Many people, including most of the presidents and leaders of South America, were hoping that President Obama would initiate a serious change in US-Latin American relations, after the low point reached during the Bush years. Change will certainly come - it is happening every week - but there are few if any signs that the initiative will come from the north.
The Obama administration announced yesterday that it would allow Cuban-Americans with relatives in Cuba to visit and send money, and that some communications links would be opened. This was widely expected, and as the Financial Times noted, it was "the minimum necessary to make sure that Obama gets a good response" at the Summit of the Americas, where 34 heads of state will meet this weekend in Trinidad and Tobago.
To be sure, Obama will do much better than his predecessor did at the last Summit four years ago. At that meeting, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, President Bush was so embarrassed that he skipped town a day early. In addition to the huge protest rallies that greeted him, the event was historic in that it marked a clear end to Washington's 10-year dream of a "Free Trade Area of the Americas."
But the so-called "free trade" agreements - including the North American Free Trade Agreement, or Nafta, that has helped deliver sluggish growth, increasing out-migration, and a massive security crisis to Mexico - are just one item of the menu of failed policies that Washington has offered up to its southern neighbors. The collapse of economic growth in Latin America under neoliberal policies has gone unnoticed in Washington, but it's hard to miss in the countries that have suffered through it.
From 1960-1980, income per person in the region grew by 82%, as compared to just 9% for 1980-2000. Since 2000 it has grown by about 17%, which - despite the last 5 years of much improved growth - will make this the third consecutive decade of dismal economic growth. Nothing comparable has happened to Latin America in more than a century. To get an idea of what this means for the region, if Brazil or Mexico had simply kept growing at their pre-1980 rate - which would not have set any records for developing countries - they would have European living standards today. This is basically what happened to South Korea, which unlike Latin America, did not adopt Washington's neoliberal policy recommendations.
The current recession, which was so clearly caused by policy failures in the United States, has only reinforced the message that Washington is not the place to turn to for economic advice or leadership. In the last decade, Latin American voters who were fed up with neoliberalism have chosen left-wing governments in what is now the majority of the region.
US policy-makers seem clueless as to the historic, epoch-making nature of the changes that have taken place in this hemisphere, their causes, and their implications. They seem stuck in a time warp that precedes not only the Bush years but often strays back to the cold war. Jeffrey Davidow is President Obama's special ambassador for the summit and a key Latin America advisor. Speaking at an event in Washington last week, he tried unsuccessfully with cold war rhetoric to convince his audience that maintaining this 47-year old embargo - opposed throughout the region - is for the cause of democracy. Never mind that everyone in the room knew that it is all about the Cuban-Americans of South Florida, a state that has swung two of the last three presidential elections. Perhaps equally out-of-place was his praise of the Washington Post editorial board's position on Cuba: "Maybe you think they are a bunch of ideologues as well," he said, "but I think they say it much better than I do."
For those who don't read the Washington Post and remember it as a liberal newspaper from the Watergate years, its editorial board has become fervently neo-conservative on foreign policy issues, having led the charge for the Iraq war and shrilly denounced critics who questioned the Bush administration's arguments for the invasion. If Davidow does not have even a sense of his audience among the centrist-liberal foreign policy establishment in Washington, how can we expect him to deal with the new realities of an independent Latin America?
Clearly President Obama could use some better advice on Latin America. It was a mistake to initiate verbal hostilities with Venezuela at the beginning of his presidency; a mistake to continue the Bush administration's policies toward Bolivia; a mistake to think that he can ignore the call of President Lula da Silva of Brazil and other presidents for an end to the embargo on Cuba. Nothing would be easier than for this administration to break with the past and establish normal relations with the entire hemisphere, which was excited about his election and expected no less. But Obama's advisors show little interest in doing this.
Of course, the Obama administration's conservatism on foreign policy in general - including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East - reflects a political calculation that his handling of domestic economic issues will make or break his presidency, and that the safest route on foreign policy is therefore to deviate only minimally from the status quo. But when the status quo is so glaringly divorced from reality, change might be a better option.