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New Era in U.S.-Latin America Relations Requires Action

SOURCE: AP/Evan Vucci

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, left, looks on as President Barack Obama makes a statement at the Summit of the Americas on April 19, 2009.

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The Summit of the Americas closed this past Sunday with a surprising shared sense of purpose among the 34 heads of state after debate on a range of issues, including the global economic crisis, promoting human security and prosperity, and fostering alternative energy development in the Americas. This degree of unanimity, however, had more to do with the hemisphere’s receptiveness to President Barack Obama’s clear mission at the summit—to listen to and learn from the region’s leaders and explain his administration’s vision for U.S.-Latin America and Caribbean policy moving forward—than it did with concrete agreements among the participants to combat climate change and promote economic development and prosperity.

Going forward, all the participants have some hard choices to make if President Obama’s statements on treating Latin America and the Caribbean as “equal partners” are to become more than summit rhetoric. The president succeeded in delivering on expectations that the United States would propose a new direction to U.S.-Latin America relations, but the hemisphere’s nations now need to give the rhetoric substance by acting on the agenda items of the summit itself.

President Obama faced several opportunities and challenges heading into the summit. The summit marked the first time President Obama met most of the region’s leaders, which brought with it all sorts of speculation about how he would foster meaningful and cooperative dialogue while avoiding any potential outward conflict with countries that have taken an increasingly confrontational stance toward the United States, such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Memories of the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina, when public protests against President George W. Bush dominated headlines, made making this summit a success all the more necessary.

This time, summit discussions covered several important topics centered on energy security, environmental sustainability, and human prosperity. Unfortunately, not enough time and effort went into these key concerns. The Final Declaration does mention how the hemisphere will seek to strengthen its commitment to these issues, but President Obama and his Latin America policy team conducted only preliminary discussions on their idea of an Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas.

Beyond inviting the hemisphere to voluntarily participate in the exchange of technology and best practices in alternative energy development, the Obama administration left the partnership’s architecture, scope, and ambition without structure—even though energy security and environmental sustainability were supposed to be the key theme of the summit. As a result, the Obama administration has yet to capitalize on the summit theme, though it is encouraging that U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu will seek to further the partnership in June at the upcoming Americas Energy Symposium in Peru.

More encouragingly, the Obama administration’s announcement of a Microfinance Growth Fund for the Western Hemisphere was appropriate and timely, especially as the global economic crisis begins to hurt the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Obama administration identified $100 million in initial capital and an ultimate goal of $250 million for the fund. And it recognized the need to recapitalize the Inter-American Development Bank, or IDB, to ensure steady flows of capital reach the region’s entrepreneurs, which is crucial to bringing about an economic recovery in the hemisphere.

More can be done, however, and $100 million is not enough for a hemisphere of more than 800 million people, large segments of which continue to live in stark poverty. Encouragingly, Latin America and the Caribbean are better equipped to confront this economic crisis than in earlier crises over the past few decades. This is evidenced by the region’s larger economies being able to make adjustments to monetary and fiscal policies in response to rapid economic deceleration. The United States should work with these countries—as well as partners in the European Union and Asia—to ensure that the IDB and other regional development banks and assistance programs are able to target those countries and segments of society most vulnerable to the economic downturn’s effects.

President Obama and his Latin America policy team also started a needed discussion on policies toward Cuba. By announcing changes to U.S. Cuba policy by lifting all restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to the island several days before the summit, the Obama administration was able to soften pressure coming from a myriad of the region’s leaders, both friendly and unfriendly. Any further changes, however, remain largely in the hands of the Cuban government to show a real effort to begin addressing U.S. and human rights concerns on the island.

Even though much as been made of the greeting and handshake between President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, there remain real and important differences between the two countries—and a handshake does not change or diminish any of them. President Obama initiated a dialogue to begin addressing these differences, but the president’s willingness to approach Venezuela must be reciprocated by real movement toward change and reform of Chávez’s increasingly autocratic and anti-American rule.

The overwhelming receptiveness of the hemisphere’s leaders to President Obama’s intent to change U.S.-Latin America and Caribbean policy to one of “equal partners” is encouraging. President Obama made clear that his mission at the summit was to listen to the leaders of the region and communicate a new vision for U.S.-Latin America relations. By that measure the president’s trip to Trinidad and Tobago was successful in introducing President Obama to the Americas. Whether U.S.-Latin America relations have actually changed as a result will become more evident in the months and years to come.

Stephanie Miller is currently a consultant on U.S.-Latin America relations and was formerly the Research Associate for the Americas Project on the National Security Team.

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