In 2007 George W Bush traveled to Latin America to bolster the United States’ image in the region by focusing on poverty reduction and security initiatives. There were a number of mass protests and after his visit to some sacred Mayan ruins in Guatemala a group of indigenous Mayans felt the need to purify the site to eliminate Mr Bush’s “bad spirits”. The image of the US in Latin America remained poor. According to Latinobarómetro, the Chilean polling firm, in 2007 46% of Latin Americans felt that the United States was either a “negative” or “very negative” force in the region.
Last week Barack Obama made his first official visit to Latin America. He spoke about business, trade and Latin America’s importance to the US economy. He brought his family (including his mother-in-law) and visited the infamous Cidade de Deus favela in Brazil, kicking a soccer ball around with a group of young students and waving to residents who had waited hours to get a glimpse of America’s first black president. The images were striking. US popularity is on the rise. A new report from Latinobarómetro shows that in 2010 67% of Latin Americans viewed the United States as a “positive” or “very positive” force in the region.
While many commentators have criticized the lack of substance in Obama’s visit—indeed, there was no progress on trade initiatives or major new agreements to boast of—we must acknowledge that US-Latin American relations have changed significantly in the era of Obama.
Obama has refused to get involved in the ideological disputes which defined the Bush administration’s foreign affairs. On this trip he referred to the region as a whole—“todos somos Americanos” he said in Chile—rather than focusing on those who are “with us or against us”. While many are in awe of the apparent economic power of China, Obama rightly highlighted Latin America’s importance to the US economy: the US currently exports more than three times as much to Latin America as to China and US export growth to Latin America is higher than to any other region. This is also encouraging the evolution of regional relations.
Some, though not all, Latin American countries have already reacted to the new balance of power. The presidents of Mexico, Chile, Colombia and now Brazil, are gradually utilizing their own economic importance and are trying to develop bilateral relations that are more pragmatic, equal and mutually beneficial. Other governments such as those in Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia continue to be trapped in the politics of the past, often relying on anti-US rhetoric to fire up supporters. However, with Bush gone and attitudes about America changing there is no longer much to gain from attacking “the empire”. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa may have realized this (in 2010 82% of Ecuadorean thought the US had a “positive” or “very positive” influence) and has subsequently softened his views of the US.
Obviously, there is still much that the US government needs to do to improve relations with Latin America. Reforming immigration law, approving the free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia and extending trade benefits to Ecuador would go a long way to re-enforcing the recent upswing in goodwill. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has moved relations forward in part by acknowledging that it can no longer impose its will on the region and act unilaterally. By stressing a desire for more equal partnerships, Obama has passed the ball to Latin America’s leaders and is challenging them to assume the responsibility that comes with regional leadership. How will they respond?