In her four-year term, Hillary Clinton has not only been the State Department's most traveled secretary of state in history, she's also been a frequent flier to Latin America and the Caribbean. In 22 trips to the region (including Canada), she traveled to 31countries.
Can we expect the same level of attention from secretary of state nominee, Senator John Kerry? Not likely, though that may not be a bad thing.
By 2008, U.S. political capital in the region was badly damaged. In the first four years of President George W. Bush's administration, a number of high-level government officials made little effort to hide their preferences for specific candidates or parties in elections in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela, violating a long-standing policy – in place since the presidency of President Bush's father – to support the process of democratic elections regardless of their outcomes. Moreover the brief embrace of the seizure of power in Venezuela during the confusion that erupted on April 11, 2002 after troops, acting on orders from President Hugo Chávez, fired on protestors – further inflaming regional suspicions that the U.S. was up to its old habits of interventionism in the region.
While the Bush Administration course-corrected in its later years, the perception and lingering suspicion remained.
For many, inside and outside the United States, the election of President Barack Obama was an opportunity to reset the relationship. But politics in the region had changed too much. A new generation of populist presidents in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the so-called ALBA alliance, (largely as a means to assert their own sovereignty) refused to let the old suspicions die. At the same time, concerns about their intentions, within their own countries and outside of it, remained, irrespective of the party in the White House.
President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, did bring a new tone that helped smooth over relations, especially with the other countries in the hemisphere, but there was no going back to the days of regional consensus and partnership with the United States that had marked relations under President Bush (father) and President Clinton (husband).
In the early years of the administration, Clinton tried. She travelled with President Obama to the Summit of the Americas in April 2009 in Trinidad and Tobago and went to the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in June the same year. But these high-level efforts did not reward her efforts, nor did the subsequent trip to the Summit of the Americas in Colombia last year. Chávez and several other countries friendly to his project turned these into platforms to embarrass the United States rather than focus on concrete problems such as security and development that were on the agendas. Most of the real work on issues near and dear to her heart was done on her bilateral trips.
It was Secretary Clinton’s personal interest and dedication to development and social inclusion that drove her engagement in much of the region and will differentiate her foreign policy from any future tenure under Senator Kerry. Since her time as First Lady, Secretary Clinton has shown a deep commitment to health, women’s rights and economic empowerment issues. Development issues became a centerpiece of her visits whether it was women's leadership in Peru, economic empowerment in Colombia and of course Haiti, which she visited four times. Her commitment to social inclusion also led to the creation of a social inclusion division within the Western Hemisphere Bureau.
In contrast, Senator Kerry has shown little interest in the sorts of development issues that would make him look south. While on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in his capacity as a special emissary for the Obama administration, his focus has been on the traditional areas and themes of U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.
None of this is to say that, should he become Secretary of State, Senator Kerry will ignore the region nor that he won’t bring special skills that are relevant to the hemisphere. For one, it is quite likely that several crises in the region will force him to become involved, among them the challenge of narcotics trafficking and security in Mexico and Central America, the complex political transition in the midst of high levels of polarization in Venezuela, and the process of change in Cuba –coming in part from the possible (though never certain) death of Fidel Castro (who is 86) and/or Raúl (who is 81).
For another, the prism of development may not be the most appropriate approach to a changed region. The existence of the Venezuela-led ALBA countries and the economic and diplomatic rise of Brazil could well benefit from diplomatic tools and approaches from other regions. The question then is: Given all the pressing issues on any secretary of state’s agenda, when and why will he need to look south?
Christopher Sabatini is Senior Director of Policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, Editor-in-Chief of "Americas Quarterly" and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.