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Obama and Latin America: Disappointed Hopes

Alex M. Saragoza
p. 7-14

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1In September 2013, the President of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), Merilee Grindle, sent a letter to President Barack Obama regarding the resolution passed by the organization of scholars dedicated to the study of Latin America. With over 7,000 members, and where roughly half of its membership is based in the United States, the resolution carried by a large margin. The wording of the resolution reflected a palpable disappointment if not disillusion among members of LASA with the administration over its policy toward Latin America. The tone of disenchantment in the resolution was magnified by the expectations generated by Obama’s conciliatory rhetoric at a hemispheric gathering in 2009 on the island of Trinidad soon after his electoral victory the previous fall. Indeed, the new US president’s statements suggested a fresh direction in the relations between the US and its southern neighbors.

2Instead, nearly five years later, the LASA resolution echoed the views of most observers of US-Latin American relations: that the Obama administration has basically neglected much of the concerns of the region and has sustained in many respects the policy errors of his predecessors. Belatedly, early in 2014 the Obama administration announced a new initiative toward Latin America entitled “Look South”, which essentially followed a time-worn path of neoliberal promotion; the policy intends to assist US-based companies to expand business activities in those countries with free trade agreements, in concert with the administration’s National Export Initiative.

  • 1 Miguel Tinker Salas, Latin America, Obama and the Year Ahead, Riverside, Latin American Perspective (...)

3From 2009 to 2014, the record of the Obama administration toward Latin America has contradicted the tone of his remarks at the Trinidad meeting. In that span, several incidents have disappointed the leaders of most Latin American countries, including on various occasions those governments generally friendly to the US. An early example was the response of the US to the military coup in June 2009 against the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. Subsequent to the coup, the Obama administration issued a tepid statement that failed to condemn the ouster of that country’s president by military force1. The Obama administration’s reaction stood in contrast with most of the international community, including the Organization of American States and the United Nations. Nonetheless, US aid to Honduras went on unabated via the Millennium Challenge Corporation (an institution set up by President George W. Bush), despite the fact that human rights organizations found a host of violations carried out by the post-coup Honduran military regime. Although the Obama administration later backtracked somewhat in the face of overwhelming criticism from both European allies and Latin American leaders regarding the forcible removal from office, the damage was done; the flow of assistance to Honduras continued.

  • 2 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2012, p. 222-227.

4Yet another example of the inept posture of the White House toward Latin America has been his handling of the relationship with Cuba. Initially, it appeared that the recently elected US President was open to a dialogue with Raul Castro in the wake of Fidel Castro stepping down as the head of the Cuban government. And those hopes were enlivened by Obama’s reversal of the restrictions imposed by George W. Bush on travel to the island by Cubans residing in the US2. In addition, Obama reinstituted travel by cultural and educational groups to Cuba, such as the so-called “People-to-People” program (albeit subject to federal government regulations and licensing). These changes in White House policy appeared to point toward a warming of relations with Cuba. Furthermore, in several comments Raul Castro had clearly signaled his willingness to consider a substantive shift in the relationship with the US; a move seemingly encouraged by the spate of free market reforms introduced by the Cuban leadership. But the positive aura spurred by those early gestures by Obama withered along with the expectations of a decisive improvement in the relationship between the two countries. Rather, the Obama administration has remained basically silent on the trade embargo and its evident fifty-year policy failure, and certain travel restrictions for US citizens also remain in place. In short, Obama has basically refused to engage Cuba in a serious way. In this vein, only the Canadian and US representatives supported the exclusion of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in 2012, which led Nicaragua and Ecuador to skip the gathering. Meanwhile, Vietnam and the US have full diplomatic relations and trade has surged between the two former adversaries, notwithstanding the more than 50,000 US soldiers that died in Vietnam purportedly to thwart a communist regime.

5In the stance towards Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, the Obama administration has been less than conciliatory in its relations with the leftist reformist leaders of those countries, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and Nicolas Maduro respectively. To what extent the US has been involved, for instance, in subversive activities against the three governments is open to speculation. Given the tense stance of the White House toward these governments, it is more than likely that intelligence operatives from US agencies are present there, but their role is largely shrouded in secrecy and scant public disclosure. Accusations of US involvement in abetting demonstrations against the Maduro administration, for example, can be easily dismissed as pandering to anti-Yankee sentiment by the beleaguered Venezuelan president. Yet, it would be naive to believe that US interests are not at play in a country that continues to supply a not insignificant amount of oil to the US The perception of the Obama administration has also been tarnished by the apparent complicity of the US in the opposition to the Morales government, leading to the expulsion of the US ambassador in September 2008. The Obama White House took nearly two years to restore diplomatic relations in 2011, but Drug Enforcement Agency agents were excluded from operating in Bolivia as a stipulation to the resumption of diplomatic ties. Still, Obama has done little to lessen the chill in the policy approach to these reformers.

  • 3 David Vine, “The Pentagon’s New Generation of Secret Military Bases”, Mother Jones, 07/16/2012, (ht (...)

6Moreover, the Obama administration’s expansion of the US military presence in Colombia has won the President few if any friends in the region, including earning criticism by Chile and Brazil, two of the most important Latin American countries to the US3. The move to widen military activities by the White House was rationalized by the tired policy of interdiction and enforcement as the main response by the US to the consumption of illicit drugs (in this case primarily cocaine) by the most lucrative market for illegal drug substances in the world, namely the US The concerns expressed by the region’s leaders to the augmentation of US military operations in Colombia (and elsewhere in the region), however, has fallen on deaf ears at the White House.

  • 4 The White House, Fact Sheet, The US-Brazil Economic Relationship, The Office of the Press, March 20 (...)

7In light of the past five years, the “Look South” initiative is less about a rapprochement with the region as much as it is a response to the growing presence of China in Latin America, particularly the huge increase in trade between the region and China in recent years, especially with Brazil4. In this respect, the Obama administration is evidently concerned with the encroachment by China into an area where US interests have long been dominant. Dressed in neoliberal clothes and trickle down assumptions, the “Look South” initiative has little to say about poverty reduction or additional aid to the region. The attempt by the White House to facilitate trade and investment by US companies into Latin America falls far short of expectations of a different direction in US policy that punctuated the Trinidad meeting of 2009.

  • 5 Greg Grandin, “How ‘the Nation’ Magazine Saved the American Empire”, The Nation, April 2009, p. 5-9
  • 6 Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Paul Taylor, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, Wealth Gaps Rise to Recor (...)
  • 7 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Obama Approval Down Most Among Hispanics in Past Year”, Gallup Politics, Dec. 20 (...)

8On the eve of conclave, the eminent Latin Americanist scholar, Greg Grandin, observed that the primary obstacle to a fresh cast to US foreign policy toward the region was the Obama’s administration's domestic political concerns5. Nonetheless, even in the electoral sensitive state of Florida, such concerns fail that litmus test. The majority of Cubans in the US no longer support the embargo of the island, and young Cuban-origin voters overwhelmingly voted for Obama in the 2012 elections. If Grandin is correct, Obama has unfortunately sustained to a large extent a parochial view of Latin America grounded in the past. Not surprising perhaps, as the administration’s list of key staffers and advisors on Latin America to the State Department and related federal agencies reflect several holdovers from the Clinton administration. Yes, that administration which signed off on NAFTA, that approved Operation Gatekeeper, and that supported the free market "exuberance" of Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin, which contributed to the worst financial crisis since the great depression, with particularly devastating consequences for Latinos in the US6 Predictably, remittances by immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador, and El Salvador, for example, fell dramatically as a result of the crisis, with dire economic implications for the millions in Latin America whose welfare is contingent on the monies sent by family members in the US With skeletons like that in Obama’s policy closet, combined with the White House record on the deportation of undocumented Latinos, it should come as no surprise that support among Latinos in the US for the President has declined significantly over the past two years. According to a Gallup Poll, the approval rating among Latinos for Obama dropped 23 points between December 2012 and October 2013, from 75% to 52%7.

9If it is true that domestic political concerns represent the main constraint on Obama’s posture toward Latin America, the US president maybe has good reason now to make a correction to his policy toward the region. His recent selection of a Latino to his cabinet may win the Democratic Party more votes from that ethnic constituency, but the White House should also consider a similarly bold move toward Latin America. Such a policy turn would confirm that Obama´s appointment of Julian Castro to his cabinet was more than an electoral gambit to bolster support among Latinos for the Democratic Party, as it faces a very stiff test in the 2014 mid-term elections.

10On the other hand, if Grandin’s axiom has merit, then maybe we cannot expect anything substantively new from Obama over the next two years when it comes to Latin America. After all, the language of the “Look South” initiative sounds a lot like the “Partners for Prosperity” program originally promoted by George W. Bush and Vicente Fox of Mexico over a decade ago. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama often invoked the notion of hope in his campaign speeches. Indeed, much of Latin America hoped for more from him when he became the President of the United States, but the region has received disappointedly far less than it expected. Latin America deserves better.

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1 Miguel Tinker Salas, Latin America, Obama and the Year Ahead, Riverside, Latin American Perspectives Publications, 2010 (

2 Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013, New York, Seven Stories Press, 2012, p. 222-227.

3 David Vine, “The Pentagon’s New Generation of Secret Military Bases”, Mother Jones, 07/16/2012, (

4 The White House, Fact Sheet, The US-Brazil Economic Relationship, The Office of the Press, March 2011 (

5 Greg Grandin, “How ‘the Nation’ Magazine Saved the American Empire”, The Nation, April 2009, p. 5-9.

6 Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Paul Taylor, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Washington, Pew Research Center, July 2011, p. 5 (

7 Jeffrey M. Jones, “Obama Approval Down Most Among Hispanics in Past Year”, Gallup Politics, Dec. 2013 (

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Alex M. Saragoza, « Obama and Latin America: Disappointed Hopes »Cahiers des Amériques latines, 75 | 2014, 7-14.

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Alex M. Saragoza, « Obama and Latin America: Disappointed Hopes »Cahiers des Amériques latines [En ligne], 75 | 2014, mis en ligne le 03 septembre 2014, consulté le 07 février 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Alex M. Saragoza

University of California, Berkeley (Department of Ethnic Studies).

Alex M. Saragoza est associate professor à l’université de Californie – Berkeley (Department of Ethnic Studies) et a été professeur invité à l’Institut des hautes études de l’Amérique latine en 2012. Après un PhD en histoire de l’Amérique latine réalisé à l’université de Californie – San Diego, il a notamment publié The Monterrey Elite and the Mexican State, 1880-1940 (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988) et coédité Mexico Today. An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic (Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio, 2012). Auteur de nombreux articles sur les liens entre question raciale et question sociale, notamment au Mexique et à Cuba, il travaille également sur les migrations latino-américaines vers les États-Unis.

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