Obama’s Failed Relationship with Latin America

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Apr 29, 2009

President Obama left the summit in Latin America with Washington more isolated than ever before.

The reason: The stubborn positions the United States takes on the drug war and on Cuba.

When Obama first met with regional leaders in 2009, he recognized the mistakes Washington had made in the past.

“We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms,” he said. “But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.”

In Cartagena, Colombia, Obama failed to live up to this promise.

A genuine partnership of equals would mean heeding the overwhelming consensus by Latin American leaders against the U.S.-sponsored drug war and the isolation of Cuba. Instead, Obama dismissed Latin American criticism of his administration’s policies as caught in “a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War.”

But it is Washington that is in a time warp.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos pointed out that Washington’s insistence on keeping the embargo against Cuba and excluding the island from diplomatic meetings was itself a Cold War “anachronism.”

Obama categorically ruled out any changes to his Cuba policy, putting him in an uninterrupted line of U.S. presidents following the same general approach with almost nothing to show for it. The island’s Communist government has withstood 50 years of U.S. sanctions, producing little more than grave hardships for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Latin American leaders also singled out the drug war as a problem, noting that their countries bear the brunt of misguided U.S. policies.

The strongest critique of the drug war did not come from the region’s leftist firebrands, but from the conservative presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. Despite being Washington’s closest allies in the region, they are also the countries facing the highest rates of drug-related violence.

The drug war in Mexico alone has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 2006. Three years ago on a trip across the Rio Grande, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flatly admitted, “Clearly, what we’ve been doing has not worked.”

Obama’s recognition of the need for an honest debate about the drug war is a step in the right direction, but by the time he left Cartagena he only offered more of the same, including $130 million in further military aid to Central America.

This is a far cry from Obama’s position during his Senate campaign in 2004 when he declared, “The war on drugs has been an utter failure.”

With the drug issue unresolved and opposition from the U.S. and Canadian representatives over inclusion of Cuba at future meetings, the summit fell apart on the last day without a final declaration. The Argentine and Bolivian delegations left early in protest.

The United States risks further ruptures with Latin America due to its recalcitrant stances.

Latin American governments have increasingly joined together, establishing regional bodies that exclude the United States. They have also strengthened their diplomatic and economic ties with China, India and other countries from developing regions.

As long as the Obama administration fails to deliver on its promises of a genuine partnership, Latin America will continue to look for partners elsewhere.

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