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.

Is Chairman Menendez the Right U.S. Signal for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, Professors of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

Fresh and credible allegations about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s bullying of Latin American governments and influence-peddling for political cronies raise further doubts about what Washington is signaling to the region – and the implications for U.S. relevance in the second Obama Administration.  Secretary of State Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is now a major architect of U.S. policy, and his activities and policies are an indication of U.S. intentions around the world, especially in Latin America, which has been the focus of much of the Senator’s attention.

Media reports have documented well how Menendez persistently intervened on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor to pressure the government of the Dominican Republic to institute port security programs over legitimate objections of local authorities.  When Dominican officials appropriately exercised their duties and pointed out that the donor lacked expertise for the exorbitantly priced contract, Menendez only turned up the heat.  This was consistent with an ongoing pattern of behavior.  In 2011, according to reliable sources, Menendez demanded a U.S. policy of forcing the government of El Salvador to fire a cabinet minister he did not like, clearing the way for the military to capture the position.  Earlier, when the OAS opened discussions on whether to lay out conditions for Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric body, he threatened to cut all of its U.S. funding.  A self-proclaimed champion of “democracy promotion” and “accountability” in Latin America, the New Jersey Democrat never missed a chance to criticize centrist or left-leaning governments.  Governments in the region are not the sole targets of his interventions:  Menendez has used his influence to intimidate bureaucrats throughout the U.S. foreign policy community into either supporting his initiatives or, at least, turning a blind eye to them.

Latin American opinion-makers grew accustomed to Menendez’s ways during his tenure (2010‑12) as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on the western hemisphere, but his ascension to the chair of the full committee from within Obama’s own party makes his voice – and style – much more important.  His influence-peddling for his buddies’ business interests – at the expense of other U.S. government and foreign partners’ priorities – can only fuel greater cynicism about U.S. preachiness on anticorruption and “democracy promotion.”  It also further risks U.S. relevance at a time that many in the region remain hopeful of a revival of President Obama’s short-lived emphasis on “partnership” in the “neighborhood.”  The investigations into Menendez’s activities may run into serious obstacles – many bureaucrats fear his ire, and will be reluctant to talk – but it’s already clear that his bullying and influence-peddling make him the wrong person for a leadership role in U.S. policy toward Latin America. 

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosur trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.