Tim Kaine: Boon for Latin America Policy?

By Tom Long*

Tim Kaine

Photo Credit: Disney | ABC Television Group / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, may help her politically in the November election, and his potential influence on U.S. policy toward Latin America could be extremely important over the long haul.  Though Kaine’s Latin American experience likely was a secondary consideration in his selection, it is consistent with the role of the office of the vice president that has emerged during the Obama Administration as a center for serious policy initiatives in the Americas.

  • Kaine spent nine months in El Progreso, Honduras, as a young man working at a high school founded by Jesuit missionaries; he learned Spanish there and frequently mentions the period as formative. His approach to the region and immigration seems anchored in a focus on human dignity and belies an understanding of the difficult circumstances many there face.  El Progreso is close to San Pedro Sula, which has been a center of the country’s staggering violence and emigration.  In the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Kaine wrote that when unaccompanied minors arrived to the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers, “I felt as if I knew them.”
  • As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kaine has developed a rare policy focus on Honduras. He has pressed the U.S. and Honduran governments on issues of human rights in the wake of the 2009 coup.  In 2013, Kaine urged Secretary of State John Kerry for stronger U.S. support for elections.  Just two weeks ago, he called on Honduran President Hernández for greater effort on justice in the killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
  • Kaine has placed immigration policy at the confluence of foreign and domestic policy. He has pressed President Obama to halt “deportation raids targeting families and unaccompanied minors who have fled the rampant violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle.”
  • Kaine’s political rhetoric often reflects his Jesuit background, and his Catholicism-inspired references to social justice – and his warm welcome for Pope Francis – are likely to earn him an empathetic ear among many throughout Latin America.

Vice-presidential leadership for the Americas offers an important opportunity – and one that Tim Kaine, if elected, is likely to use wisely.  He has complained that Washington usually pays attention to Latin America only in moments of crisis, and has argued the region should get similar priority as China, Russia, or the Middle East.  He would build on efforts initiated by Vice President Joe Biden, who has chaired a “High Level Economic Dialogue” with Mexico and pushed for the $750 million “Alliance for Prosperity” in Central America.  Kaine would be an asset in relationships that often fuse international and domestic policy, slicing across the domains of myriad departments and agencies.  While Kaine’s personal interest and positive relationships don’t guarantee policy successes on migration, drug policy, citizen security, and development assistance as vice president, his language skills and reputation for treating colleagues with respect all but guarantee a warm reception from leaders of countries long aggrieved by U.S. highhandedness. 

August 2, 2016

*Tom Long is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Reading (UK) and an Affiliated Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.  He is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence, published last year by Cambridge University Press.

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

Inter-American Educational Exchange: A Drop in the Bucket

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Obama administration’s program for strengthening inter-American ties through cooperative education – “100,000 Strong in the Americas” – is now several years old and making incremental progress toward its stated goal of a multilateral exchange of 100,000 students between the United States and Latin America.

  • The latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that the number of Latin American students studying in the United States during the 2013-14 academic year (AY) rose 8.2 percent from the previous AY to 72,318 – the largest number to date and the largest annual percentage increase in at least 15 years. Mexico and Brazil now rank ninth and tenth respectively as places of origin for foreign students in the United States.
  • The most recent data on U.S. students studying in Latin America is less promising. In the 2012-13 AY, 45,473 U.S. students studied in Latin America, the highest number to date but a smaller annual percentage increase (1.8 percent) compared to the late 2000s.

Countries’ investments in such exchanges vary widely.  Under “100,000 Strong,” figures for U.S. spending are elusive.  In early 2014 the State Department announced the creation of the Innovation Fund, partnership grants that will be awarded over the next several years to strengthen collaboration between higher education institutions – including 38 grants totaling over one million dollars last year.   Mexican President Peña Nieto has introduced Proyecta 100 Mil, which in addition to sending 100,000 students to the United States by 2018, hopes to entice 50,000 U.S. students to study at its own universities.  (U.S. students in Mexico dropped from 10,000 in 2005-06 to less than 4,000 in 2012-13 because of security concerns.)  Both countries’ financial commitment to international education pales next to that of Brazil.  President Rousseff announced last summer the renewal of its Science Without Borders program, the first phase of which cost US$1.36 billion.

These programs, universally seen as laudable, have thus far let certain countries fall through the cracks.  Vice President Joe Biden recognized in his recent New York Times editorial that “inadequate education” is one of the barriers holding back Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which thousands of children have fled in recent years.  The development assistance portion of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion budget for Central American assistance is in part slated for strengthening literacy and vocational education.  Bringing Central America into the Innovation Fund program is a logical addition to the President’s efforts, yet Central American partners were notably absent in 2014.  Only one of the five grant rounds was open to Central American countries – where it arguably could have a greater national-level impact – and of the 109 recipient institutions of Innovation Fund grants, only two were from the region – and none from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).  That disparity suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric, education exchange is considered a supplementary tool rather than a leading means of bolstering development in Latin America.  While the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program deserves applause as a cooperative, multilateral program, it remains an underutilized tool of U.S. engagement in much of the hemisphere.

February 16, 2015

Haiti: Another Crisis on the Anniversary of a Crisis

By Emma Fawcett*

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cinco anos depois do terremoto que devastou o Haiti / Agência Brasil Fotografias / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Haiti recently marked the five-year anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake and missed yet another deadline for reaching an agreement on the country’s long-overdue elections.  On January 12, the parliament was effectively dissolved as the terms of all but 10 senators expired.  Without quorum or a new electoral law, President Martelly now rules by decree.  Many in the opposition, whose protests in the last several months forced the resignation of Prime Minister Lamothe, now also seek Martelly’s resignation.  Martelly has asked protesters to be patient, but some claim the electoral impasse is part of the president’s larger strategy for consolidating his power.  The U.S. Embassy in Haiti has expressed commitment to continue working with him and “whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain,” and hopes that Martelly will use his “powers responsibly to organize inclusive, credible and transparent elections.”  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Martelly by phone, reiterating support for his administration and acknowledging his “efforts to work with the Haitian parliament and political parties to resolve outstanding issues.”  On Sunday, the UN Security Council concluded its three-day visit by urging politicians to work together to ensure elections can proceed, and refrained from commenting on whether the planned cuts to UN peacekeeping forces would take place in June.

Although there is continued handwringing over how $13.5 billion pledged in earthquake relief has been spent, there are some signs of economic growth.  Capacity in the apparel and hospitality sectors has increased dramatically, priming the pump for further private-sector development, but the results to date are weak.  Caracol Industrial Park (in the northeast) and the Lafito Industrial Free Zone (outside Port-au-Prince) are moving forward, though Caracol has thus far generated just 5,000 of the 65,000 jobs it was expected to create.  Minister of Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin has pushed tourism hard to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).  Tourism was a natural outgrowth of earthquake recovery: hotels rooms were urgently needed first for relief workers, now for engineers and businesspeople, and eventually (Haitians hope) for tourists.  Pétionville, located in the hills above Port-au-Prince and home to much of the country’s elite, has received a remarkable facelift.  It now boasts several renovated or newly-constructed international class hotels, though guests remain elusive.  Some of the tent cities have been cleared.  In Jalousie, one of the slums above Pétionville, concrete homes were painted in bright tropical shades, designed to evoke the work of Haitian artist Préfète Duffau.  (Critics of the project pointed out the neighborhood has more pressing needs than cans of paint, and wryly noted that while Port-au-Prince’s hillsides are covered in slums, only those overlooking Pétionville’s wealthiest residents received cosmetic treatment.)

Despite the political uncertainties and stalled reconstruction efforts, there is a sense among Haitian and international private-sector actors that moving forward is “now or never.”  Many point to Martelly’s unprecedented focus on attracting FDI and willingness to create incentive frameworks.  In field interviews, investors in Haiti and neighboring countries speak of hope that the country’s natural, cultural, and historical resources will make it a viable destination – as well as hope that U.S. and other foreign backing continues to expand the apparel and tourism sectors.  There are enormous challenges ahead, to be sure, compounded by the political crisis and potential for instability.  The government-led strategic planning process has been described as “opaque” and “accelerated” without much room for consultation with either the private sector or local communities.  Carnival Cruise Lines’ plans to build a new port on Ǐle de la Tortue have become mired in land tenure issues.  And inclusive growth – strategically targeted and yet expansive enough to lift Haitians out of poverty – will be hard to come by without improved institutional capacity, made all the more difficult by the events of the last three weeks. 

January 29, 2015

* Emma Fawcett is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at American University.

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Executive Action, Central American Presidents and the Fate of the Unaccompanied Minors

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Speculation abounds in Washington as to the content of the long-awaited Executive Actions that the Obama administration has promised to decree amidst the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  Having resisted pressure from Latino constituents and immigrant rights advocates to act before the mid-term election, in a vain effort to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbent Senators who lost their bids for re-election anyway, the administration now seems poised to announce new measures as early as the end of this week.  Press accounts based on leaks from within the Executive Branch speculate that as many as five or six million undocumented migrants may see their vulnerability to deportation diminish as a result of the impending policy changes.  Barack Obama’s Republican antagonists are fulminating about the consequences if he makes good on his promise, with some pondering ways to shut down the government or impeach the President, and others, fearful that a particularly intemperate response could damage the Republican brand, particularly given the need to attract at least a third of the Latino vote to the candidacy of whomever is chosen as the 2016 GOP presidential candidate, allude to the likelihood of court challenges to what they deem an extreme instance of Executive overreach.

One unanticipated but welcome measure that has been announced publically is that children deemed vulnerable to the violence in the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America will be able to apply to be reunited with parents residing legally in the U.S.  This policy shift, announced during the visit to Washington last week by Presidents Otto Pérez Molina, Salvador Sánchez Ceren and Juan Orlando Hernández, is among the administration’s responses to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year or so: 68,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the border during Fiscal Year 2014.  For their part, together with Vice President Joseph Biden at the Inter-American Development Bank, on November 14 the three Central American Presidents pledged to launch an Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, with the objective of overcoming the conditions of economic misery, social vulnerability and institutional deficiencies that propelled the wave of migration of recent years and that have the potential to motivate a renewed flow of arrivals.  Biden offered an enthusiastic endorsement, but aside from reminding those in attendance that the administration had requested $3.7 billion from the Congress in response to last summer’s “crisis,” he did not offer specific commitments of resources, which of course are unlikely to be forthcoming from the strong Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.  Nor did the Presidents make tangible commitments to build states capable of protecting the basic rights to life chances and security that are so remarkably absent for many of their countries’ inhabitants.

Assessing the likelihood of continued surges in migration requires understanding the factors that propelled the flow of people across the border in recent years.  A newly released study* by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, funded by the Ford Foundation, provides essential data and analysis on the drivers of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and on the fate of children and families who have arrived in the U.S. from those countries over the past year.  A core message of the report is that the absence of fundamental pre-conditions for living their lives with dignity – education, jobs, and most of all protection from violence – compels people to migrate rather than seek to better their lot in their communities of origin.  In the long run, only dramatic reforms undertaken by Central American states will build the institutions needed to address the basic needs of their populations and to provide the minimal levels of security needed for them to live their lives in dignity at home.  Perhaps little that was agreed upon during the Presidents’ visit to Washington gives cause for great optimism, but it is our hope that the CLALS study points the way toward solutions to the region’s crisis and toward ensuring the protection of those who endured the perilous journey to the U.S. border and now find themselves in limbo in the U.S.

 *To download a free copy of the full report, click here.

November 19, 2014

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

The Snowden Case: Provocations and Intimidation

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

The rhetoric and diplomatic jostling surrounding the flight of American whistleblower (or, depending on perspective, criminal leaker) Edward Snowden have once again thrust to the fore Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region.  Some Latin American presidents have seemed to go out of their way to prick U.S. sensitivities, and Washington seems to have gone out of its way to stomp on Latin American sensitivities.  Both sides have been happy to live up to the caricatures of themselves held by the other, but both sides’ interests have been harmed in the process.

The drama started, of course, while Snowden was in hiding in Hong Kong, and it has dragged on as he’s resided in a transit lounge of the Moscow airport.  U.S. media, which in the past have published stories casting Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others as eager to poke the U.S. in the eye, ran pieces – shifting attention to Latin America – and away from China and Russia’s even bigger slap in Washington’s face in refusing to hand the leaker over.  Reporters believed their own rumors and piled into an Aeroflot plane bound for Cuba.  Washington rolled out the big guns, including Vice President Biden, to discourage the Latin Americans from offering Snowden any help – and seemed to have success.  Ecuador, which has protected Wikileaks boss Julian Assange from British, Swedish and U.S. pursuit, initially welcomed Snowden but, after a phone call from Washington, pointed out that an asylum petition could not be considered until he arrived in country.  The crisis between the U.S. and Latin America deepened, however, when several European countries – presumably responding to U.S. pressure and bad U.S. intelligence – closed their airspace to Bolivian President Morales, who someone, somewhere, suspected of flying Snowden out of Moscow on the president’s return home.  Latin American condemnation exploded.

Venezuelan President Maduro, stating that that he wanted “to protect this young man from the persecution unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” publicly offered Snowden asylum on Friday.  That move ended the slight progress Caracas and Washington had made toward rapprochement– evident since the OAS General Assembly in June – and bilateral relations will surely worsen.  But the Obama Administration’s relations with Latin America writ large don’t appear likely to fare much better.  Some leaders’ rhetoric may be over the top, but Washington’s language has been threatening, and its actions speak louder than its words.  An unidentified senior U.S. official told the New York Times that “there is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point,” adding that any aid for Mr. Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.” Such statements leave one wondering whether we are approaching the point where this administration will cease proclaiming its commitment to a new era of US-Latin America relations characterized by partnership and respect among equals.  Transcripts of Mr. Biden’s calls will not be released, but rarely do countries reverse their positions publicly in the absence of either serious threats or generous inducements – and few clear-thinking Ecuadorans, tracking the Administration’s attitudes toward President Correa, see the latter as in the cards.  In pressuring its European allies to establish a no-fly zone to keep a head of state from returning home, Washington took an action that many Latin Americans – not without a grain of truth – believe it would never take against a region that it respected.  Repairing the damage of el asunto Snowden will be hard for both sides, but Washington has the bigger task ahead.

 

U.S.-China: Competing over Central America and the Caribbean?

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

The recent visits to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama (and Vice President Biden to Trinidad and Tobago) suggest a handoff from Washington to Beijing of the role as the region’s sugar-daddy, but not a strategic shift in influence.  The presidents’ visits were similar in their innocuous itineraries.  Both got pompous welcomes; met with “real” citizens (Xi ate empanaditas de chiverre with a coffee farmer); and praised the bilateral relationships.  Both held sub-regional summits – Obama in San José and Xi in Port of Spain.  Both repackaged ongoing or recently negotiated projects as new “accords.”  Obama pledged another $150 million a year for funding the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), part of the strategy started under President Bush to counter the drug trade and related threats.  Xi got headlines in Costa Rica for providing more than $1.5 billion for refinery and road projects and to purchase replacement taxis and buses from Chinese manufacturers.  Significantly, China is also building Costa Rica’s new National Police Academy – the sort of project Washington used to thrive on.

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Despite the similarities, the visits had different orientations and feel.  Xi’s principal task appeared to be to open his checkbook, while Obama’s main deliverable was a policy shift – the welcome word that Washington was pulling back from making its top regional priority the interdiction of narcotics produced in South America and transiting the isthmus on their way to consumers in the United States.  According to press reports, despite the continued CARSI funding, Obama had absorbed Costa Rican President Chinchilla’s complaint last year at a summit with Biden that it was unfair that Central Americans were dying in efforts to stop narcotics that Americans use.  The media tried to give the two presidents equal coverage, but the disparity became obvious.  The Chinese distributed copies of the China Daily (in English) even into the San José suburbs, whereas Obama didn’t need to do his own publicity.  Despite whiffs of resentment about airport and street closures, the papers covered all of Obama’s events with affectionate quotes from government and common folk alike – and showed people, including a kid dressed as Spider-Man, waving to his motorcade.  La Nación, on the other hand, reported that school children cheering a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The goodies each president brought created little excitement – and no small amount of skepticism.  Important details about China’s offer to help repair the Costa Rican gasoline refinery remain unknown, and Chinese cars already have a bad reputation.  China’s handouts aren’t going to be turned down, of course, and Xi’s pledge to buy more Costa Rican coffee (now about 5 percent of what Japan buys) and to encourage Chinese tourists to travel to the country (now a micro-percentage of visitors) are welcome.  Obama’s CARSI funding looks like bureaucracy on autopilot.  Few Central Americans can cite concrete benefits from the seven-year-old Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States either, and the general impression – reinforced by Secretary Kerry’s recent reference to the region as the U.S. “backyard” – is that Washington is yielding the playing field to China.  But the natural ties and strategic mutual interests between Central America and the United States remain strong and give the United States, should it wish to fill it, ample space to play a positive role in the region’s future beyond programs on autopilot.

Obama’s Second Trip to Central America

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

The White House has cast President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Central America on May 2-4 as “an opportunity for the President to demonstrate his leadership in the international community in a really important way.”  The spokesman emphasized the “important people-to-people ties” between the United States and Central America because “there are a lot of immigrants” from the region.  The Administration’s press releases stress that the summit in San José, with the presidents of the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic under the rubric of the Central American Integration System (SICA), will focus on collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in the region and on “our ongoing collaboration on citizen security.”

Regional reaction to the visit and summit has been positive – Obama’s interest is clearly welcome – but leaders are already managing expectations.  Costa Rican Foreign Minister Castillo last weekend cautioned that the United States is not able to provide significant new assistance for either economic or security programs.  Commentators note that the visit has not been preceded by the sort of diplomatic activity that would indicate the rollout of significant new policies or programs.

At a summit in Guatemala with Vice President Biden one year ago, Costa Rican President Chinchilla crystalized regional criticism of the U.S. counternarcotics strategy when she said that Central America “is sacrificing the lives, making its enormous sacrifice” and, in a clear reference to Washington, called on the “international community [to] take greater co-responsibility in this struggle.”  Hosting the SICA summit with Obama suggests she is prepared to put such criticism aside, perhaps in hopes that talks focus on the economic and immigration issues.  The White House spokesman’s reference to immigrants – at a time that Obama is pushing ahead with related legislation – may indicate that immigration will be a primary concern for him also.  The last time Obama went to Latin America, for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, he seemed ill-prepared for criticism of U.S. policies, including its counternarcotics strategy, even from Washington’s closest friends.  With perhaps the exception of Nicaraguan President Ortega, the participants in this Central American get-together seem less likely to deliver a similar grilling, making what diplomats call a “successful meeting” very likely.