Latin America-News Weekly- Mar.24
Posted by the Generals on March 24, 2011, 12:45 pm
Subject: Mexico News WEEKLY March 24, 2011 |
NOTE: This first piece is beyond Mexico, but it casts light on US-Mexico relations.
Weekly Report - 24 March 2011 (WR-11-12)
Expectations exceed reality for Obama’s visit to Latin America
If Latin America needed any confirmation that it is not a foreign policy priority for the US, it received it during the first official visit to the region by President Barack Obama between 19 and 22 March. The UN Security Council’s approval of a no-fly zone over Libya was announced during Obama’s first port of call – Brazil – and he cut short his trip to his final destination – El Salvador. Sandwiched between the two he did deliver a keynote speech in Chile which, while it was very well crafted, did not live up to the promise, admittedly unrealistically high, of his appearance at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in 2009, consisting largely of a recapitulation of the message that there should be no senior and junior partners in the Americas but equal partners.
Although Libya, and the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, detracted from the visit, forcing alterations to Obama’s agenda and dominating the shared press conferences with Presidents Dilma Rousseff, Sebastián Piñera and Mauricio Funes, it did at least go ahead. In years past it might well have been cancelled.
The choice of destinations was replete with symbolism. Obama even accompanied Funes to the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a national icon who was assassinated for speaking out against repression by the US-backed Salvadoran army during the civil war, in a gesture to heal old wounds. He pointedly praised Funes for his “courageous work to overcome old divisions”. The venue for Obama’s main speech – the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago where, with US backing, the government of Salvador Allende was toppled in a military coup in 1973 – was also highly symbolic. Obama deftly dealt with a direct question related to US involvement while in Chile. He conceded that “the history of relations between the US and Latin America has at times been extremely rocky,” but stressed “it is important for us to understand our history, and to learn from our history,” without being “trapped” by it.
Obama chose Chile as the setting for his keynote speech to the whole of Latin America as it most closely embodies US democratic and free market ideals. He heaped praise on Latin America as a whole for its transition to democracy in recent decades, but on Chile in particular, arguing that it offered a model for the Middle East and North Africa. “At a time when people around the world are reaching for their freedoms, Chile shows that, yes, it is possible to transition from dictatorship to democracy—and to do so peacefully,” he said.
“Our original guiding stars are struggle and hope,” Obama said, quoting Chile’s foremost poet Pablo Neruda. “Now, I know I’m not the first president from the United States to pledge a new spirit of partnership with our Latin American neighbours,” he added. “Words are easy, and I know that there have been times where perhaps the United States took this region for granted.” He then pointed out that it will be 50 years this month since President John F. Kennedy proposed his Alliance for Progress - “even by today’s standards, a massive investment… But the realities of our time - and the new capabilities and confidence of Latin America - demand something different.” One stark “reality” is that the US does not have the cash for a comparable plan, and its retreat to “equal partner” is just as much an acknowledgement of this fact as it is of Latin America’s rising star.
Still, Obama made clear that he shared the overarching goal of Kennedy’s vision: reducing poverty and promoting inclusive development. For Kennedy this was designed to decrease the attraction of Communism; for Obama, as he made clearest in a press conference with Funes, it is designed to combat organised crime and insecurity and to reduce the attractiveness of migration. He extolled Pinera’s pledge to stamp out extreme poverty in Chile by 2020, and said that Funes had encapsulated his feelings when he told him in private, “I don’t want a young (person) in El Salvador to feel that the only two paths to moving up the income ladder is (sic) either to travel north or to join a criminal enterprise.”
Obama promised that he was committed to “comprehensive immigration reform” (a huge issue in El Salvador as 2m nationals live and work in the US), but progress on this front has been and will continue to be scant. In his most concrete offer during his regional tour, however, Obama promised US$200m to combat organised crime through a new Central American Citizen Security Partnership, a key part of which will be “addressing the social and economic forces that drive young people towards criminality” through a “Partnership for Growth” initiative to attract private investment to El Salvador. It also aims to strengthen courts, civil society groups and institutions that uphold the rule of law, and supplement the US$55m earmarked for the US-funded Central America Regional Security Initiative (Carsi) to combat drug-related violence spreading from Mexico.
Other specific promises made by Obama - on education and innovation - will be more difficult to measure. He said he would support Centres for Innovation across the region, launching a new initiative “to harness the power of social media and online networks to help students, scientists, academics and entrepreneurs collaborate and develop the new ideas and products that will keep … the Americas competitive in a global economy.” Piñera jumped on the idea, saying that “Latin America was late to the Industrial Revolution” and could not afford to be late for “this tremendous revolution, which is so much deeper - that of knowledge and information.” Many local political commentators were less impressed, arguing that it sounded vague and woolly. Obama also said he would welcome 100,000 Latin American students to the US in an exchange programme which will see the same number of US students go the other way (65,000 Latin American students are currently in the US; 40,000 US students in Latin America).
Obama’s Brazil leg
If Obama’s visit to Chile outlined his multilateral agenda in the region, the trip to Brazil was bilateral. It played well with Brazil’s general public, eager to see the popular president in person, but it achieved little in terms of establishing economic and political deals, and left Brazil’s political class largely dissatisfied. President Rousseff reportedly forged a good rapport with Obama, but this was not evident during their public speeches. Obama praised Brazil for its recent economic and political achievements, stressing that it had become a truly global player, but he did not give unequivocal support to Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Obama looked to justify the purpose of his trip, at such a sensitive time given the situation in the Middle East, to the US public by highlighting the potentially important role that Brazil’s economic bonanza could play in the US’s own economic recovery. In particular he showed interest in participating in Brazil’s energy sector by stating that “Brazil wants to become a major supplier of new stable sources of energy… the United States wants to be a major customer.” However, he failed to provide specifics as to how this would be best achieved. Rousseff pointed out that she hoped the US would address the current trade barriers imposed on some of its key exports; and highlighted the increased levels of cooperation between the two countries in various areas, including security.
This gave glimpses of the differences in agenda between the two countries being dealt with behind the scenes. On the economic front, it seemed that for every demand on Brazil’s agenda, the US had a counter demand. As Brazil attempted to push the sale of commercial Embraer planes to US companies, the US did the same regarding the purchase of Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters by the Brazilian military. In the energy sector, where Brazil is demanding that the US lower its tariffs on Brazilian-produced ethanol, the US urged Brazil to open up its oil sector so that US companies can participate in the exploitation of the pre-salt reserves. Finally, Brazilian demands of more openness in the lucrative US steel sector were met by US demands of openness in Brazil’s construction sector, which is expected to experience increased growth as the country prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
On the political front, the fact that Obama approved military action in Libya from Brasília, even though Brazil itself abstained from voting on the issue on the UNSC, was telling. While the two countries are willing to cooperate, they are not on the same page. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Lula da Silva (2003-2011) courteously declined an invitation to attend a lunch organised for Obama to meet Brazil’s former presidents. Under Lula US and Brazilian foreign policy increasingly clashed, most notably over Iran. Lula’s absence will have been noted by Obama.
All in all, while the visit was spun as a public relations success for Brazil’s new government, politically it was a disappointment. Perhaps Brazil’s politicians held unreasonably high expectations for the visit, and so were inevitably disappointed by their inability to push forward their agenda. Or perhaps more realistically, the visit reflected Obama’s main message to Latin America; his desire that its countries would now cooperate with the US not as “junior partners, but as equals”. In this sense Brazil should not expect any favours from the US without providing something comparable in return. As Obama pointed out in Chile “we export more than three times as much to Latin America as we do to China: our exports to this region will soon support more than 2 million US jobs.”
Libya was an uncomfortable backdrop to President Obama’s Latin American tour. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez led the attack on the UN resolution to impose a no-fly zone in a televised address. He demanded that the UN send a mission to Libya to negotiate a ceasefire and “cease the imperialist aggression against the Libyan people, the bombs and the killing of innocent people… Civilian victims are already appearing.” Chávez did not appear to require evidence that civilians were being killed by “imperialist aggression”; when confronted last month with more concrete evidence that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was killing his own civilians, he could not comment because he was “at a distance” and subject to media “misinformation” [WR-11-09].
Chávez’s proposed mediation was snubbed by Gaddafi, who also rejected a UN call for a ceasefire to enable talks to take place, and, as Obama noted, had promised to “show no mercy to people who lived in Benghazi”. Chávez’s laudable call for the Libyan people to be “free to choose their own destiny” would clearly not have been offered by Gaddafi to the inhabitants of Benghazi. Obama could have been responding directly to Chávez when he said that when “a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people… we can’t simply stand by with empty words.”
While Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega bought Gaddafi’s line that Libya was the victim of “crusading colonialists” seeking oil and not Arab democracy, and the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay criticised the UN-sanctioned military action, Chile, Colombia and Peru supported it.
The security arrangements surrounding President Obama’s visit caused further frustrations in Brazil. First the US delegation decided to cancel the much anticipated public address scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro’s central Cinelândia square, disappointing the public which was expected to attend en masse. Then, Brazil’s media reported that during Obama’s visit to Rio’s favelas, where security forces enforced a 3km security radius, there were some abuses inflicted on residents. To make matters worse, US security service personnel ruffled some feathers at the US-Brazil chamber of commerce: it was reported that they attempted to frisk four Brazilian ministers.
“In each other’s journey we see reflections of our own: colonists who broke free from empires; pioneers who opened new frontiers… todos somos Americanos,” Obama said in his speech in Chile. “No nation should impose its will on another. But surely we can agree that democracy is about more than majority rule; that simply holding power does not give a leader the right to suppress the rights of others; and that leaders must maintain power through consent, and not coercion. We have to speak out when we see those principles violated. Let’s never waver in our support for the rights of people to determine their own future - and, yes, that includes the people of Cuba [and, he might have added, given the timing of the speech, Libya].”
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