards Latin America entailed greater emphasis on policies that aimed at poverty and inequality alleviation; citizen security and developing energy and migration initiatives. It also sought new approaches to narcotics and gun trafficking; immigration; increased multilateral cooperation with Brazil and intensified partnership with Mexico, the region’s two powerhouses. Arguably, these policies encouraged discreet and non-confrontational responses to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and new initiatives towards Cuba and Haiti, due to their wider international symbolic significance than pressing bilateral concerns5. This was a significant shift given the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba which had been in place since 1962 and Haiti’s socioeconomic reality as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Likewise, no one projected when Obama assumed the reigns of the U.S. presidency the extent to which Honduras, Colombia and Cuba would become important tests for his administration’s new policy agenda centred on democracy, multilateral cooperation and relations with Latin American partners. Honduras emerged as an unforeseen boiling point in U.S.-Latin America relations on 28 June 2009, when its democratically elected president, Jose Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup d’état, that sparked a series of reactions, with serious implications for U.S.-Latin America relations. The coup and its newly appointed interim government of Roberto Micheletti was condemned across the Hemisphere and the U.S. had initially condemned it but because of pressure from the Republicans in the Senate, the Obama administration ended up shifting from its initial position which was seen in the region as a commitment to multilateralism6. This shift in Washington’s policy became a major issue in the region given that for far too-long the U.S. has been known to use unilateral action when it came to Latin American issues.
On August 2009, the Obama administration further propagated mistrust in Latin America, when it was accused of unilateral engagement in Colombia, following leaked reports of the Washington-Bogota defence cooperation. The accord permitted access by U.S. military personnel, to seven Colombian military bases used for combating drugs and local insurgencies and was passed without prior consultation or adequate diplomatic groundwork with other countries in South America7. The Obama administration was also criticized internally by republican members of the Cuban American community for lifting a trade embargo on Communist Cuba and opening diplomatic relations with the Castro regime. This came as Mr. Rubio, a republican presidential candidate and son of Cuban immigrants, said: “President Obama has rewarded the Castro regime for its repressive tactics and persistent, patient opposition to American interests”8.
Moreover, Obama’s administration acknowledged that reforming U.S. immigration laws is a critical step in shaping relations with neighbours to the south. Thus, he promised his Latin American counterparts, particularly from Mexico and Central America that his administration would work on immigration reforms which would possibly provide a path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented Latino immigrants9. The Obama administration’s immigration reform proposals were a clear-cut illustration of his commitment to rebuilding America’s tainted relationship with Latin America. His administration’s immigration reform proposal is by far more benevolent and multilateral in approach compared to that of his successor Donald Trump, whose primary objective is to deport all illegal immigrants and build a strong wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he promised to make Mexico pay for. Diplomatically, this move could jeopardize the Obama administration’s efforts of improving the US’s relationship with the region, after they were tarnished during the George W. Bush era.
Nonetheless, President Barack Hussein Obama will likely go down in history as one of the most articulate, well read and intelligent presidents in U.S. and global politics, notwithstanding the few events such as the Honduras coup and the Bogota agreement, which put him at odds with his counterparts in the region. Internally, his decision to soften travel and people-to people educational restrictions for Cuban Americans that were tightened by the Bush administration cost him strong opposition from his republican counterparts in the Congress. Nevertheless, his initiatives on immigration policy reforms and the normalization of relations with Cuba mean that his legacy in Latin America may be looked back fondly by regional leaders, especially given his successor in the form of Donald Trump; a U.S. president seemingly ignorant about issues of common interest in the region.
Mr Sikhumbuzo Zondi holds a MA in International Relations from UKZN and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.
1 Obama, 2009, “Remarks by President Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas Opening Ceremony, Trinidad and Tobago 17 April”, Council on Foreign Relations, available at: http://www.cfr.org/americas/remarks-president-obama-summit-americas-opening-ceremony-april-2009/p19162, [retrieved: 15 March 2017].
2 Erikson, P.D., 2010, “The Obama Administration and Latin America: Towards a New Partnership”? The Centre for International Governance Innovation, pp. 1-32. Spencer, N., 2009, “Obama’s energy partnership for the Americas,” Latin Business Chronicle. March 23, Available at: http://www.as-coa.org/article.php?id=1545,[retrieved: 16 January 2017].
3 Zondi, S., 2017, “Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy in Latin America: A Scorecard”, Institute for Global Dialogue, UNISA.
4 LeoGrande, M. W., 7 March, 2011, “Latin America Policy in the Next Two Years: The Obama Administration and the Next Congress”, David Rockefeller Centre for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.
5 Roberts, M.J. and Walser, R., 2009 “10 Points for President Elect Obama’s Latin America Strategy,” Heritage Foundation Web Memo (January, 2009), available at: www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2009/01/10-Points-for-President-Elect-Obamas-Latin-America-Strategy, [retrieved: 24 March 2017]. Lowenthal, F. A., 2010, “Obama and the Americas: Promise, Disappointment, Opportunity”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.89, No. 4, Council on Foreign Relations, July/August 2010, pp.110-124.
6 Erikson, P.D., 2010, “The Obama Administration and Latin America: Towards a New Partnership”? The Centre for International Governance Innovation, pp. 1-32. Spencer, N., 2009, “Obama’s energy partnership for the Americas,” Latin Business Chronicle. March 23, Available at: http://www.as-coa.org/article.php?id=1545,[retrieved: 16 January 2017].
7 Shifter, M., 2010, “Obama and Latin America: New Beginnings, Old Frictions,” Current History 109, no. 724, pp. 67–76. Lowenthal, F. A., 2010, “Obama and the Americas: Promise, Disappointment, Opportunity”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.89, No. 4, Council on Foreign Relations, July/August 2010, pp.110-124. Weisbrot, M., 2013, “Obama’s Latin America Policy: Continuity Without Change”, Centre for Economic and Policy Research, pp.1-11. LeoGrande, M. W., 7 March, 2011, “Latin America Policy in the Next Two Years: The Obama Administration and the Next Congress”, David Rockefeller Centre for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.
8 Barkan, R., 2015, “Rubio: Obama’s ‘Concessions’ to Iran and Cuba Endanger America”, Obsever, 14 August, available at: http://observer.com/2015/08/rubio-obamas-concessions-to-iran-and-cuba-endanger-america/, [retrieved: 5 May 2017].
9 LeoGrande, M. W., 7 March, 2011, “Latin America Policy in the Next Two Years: The Obama Administration and the Next Congress”, David Rockefeller Centre for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.