U.S.-Latin America: Lack of Vision from Washington Didn’t Start with Trump

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

A group of representatives from Latin America and China stand in a group

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) hosted representatives from China in late January 2018. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. leadership in the hemisphere has declined significantly over the past two decades – manifested in Washington’s inability to implement a comprehensive environmental and energy strategy for the Americas; conclude a hemispheric trade accord; revitalize the inter-American system; and stem the rising tide of Chinese influence.  In a recently published book, I argue that Washington under Presidents George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and now Donald Trump has lacked vision in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has allowed a narrow security agenda to dominate.  The most noteworthy accomplishment – the assertion of central government control in Colombia – was largely bankrolled by the Colombians themselves who also devised most of the strategy to achieve that goal.

  • President Obama’s rhetoric was the loftiest, and his opening to Cuba in 2014 changed regional perceptions of Washington. But he got off to a slow start, entering office when the United States was engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  His ability to devise a bold new policy for the Western Hemisphere was further stymied by an intransigent Republican majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term legislative elections.

Washington’s inability or unwillingness to act is most obvious in four key areas.

  • The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) represented an opportunity for leadership on environmental issues. The United States proposed many ECPA initiatives but did not fund them, expecting the private sector or other governments to step up to the plate – which failed to happen in any significant manner.  Failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or enact meaningful national climate change legislation also undermined its moral authority on the issue.  Carbon offset programs would have provided an important boost to ECPA.
  • Although the United States played a predominant role in devising the parameters for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, its own positions caused it to fail. It refused to give up the options to re-impose tariffs in response to alleged dumping even if there were alternative means (such as competition policy) to redress the impact of unfair trade practices.  Washington kept discussion of the highly distortive impact of its agricultural subsidies out of the talks.  As a result, the United States was unable to offer meaningful concessions.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) has also been a victim of U.S. neglect. Washington has pulled back from exerting leadership and, on occasion, has delayed payments of its dues.  The most effective component of the inter-American system relates to the promotion and protection of human rights, but the U.S. Senate has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.  The United States also rejects the binding character of decisions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, opening the way for governments with deplorable human rights records to question its work.  Latin American and Caribbean governments have also shown enthusiasm for forming alternative institutions to the OAS, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which purposefully exclude the United States.
  • China is now the largest trading partner for many South American nations, and it could conceivably replace Washington’s influence and leadership in at least some areas, including models for economic and political reform. The boom in South American commodity exports to China allowed governments to build up their reserves, pay off debts, and liberate themselves from dependence on multilateral lending agencies centered on Washington.  Chinese banks now contribute more money, on an annual basis, to economic development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean than do traditional lenders such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  Moreover, this lending comes free of the conditionalities often attached to capital provided by Washington based multilateral institutions.  China’s role in building ports and telecommunication systems gives it an intelligence advantage, and arms sales have given China military influence as well.

While broad policies and political commitment behind them have been lacking, Washington has run a number of security programs in the region.  This focus, however, has often turned out to be problematic.  The Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) did not resolve the myriad root causes of the drug trade and escalating violence in the beneficiary countries.  They were myopically fixated on a narrow, short-term security agenda with precarious and uncertain funding streams.  While Pathways to Prosperity and 100,000 Strong in the Americas exemplify American liberal idealism at its best, the lack of an overarching sense of purpose and political consensus behind them have led to both being woefully underfunded.  A vision for the Americas doesn’t guarantee Washington will have positive influence, but the lack of one will indeed prolong its decline.

March 16, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  This article is based on his new book, Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Routledge, 2018).

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