By COHA Director Larry Birns and Carol Ciriaco
Following in the wake of President Barack Obama’s trip to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador in March, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton held a private dinner party on Wednesday, May 18, where she hosted six former Latin American presidents coming from Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Panama, and El Salvador. The dinner was part of Clinton’s newly hatched offensive in which she hoped to further mend regional relations that could, up to this point, be described as disastrous.
Although this country has always had some kind of presence in Latin America, as exemplified by free trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), it is perhaps better known for its infamous military intervention in countries such as Nicaragua, Chile, El Salvador, Grenada, and Guatemala. However, in recent years, the U.S. has become increasingly involved in the Middle East and Latin America has dropped from the nation’s list of priorities. Intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, and, more recently, Libya and Syria—where threats from non-state actors have arisen—has taken firm precedence over any kind of vigilance driven by intra-hemispheric disruptions. Consequently, the U.S. has largely reverted to an old habit of ignoring the Western Hemisphere in its attempt to live up to its “big brother” reputation.
As a result, the Western Hemispheric countries have turned elsewhere in their quest for economic partnership. For example, in 2009, China bested the U.S. in becoming Brazil’s number one trading partner. Brazil’s imports from China, in the form of manufactured goods and electronics, increased from USD 1.2 billion in 2000 to USD 25.5 billion in 2010. Similarly, Brazilian exports to China—mainly raw materials such as iron, soy, and oil—grew from USD 1 billion in 2000 to USD 30.7 billion in 2010. Following the example set by Brazil, Canada has also coped with the reduction in exports to the U.S. by diversifying its number of trading partners. At the Council of the Americas’ 41st Washington Conference on May 11, Canada’s Minister of Finance, James Flaherty, announced that Canada is heavily involved in expanding trade relations with Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and now China.
Interest in China is a recurrent theme in Latin America. During a recent interview with the Financial Times, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed his nation’s growing penchant to trade with China, stating that he is “interested in promoting more free trade agreements, and Asia is one of the objectives, because… Asia is the new engine of growth for the world economy.” Close ties specifically with the Asian giant are encouraged not only by Colombia’s status as a rising world power, but also by China’s use of “soft power.” Soft power, a foreign policy formulation based upon the creation of sustainable trade markets rather than direct physical control of nations, provides a form of relief for countries that have grown tired of the United States’ continual use of hard power, in which Washington projects its military strength in order for it to control outcomes in the Western Hemisphere. Although Santos assured interviewers that Colombia still regards the United States as a strategic partner despite its new relationship with China, it is clear that the exclusive one-up, one-down relationship America once had, almost by right, with Latin America is steadily unraveling.
In order to achieve Obama’s goal of increasing the upraised nature of U.S. relations with Latin America and Clinton’s goal of “reducing the inequality gap in Latin America,” the U.S. must push for increased involvement in the hemisphere, intervening, when necessary, to create independent nations first, and trade partnerships second, before it is once again bested by China. Furthermore, the U.S. must commit to new policies for Latin America and see them through while also striving to balance its involvement in the Middle East. Clinton intended for her dinner to be a step toward the vision she outlined at the recent Conference of the Americas, one for the U.S. “to consolidate democracy, embrace smart economic policy, continue lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty, taking on a more active role in the world, and generally making it clear that we are in this together,” but while her vision was commendable, Clinton’s actions are not nearly enough to make even a dent in the transformative scheme striving to improve relations in the Western Hemisphere.
The time for talk has passed. If the Obama administration really wants to reconstruct its relationship with the Western Hemisphere, then it must make its move immediately; it cannot waste time courting Latin American countries with fancy dinners and other similar near-frivolous attempts at mending relations. For while family problems can be solved over the breaking of bread, hemispheric relations require more formal, grand-scale forums where issues can be properly addressed and concrete solutions can be agreed upon.
Luckily, such an opportunity will present itself June 5-7 at the Organization of American States’ 41st General Assembly meeting in El Salvador. Expectations for the upcoming OAS meeting, titled “Citizen Security in the Americas,” are high not only here in the U.S. but also abroad. Minister of Foreign Affairs of El Salvador, Hugo Martinez, for one, believes that the U.S. has an inherent responsibility to provide the people of the Americas with enhanced security in order to ensure “the effective exercise of democracy, and through it progress towards a harmonious and supportive social coexistence”—a responsibility that he will surely hold Obama accountable for in June. Consequently, this grandiose event will provide Obama a long-awaited opportunity to introduce tangible and constructive plans for increased participation in the Western Hemisphere, beginning with a U.S. pledge to promote the safety of resident citizens throughout the Americas.
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