The Obama Administration Looks to Latin America After Years of Neglect


By Tim Padgett

AS/COA’s Christopher Sabatini views the Obama administration’s sudden interest in Latin America as a way to leverage closer ties with the emerging markets in the region.

President Barack Obama is sending Vice President Joe Biden on a swing through Brazil, Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago later this month. Which means two things: first, the prospect of off-the-cuff gaffes in three different languages. (Memo: don’t call Latin America our “backyard” as Secretary of State John Kerry did last month.) Second, the Obama Administration is suddenly interested in Latin America and the Caribbean after four years of indifference. Obama just completed a trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, and early next month he’ll host Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala at the White House.

So why this sudden spate of south-of-the-border schmoozing? Even Biden calls it “the most active stretch of high-level engagement on Latin America in a long, long time….”

On the one hand, this development ought to make Latin America’s day. For once the region can feel as though Washington is approaching it from a standpoint of pragmatism instead of paternalism — “not out of geopolitical security fears or some sense of First World noblesse oblige,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in New York City, “but out of a realistic sense that it needs closer ties to these Latin American markets….”

On the other hand, Latin America can also be excused if it’s a little irked — if it’s asking the U.S., Why did you wait so long to make this outreach, if you really are making a genuine outreach? Washington feels more urgency to look south at the moment largely because of China’s increasing incursion into the hemisphere: annual China–Latin America trade exceeds $200 billion today compared with less than $10 billion in 2000. U.S.–Latin America trade may be robust. But this month Sabatini’s publication, Americas Quarterly, lays out striking evidence of U.S. decline…

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