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Assessing Obama's Latin American Tour

(Photo by Roberto Jayme, courtesy of Embaixada dos EUA.)

March 24, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama used the tour to hold up Latin America as an example of successful democratic transition, even if the Libyan crisis cast a long shadow over his trip to Central and South America. “It is a lesson and a hope worth bearing in mind in the context of recent uprisings—some accompanied by regime change, others by violent military standoff—in the Middle East and North Africa,” writes Nina Agrawal for the AQ blog in coverage of Obama’s Santiago speech about U.S.-Latin American ties. The president’s address in Chile, as well his trip overall, also sought to set a new tone in terms of how Washington relates to the region. Maximiliano Raide and Pablo González, co-founders of Jóvenes Líderes Latinoaméricana, note that Obama’s visit marked 50 years since John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress accompanied with pledges of development aid. “But these times are very different,” writes Raide and González. “The strained fiscal situation of the United States does not leave much room for generosity, at the same time that the share of trade with Latin America is declining in favor of Asia.”

For comprehensive coverage of the president's trip, visit the AS/COA Online Guide and's "Issues in Depth" page.

Latin America’s shift toward growing economic ties with China, in particular, has been rapid, as COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth points out in an interview with the BBC. “It’s a new day. Ten years ago, China wasn't even a thought in anyone's calculus with regard to Latin America." With that new calculus in mind, Obama framed the trip with an eye to the U.S. economy and, just before arriving in South America, released a weekly address “making the case for how economic ties with Latin America can help the United States get a leg up on job creation,” writes AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis. Brazil, Obama’s first stop, commands a fast-growing economy. “It's a huge market for the U.S. business community,” AS/COA President and CEO Susan Segal told Fox News.

During the course of the trip, Obama announced a number of bilateral and regional accords. During his stops in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, he championed pacts covering trade and investment, educational and scholarly exchange, energy, and an open-skies agreement. Pacts announced in Chile included education, trade, and—notably, given the backdrop of Japan’s earthquake-induced nuclear emergency—nuclear energy. Obama’s stop in El Salvador served as a stage for him to highlight $200 million in U.S. funds to support Central American security initiatives and combat organized crime. AQ blogger Julio Rank Wright touches on Obama’s words about El Salvador’s desire to unlock opportunities at home. He writes: “[T]he most significant point made by President Obama while in El Salvador was recognizing the importance of institutions and the need for constant reform.”

Obama returned to the United States a few hours early with pressure mounting over the crisis in Libya, sparking debate about the impact of his first trip to Central and South America. Criticism of the trip shows “a troubling—even offensive—stereotype and disregard of the region,” says AS/COA Senior Director of Policy and AQ Editor-in-Chief writes. “Suspending the trip would have deeply offended the region’s presidents and its people, a slight that would have continued to sting for several years. It would also have denied the serious mutual economic interests we need to explore and joint diplomatic efforts in the Middle East and North Africa.” New York University’s Patricio Navia comments that Obama’s trip had the fault of treating Latin America too much like a “homogenous region” and that, while his visit to Brazil (where he spent the greatest amount of time and visited two cities) was generally effective, other stops were less so. “Future presidential trips should be less ambitious in their reach and more country specific in their agendas and proposals,” he writes in an AQ web exclusive. “Trips like that will achieve less regional notoriety but will produce more concrete results.”