By Robert Valencia
On Thursday, May 19, President Obama took the bold step of publically proposing a solution to the current Israeli-Palestinian peace deliberations, reverting to the terms of Israel’s pre-1967 borders. In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and mounting Arab revolts against authoritarian rule throughout the region, this announcement has become one of the first and one of the most pressing of the international issues he finds himself confronting. This in turn raises the longstanding question: Will Latin America have a shot at becoming a major priority for U.S. foreign policy making in a post-bin Laden era?
Of course, Washington’s lack of attention toward the region is hardly a novelty. The war on terror arguably has become the administration’s main foreign policy focus in the last ten years, as Latin American affairs were systematically overlooked. In 2001, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former American President George W. Bush finally met to tackle illegal immigration and open their joint borders. But soon after the September 11 attacks in Washington, D.C. and New York City, a 700-mile fence across the U.S.-Mexico border was erected, sparking criticism from Latinos both in the United States and south of the Rio Grande. The fence’s creation was based on the misconception that the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks illegally crossed U.S. borders, when, for the most part, they came as legal residents.
As the United States’ interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan escalated into bloody wars, Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, and Brazil, began to steer away from U.S. influence by switching to leftist, or at least left-leaning, governments. In fact, most of these countries became vociferous opponents of what they deemed “Yankee Imperialism.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an unrelenting critic of Bush’s policies, served as a main advocate for the opposition.
This leftist shift consolidated the rise of regional powerhouse Brazil and the subsequent creation of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) and ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas). Moreover, other international players like Iran, Russia, and China began to wield increasing influence in Latin America by way of diplomacy and infrastructure development. In realizing its slipping stronghold in Latin America, former President Bush finally took the time to visit several Latin American countries during the last year of his presidency, only to discover that it was too late to convince the region’s leaders that they were not being forgotten.
Nevertheless, President Obama attempted to warm relations with Latin America in the early months of his administration. Case in point: Sixty days after being sworn in, he attended the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, stating that the meeting offered “the opportunity of a new beginning” for the Americas, even expressing opposition to the military coup in Honduras. Most recently, Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba and planned a trip to South America, traveling to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador—even in the midst of the Libyan crisis—leading some to believe that he might continue forward with his regional initiatives.
However, U.S. commitment to Latin America will hardly face the burden of proof in the years to come. The Obama administration must choose wisely in their replacement of Arturo Valenzuela, who recently stepped down as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs after a somewhat lackluster tenure in that position. In addition, U.S. trade deals with permanently violent Colombia and eternally corrupt Panama will be voted on by Congress and the Obama administration in August. This will result in a long overdue endorsement that will, for many Colombians, seal a pledge to Washington’s most strategic ally in South America.
Some of the administration’s critics argue that, almost conspiratorially, the U.S. is far more interested in sweeping Bogotá’s human rights derelictions under the rug in order to get ahead with its free trade wishes with Colombia. It seems as though America’s economic interests trump its desire to carry out a good faith examination of Colombia’s chronically spotty human rights performance in order to resolve the matter honestly. Also, the most urgent issue for the United States, when it comes to Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, is the war on drugs. In addition to the long-running Plan Colombia funding, the U.S. has pledged the disbursement of the Merida Initiative budget, allocated for USD 1.6 billion, to Mexican and Central American authorities attempting to control drug smuggling into the United States .
In this post-bin Laden era, President Obama must not only mend fences with the Middle East and capitalize global efforts with current and emerging powers, but must also overcome the stigma that correlates Latin America with a long-broken fixture swinging in the United States’ perennial “backyard.” He can begin to do so by extending a brand of prosperity and security that is more false than true, which will in turn continue to distress the United States with socioeconomic strife along the immediate borders of the region.
 STOUT, DAVID. “Bush Signs Bill Ordering Fence on Mexican Border – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/26/washington/27fencecnd.html (accessed May 20, 2011).
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Fellow Robert Valencia