Still Waiting for Change: The Obama Administration & Latin America

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President Obama was elected with a campaign of hope, and change.  Those of us who care about Latin America hoped that U.S. foreign policy towards the region, too often unilateral and focused on military solutions, would also change.

A year ago, at a summit of Latin America’s leaders, President Obama hit a note that resonated well with his counterparts: “I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”

After that hopeful moment, though, the new administration stumbled at the starting gate. 2009 was a rough year for U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Latin American governments and civil society groups were disappointed by the Obama Administration’s inattention, vacillation on democracy and human rights, and failure of imagination in creating more humane policies, especially after it secretly negotiated a defense agreement with Colombia and backed off from efforts to urge resignation of the coup regime in Honduras despite an admirably united Latin American and OAS response to protect the democratic order.

In our publication Waiting for Change (Esperando el Cambio), produced jointly with the Washington Office on Latin America and Center for International Policy, we find that U.S. policy is still far too militarized, with nearly half of U.S. aid to the region, prior to the Haiti earthquake, going to militaries and police forces.  (For more details on U.S. military aid to the region, see our military monitoring website  While the administration took some initial steps to trim funds from the harshest counternarcotics policies, such as the ineffective aerial spraying in Colombia, no broader rethinking of international counterdrug policy has taken place.  Cuban-Americans can travel more freely to the island, but the archaic travel embargo endures.  And the Obama Administration’s human rights policy has been largely missing in action, although with the administration’s human rights team finally in place, there are some stirrings of change.

But it’s not too late to turn a new leaf. Among the many actions that the Obama Administration could easily take to improve relationships with the region are the following:

  • Deliver on a generous, multi-year, Haitian-led reconstruction package for Haiti.   The administration has presented a substantial package to the Congress but we need to see it passed and then well executed, in ways that empower Haitians and revive small-scale Haitian producers.
  • Shift the balance of aid for Latin America and the Caribbean decisively away from military spending to the aid for health, education, disaster relief, strengthening justice and small-scale development that will improve people’s lives.  If not now, in a moment when peace rules most of the hemisphere, then when?
  • Establish that the United States cares as much about the protection of human rights in countries perceived as close partners, like Colombia and Mexico, as in the rest of the region. The administration must speak out and take action when security forces or intelligence services commit abuses—and even more so, when these abuses may have been committed with U.S. funding.
  • Suspend military assistance and condition other aid to Honduras until real steps are taken to achieve justice for human rights abuses, establish accountability for the coup, protect human rights defenders and others at risk, remove the military from inappropriate roles and positions, and establish a substantive, inclusive dialogue throughout Honduras to build a just and democratic society.
  • Through action, not just rhetoric, focus counternarcotics efforts on our side of the border: increasing access to drug treatment and controlling the flow of assault weapons into Mexico.  Provide greater latitude to Latin American governments to pursue their own innovative approaches to this intractable problem.
  • Allow for the free exchange of people and ideas with Cuba.  Nothing could reset relations with the region like the complete end to the archaic travel embargo.
  • Put immigration reform back on the agenda—and move it forward.  Building bridges rather than walls by creating a process for undocumented people to earn legal status and eventual citizenship and upholding family unity as a priority in our immigration policies will immeasurably help U.S. and Latin American families and improve the U.S. image in the region.

There’s simply no excuse when an administration that came to office promising hope and change delivers the same standard-issue, military-driven foreign policy. We call for a U.S. foreign policy that builds bridges and common ground, that stands up for human rights and the rule of law, and that offers a helping hand to our neighbors as they seek to overcome poverty or recover from natural disasters.

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