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Exclusive Interview: COA's Eric Farnsworth on Obama's Latin American Tour

March 10, 2011

U.S. President Barack Obama heads to Latin America from March 19 to 23, visiting Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth, who previously worked for the White House Office of the Special Envoy for the Americas, talks with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about why Obama chose those three countries in particular, the trip’s timing, and the Oval Office’s top priorities for the tour. “This trip can really show that the United States wants to be a stronger partner with the region and takes it seriously, recognizing the opportunities and seeing Latin America as a vital and strategic part of our own economic future and foreign policy,” says Farnsworth.

AS/COA Online: This is going to be President Obama’s first trip to South America. And he’ll be visiting Latin America from March 19 to the 23. Why is he going now?

Farnsworth: The immediate reason is because he said he would in the State of the Union address and this meets the commitment that he made in January.

But the longer-term reason is because the president hasn’t been to South America. And there’s a real sense in Washington that Latin America is changing. South America in particular is moving in a direction that is more independent of the United States. It’s important for the president to show specific attention and to prioritize the region, specifically Brazil.

There is one additional factor as well and that is that the timing of the trip is largely based on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff being still very much new in office. This is an opportunity to get the U.S.-Brazil relationship back on track after the last several months of the Lula administration, when many observers believe it lost some momentum.

AS/COA Online: You’ve given an indication of why Obama’s going to Brazil. Why do you think he chose Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador as the countries to visit during this trip?

Farnsworth: Well, I think the three choices that he made are very good ones. Brazil is a country that plays an outsized role both in Latin America and an increasingly important role globally as well. With a new Brazilian president in office, this is an early opportunity to set an agenda that can be mutually cooperative.

The onward travel to Chile is an important indicator of both the outstanding relationship that the United States has with Chile, but also an opportunity to showcase Chile as a model.

Chile has had an extraordinary year. In the time since President Sebastian Piñera was elected, the country experienced an earthquake, the miner rescue, and the first peaceful transition from a center-left to a center-right government under the post-Pinochet democracy. So this is a very important signal of the importance that Chile plays as an example for the region in terms of what can be done by a country with a strategic vision.

The reason he’s heading to El Salvador is also very much to show that the United States does not play favorites politically so much anymore in the region, and that having come from a government that is center-right in Chile he is now going to be hosted by a president who is center-left in El Salvador. Mauricio Funes is the first FMLN [Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front] president elected since the Salvadoran civil war—a president who is, by all accounts, pursuing a centrist, pragmatic agenda that is in partnership with the United States. El Salvador is a country that in the Central American context is certainly troubled by issues like crime and violence, but at the same time has a growing economy and a relatively stable political environment.

And so, if you take those three countries together, they really do show in a symbolic way some of the new trends in foreign policy toward the region, including an enhanced respect for the role that Brazil can play in Latin America and the world; the show of respect for what Chile has done—not just under President Piñera but over the last generation; and a real show of confidence in the center-left government in El Salvador, which is pursuing a pragmatic course.

AS/COA Online: Which countries really stand out as not being included on his tour, and why do you think he’s not going to those countries?

Farnsworth: Well, there is simply no way for a president to travel to more than just a small handful of countries. One hopes that this isn’t the only time that he travels to Latin America and that other countries will be able to be included in the itinerary next time. You have at least two countries that are going to hold elections this year—Peru and Argentina. For a U.S. president to visit either of those countries in the context of a presidential election would be complicated domestically.

The country that most people question in terms of him skipping is Colombia. And there are really two reasons why he’s not going to Colombia. The first is—and I think this is legitimate—that the next Summit of the Americas is slated to be held in Colombia next year and the president intends to participate in that. Speaking as a former Clinton White House official, that’s exactly why President Bill Clinton did not travel to Santiago, Chile, in 1997 when he went to South America, because the 1998 Summit of the Americas was in Santiago. And he came back for a separate trip to Chile. When he came back, he did so with a real focus on Chile. So at the end of the day, they actually did better than if he would have just added Chile as part of the overall itinerary. And I think the same case can be made for Colombia.

Now, the second reason, of course, is also relevant. And that is that every time you travel to a foreign country, you want to go with some good news. And with the U.S. trade agreement with Colombia still pending there is no way that he would have any particular news on that were he to travel to Bogota in March. And, therefore, it would be seen as an opportunity missed for him to travel there without concrete progress or a completed trade agreement with Colombia.

AS/COA Online: And he’s just met with Mexican President Felipe Calderón for the fifth time.

Farnsworth: And he just met with Calderón. That’s exactly right.

AS/COA Online: Obama’s traveling to Latin America at a time when it’s building up ties with Asia. There’s been a lot of discussion about that growing relationship in the last couple of years. How do you think that reframes U.S.-Latin American relations?

Farnsworth: I think this is a key question facing the region. Over the past decade, Latin America has found alternative partners globally, particularly China, which is changing the political and economic dynamics in the region and showing that it’s less reliant on the United States. And that’s actually a good thing because an overreliance on any one country or market means that if that market is troubled, then your own prospects are limited as well. So it’s good; every investment advisor will tell you that diversification is an important issue.

But what we’re seeing, in some cases, is actually now an overreliance on China. And that has some long-term implications for countries, particularly with large commodities sectors such as Brazil and Peru, that are becoming more reliant on commodities trade rather than less. And, therefore, they undergo a process of deindustrialization and relying on exports of primary commodities instead of value-added commodities. There are some very significant implications about what that means in terms of their development profile.

Having said that, in the context of the president’s trip, it’s putting pressure on the United States to realize that we’re no longer the only game in town. What’s happening is the United States is being outmaneuvered in a region that traditionally has served as a very strong economic and political partner of the United States. And so the president traveling there is recognition of this fact.

I think it’s no coincidence that the president is traveling to Brazil even before the Brazilian president comes to Washington. And at the same time, the trip is scheduled to occur before the Brazilian president travels to Beijing in April. I think this is a strong signal by the Brazilians that they still consider the United States to be a very important partner.

But Dilma Rousseff going to Beijing so soon thereafter means that now there is much greater competition in the region, particularly on the economic side, than we’ve been used to in the past. There are some real competitive pressures that are beginning to develop in the region for the United States. And to this point, Washington has largely been complacent. I think that this trip will begin to change that dynamic in Washington as the president really sees what is happening in the region and is able to come back and reflect that to his cabinet and to his administration.

AS/COA Online: With Obama going to Latin America, what do you think should be his top priority? What should he come back with as an achievement from this trip?

Farnsworth: I think that you can look at this through two lenses. The first is about what the specific agreements that he could come back with. You could name a whole host of these: increased cooperation with Brazil on clean energy; a show of support for Brazil on infrastructure and development in the run-up to the Olympics and the World Cup; and a real commitment to do something about U.S. agriculture subsidies. Also, a commitment to work together with Brazil on climate change and at the World Trade Organization to conclude the Doha round. Those are just some examples. But it’s a huge agenda on the deliverable side if the White House and the administration really want to go that route with Brazil.

On Chile, it’s more about specific ideas on cooperation and how to work together, for example, on outreach to the Asia-Pacific region, on regional trade integration, and global peacekeeping efforts. And, in El Salvador, the issue is primarily about a reduction of criminal activities throughout Central America and the reduction of drug-fueled crimes so that economic growth can take off.

That’s one basket. Those are the deliverables that people will focus on to determine whether or not the trip is a success.

But I think that the second basket is arguably much more important. And that is something much less definable. You won’t be able to say that the relationship with Latin America has changed overnight because of the trip. But there is a real sense in the region that the United States is overly focused on its own domestic troubles and that the international attention that we’re able to give is either focused on the Middle East or China. But it’s not focused on Latin America and the Western Hemisphere.

I think in that context, this trip can really show that the United States wants to be a stronger partner with the region and takes it seriously, recognizing the opportunities and seeing Latin America as a vital and strategic part of our own economic future and foreign policy. That has to be at the top of the president’s agenda, to show that, in a global economy with all the changes in technology and global governance and all these things that people are faced with every day, the United States remains the best partner for the region. I think if that message can be transmitted, then it will have been a very successful trip.