A few months ago, what should have been an important development in U.S.-Latin American relations went largely unnoticed by the media. Dan Restrepo, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere on the National Security Council staff, was released from his job and joined the private sector. Any change in the president’s senior advisory staff should be a newsworthy milestone, but given President Barack Obama’s weak Latin American strategy throughout his presidency, the U.S. media’s lack of interest in Restrepo’s departure once again betrays the current White House’s indifference to the region.
Arguably, Restrepo’s departure had a lot to do with timing more than what he accomplished during his tenure. The removal occurred just after Obama’s trip to the Summit of the Americas that took place in Cartagena, Colombia this past May. The trip was marred with problems for the White House, ranging from the Secret Service scandal to verbal attacks between heads of state, including ones against Washington. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez went as far as leaving the summit because there was no declaration regarding the Falklands/Malvinas dispute with London, while Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa did not even attend. The U.S. was also severely criticized for prohibiting Cuban participation in the summit.
It’s unclear how many of the those controversies Restrepo could have prevented (for example, it is safe to assume that the Secret Service members’ decision to hire Colombian prostitutes was beyond his control), but it seemed clear that someone would lose his job after so many things had gone awry. A report by the Center for International Policy’s Americas program quotes a Democratic insider who follows Latin American affairs as saying that “[President Obama] was upset by the trip […]and so they got rid of Restrepo.” His place has been filled by Ricardo Zuniga, a veteran of Cuban affairs.
However, Restrepo and Zuniga are not the only individuals who are in a position to advise the President on Latin American issues. Another important position, the Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, is currently held by Roberta S. Jacobson. According to her official biography, Jacobson also worked as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Canada, Mexico and NAFTA (2007-2010) and as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lima (1996 -2000). Other individuals who have held the highest Latin America-related position in the State Department include:
Noriega served under the Bush administration, a time when the White House took a hawkish Cold War-like stance to the region, particularly regarding the emergence of regimes like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. This proved to be a good match for that administration, given its conservative ideology. Meanwhile, Valenzuela tried a more reconciliatory and less conflictive approach, a decision which drew the ire of House Foreign Affairs chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). The Republican Representative described his tenure as “marked by abject failure by the U.S. to stand up to the attacks against democracy and fundamental freedoms…. U.S. interests have suffered as a result.” An analysis in Foreign Policy, also critiqued Valenzuela, arguing that:
By the end of his two years at State, Valenzuela was somewhat sidelined in the policy process, as regional ambassadors bypassed him to work directly with the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, or […] Dan Restrepo.
U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America is heavily influenced by personnel in high level positions such as the Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the NSC and the Assistant Secretary at State. It is too early to tell what kind of policy suggestions Zuniga and Jacobson will put forward, and what their professional relationship will be like. Nevertheless, it’s clear that formulating a comprehensive regional policy (or failing to create one) is easily affected by issues like institutional apathy, personal ineffectiveness and personal relationships, just as much as it is affected by the suggestions brought forward by the senior staff and the overall ideology of the executive branch.
Like the rest of the world, Latin America had major expectations when President Obama was elected in 2008, as the Bush administration was essentially regarded as a lost decade, due to the lack of constructive regional policies. Obama went so far as to promise that he would close the detention center in the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, a source of protests by the Cuban and other regional governments as well as several U.S. organizations. Unfortunately, he has yet to do so. Even when it seemed the president was trying to improve relations with Latin America, an extra-Hemispheric affair incident would occur that switched his attention. For example, while he was in Brazil during a brief regional tour in March of 2011, Obama delivered a speech authorizing a “limited military action” of U.S. troops against Libya due to the expanding internal war in that North African state.
However, there have been some positive, progressive initiatives by the Obama administration over the past years. He managed to relax some of the strict sanctions against Cuba, namely regarding travel issues and remittances sent from the U.S. Also, he met in an amicable meeting with Chavez during the 2009 Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago. This was regarded as an optimistic sign considering how critical Chavez had been of the Bush Administration.
Nevertheless, a major factor that hindered Obama’s grand plans for improving Washington-Latin America relations, if there were ever any, were political developments that constantly shifted the White House’s attention. While in power, Obama has had to deal with pulling the country’s military from two unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while also trying to fix the U.S. economy. As the presidential election has approached, Obama has had to refocus his attention on a limited number of foreign policy issues, particularly after the heavy blow the President and the Democrats suffered in the 201o Midterm elections.
With the U.S. presidential elections less than three months away, it is unlikely that we will see any major foreign policy initiatives from the White House. Both President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney are on “campaign promise” mode, and they are actively courting Latino voters. Issues like Cuban relations, immigration policies such as the DREAM Act, and the war on drugs will be brought up during speeches and debates, but these are just pieces of a larger puzzle. It seems clear that besides a handful of issues and selected countries, such as Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, the Obama administration lacks a grand strategy for Latin America as a whole, like FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.
When Latin America asks itself if it has been forgotten by the White House throughout the past decade, the answer is arguably yes. Just as President George W. Bush’s administration did, President Obama’s first term in office has shown Latin America to be only, at best, of second tier importance.
But what must be kept in mind is that foreign, just like domestic, policies are often brought forward by the President’s advisors who have in-depth knowledge of specific regions and issues. In the case of Latin America, we have witnessed over the past years the appearance of individuals such as Dan Restrepo, Ricardo Zuniga and Roger Noriega. These individuals have shaped White House policy toward the region, with a mixed bag of successes and failures depending on the issue and one’s point of view. Hopefully the next presidential term (whether under Obama or Romney) will bring some new progressive initiatives, though this seems unlikely; particularly if the president’s advisors aren’t influential Latin Americanists who push for the region to have a bigger role in the White House’s foreign policy agenda.