Analyze US Foreign Policy in Latin America under Barack Obama
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, Latin American leaders rejoiced in a collective wave of celebrations. After eight years of incredibly antagonistic relations with George W. Bush, the Obama election was supposed to signal a sea-shift in the relationship between the United States. Although Latin America had barely featured as a foreign policy issues during the presidential campaign, the incoming Obama administration seemed to represent a promising turn towards a less coercive and more multilateral relationship. Indeed, commentators highlight that Barack Obama had campaigned on a ‘soft security agenda’ (Indyk et al., 2012: 255), implying a shift away from the neoconservative years of predominantly military engagement with Latin America. Given this expectation, what is the track record displayed by Barack Obama’s foreign policy towards Latin America since taking over the Oval Office in 2009?
This essay will aim to provide an overview of US foreign policy towards Latin America since 2009. Given that a wholesale appraisal of Latin American foreign policy under the Obama administration would go beyond the confines of this paper, a focus will be put on three foreign policy dimensions: Ideology, security, and economic hegemony. First, as perhaps the United States’ oldest foreign policy problem with regard to Latin America, it will be investigated how foreign policy towards Cuba has changed or remained constant in order to shine a light on ideological foundations of US foreign policy. Secondly, attention will be drawn on the evolution of the US-Mexico relationship as well as relations with Colombia under Obama, illustrating the security dimension. Lastly, economic issues will move to the forefront within a discussion of the Obama administration’s position towards neoliberal economic policies in Latin America. In conclusion, this paper will argue that foreign policy under the Obama administration has not fulfilled its promise, although a number of differences vis-à-vis the previous administration can be observed. This conclusion will be contextualized by the recognition of the constraints faced by US foreign policy makers.
Obama and the Americas: An Overview
In general, George W. Bush’s two terms as president are seen critically with regard to their implications for foreign policy in Latin America. Buxton comments that ‘[the] Bush presidency remained out of step with a hemispheric shift toward a plurality of democratic models’ (2011: 33). Especially during Bush’s first term, its basic ontology entailed looking at Latin America through the prism of the war on terror. As a result, military options seemed to reign supreme over a more conciliatory diplomatic approach (Crandall, 2011: 92). This notion is echoed by Sabatini and Marczak, who characterize foreign policy in Latin America under Bush as ‘unilateral[ ] and intervenionis[t]’ (13 January 2010).
There is widespread recognition that Barack Obama raised considerable expectations of a revamped Latin America policy. Already during his electoral campaign, opinion polls in Latin America indicated that he was heavily favored over opponent John McCain (All Countries, 10 September 2008). Among Latin American leaders, then Brazilian President Lula da Silva commented that ‘it will be an extraordinary thing if in the biggest economy in the world a black is elected president’ (quoted in Erikson, 2009: 101). With regard to policy-makers, Obama’s proposal for a generally more multilateral approach seemed to elicit favorable responses, not only in Latin America, but globally (Skidmore, 2012: 43). Thus, expectations raised during his campaign as well as signals early in Obama’s first term indicated a possible deviation from previous policy.
Ideology and Cuba: Empty Rhetoric?
As a presidential campaigner, then Senator Barack Obama presented a different conception of future US policy towards Cuba. Speaking to representatives of the Cuban-American community in Miami, he remarked that ‘[a]fter eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future’ (quoted in Obama Cuba Policy, 23 May 2008). In concrete terms, this had a number of implications; easing restrictions on travel and remittances, allowing US investment in telecommunications in Cuba, resuming direct mail service, and renewing bilateral consultations on immigration (Lowenthal, 2010: 110). While representing small steps, these measures were regarded as a notable departure from the hard line strategy pursued by the Bush administration. An especially stark change was Obama’s suggestion of open talks with Cuba, stating that ‘it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions’ (quoted in Zeleny, 24 May 2008). This policy seemed to be consistent with the approach taken in other diplomatic quagmires such as relations with Iran. There was a discernible shift away from the policy of isolation pursued by the Bush administration and towards a more open-minded strategy.
However, these measures have not amounted to a change in Cuba policy commensurate with the expectations raised. In fact, one might question whether expectations should have been raised in the first place. In the very same speech in which presidential candidate Obama outlined his new approach to diplomacy with Cuba, he reassured the public that he would not be dismantling the heavy trade sanctions the US put in place in 1962 to embargo the Cuban economy (Erikson, 2009: 105). It seems as though the policies promoted and implemented by the Obama administration where focused more on their signal effect as a disassociation from the Bush era than on their substantial terms. Moreover, diplomatic relations remain icy. As highlighted by Lacey, ‘Obama’s carrot-and-stick approach of relaxing some Bush-era policies while continuing to denounce the Castro government on human rights has failed to engage […] the Cuban leadership’ (31 December 2009). With the elephant in the room – the economic embargo – firmly remaining in place, other half-measures cannot be considered as meaningful substitutes. If such tentative relaxations were conceived of as a door opener, subsequent efforts have proven not to be sufficient as attention was diverted to other, more pressing foreign policy issues such as Iran, the Arab Spring and China. On previous occasions, Obama has even been attacked by Republicans on his administration’s Cuba policy as not being transformative enough. In 2009, the then ranking Republic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, determined the Cuban embargo ineffective and called for the policy to be abandoned (Brice, 27 February 2009).
However, a number of obstacles remain which a successful transformation of Cuba policy would have to overcome. For one, the Cuban American community in Florida retains a sizeable, if perhaps declining, influence with regard to US foreign policy. Rubenzer has found that, in terms of campaign contributions, ‘a small but concentrated group of embargo proponents appears to have outweighed a much larger (but more dispersed) group of embargo opponents’ (2011: 115). Secondly, the situation has changed in legislative terms. While Democrats had control over the House at the beginning of Obama’s first term, they now have to deal with an influx of Tea Party Republicans who wholly support the sanctions regime.
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