US-Latin American Relations

Some thoughts on a column by Roger Noriega on the Obama administration and Latin America,

Barack Obama, Raul CastroRoger Noriega served in the George W. Bush State Department and is one of Jeb Bush’s advisors on Latin America.  He wrote a column on President Obama’s approach to Latin America to correspond to the recent Summit of the Americas:  Can Obama Rescue His Failing Latin America Policy?  It starts thusly:

U.S. President Barack Obama has clearly noticed that many in Latin America and the Caribbean have an uncanny affinity for the myth of the Cuban revolution. What he has yet to realize, however, is that the vast majority of the region’s citizens would rather live in the Chile built by Augusto Pinochet than in the Cuba destroyed by Fidel Castro.

This is a typical false dichotomy that seems, in my experience anyway, to be popular with US conservatives, as if the choice across the region is two development models, both founded in authoritarianism:  Cuba or Chile.  Cuba is supposed to represent all the failures of the left while Pinochet’s Chile (and Noriega is the one that name checked Pinochet, I would note). For the most part this is a crude attempt to criticize Castro whilst eliding the brutality of the Pinochet regime.   Look, there is little doubt that Chile is wealthier than Cuba (but, again, that was true if we compare historically:  whether in 1959, 1973, or 1989—pick your year).  Indeed, the notion that everything one needs to know about Cuban and Chilean development is somehow vested in a contest between Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet is both simple-minded and simply wrong.

And look, like it or not, there is a romance associated with the Cuban Revolution in the minds of some Latin Americans but it isn’t as if the region is rife with attempts to emulate it.  Cuba is Cuba and it is well past time for Washington to get over it and stop treating like some outsized threat to US interests.  It is a small, poor island and it present no serious threat to US interests.

Noriega continues:

As Obama travels to Panama this week for his third Summit of the Americas, he encounters a region that has lost stability and prosperity since the president first attended the summit in 2009.

I am not sure that the region is in an especially different place now than it was in 2009 save, of course, for the clear negative effects of the Great Recession (that, one might note, started before 2009).  It is true that Venezuela, in particular, is more unstable in the present period (but that is not due to US policy one way or another) and that there is a burgeoning crisis in Central America we may recall the exodus of children from the region due to drug violence) is likewise part of a long-term set of conditions.   And, of course, the US does has some blame in that area, but not for reasons linked specifically to contemporary politics (save for the continuation of the drug war).

Noriega does a brief tour of the region:

Venezuela is only the most vivid example of a region in turmoil. Brazil’s economy slipped into recession last summer, and President Dilma Rousseff’s approval ratings have tanked just months into her second four-year term. Rising unemployment and anxiety, and an escalating political kickback scandal engulfing the ruling Workers’ Party, brought more than 1 million Brazilians to the streets last month calling for Rousseff’s impeachment and challenging her ability to govern.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is struggling to salvage economic reforms as he cuts spending to compensate for falling oil revenues and grapples with a crisis of confidence spawned by relentless drug corruption and violence.

Colombia’s president is rushing to conclude an implausible peace agreement with an armed guerrilla organization that plays a central role in the cocaine trade. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia sow corruption and violence from the Andes on through to Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and every major city in the United States.

Central American governments, whose promising economies were integrated into a free trade agreement with the United States just nine years ago, now are struggling to stem the tide of migrants fleeing poverty and drug-fueled violence.

It is unclear to me how the issues in Brazil are the result of US policy (or how a Jeb Bush administration, for example, would create different results).    In regards to Mexico, would Noriega like the US to attempt to artificially increase the price of oil? (and is he proposing that the US stop fighting the war on drugs?).

In regards to Colombia, the notion that the peace talks with the FARC are a bad thing strikes me as wrong-headed (how a negotiated settlement to a conflict that has been going on since the the 1960s is a bad thing, especially since the evidence is pretty clear that a purely military solution is not going to work, is beyond me).  Of course, beyond that, how is the Obama administration is responsible for an action that is most decidedly one that has been generated internally in Colombia? The peace process was, for example, the major policy issue in last year’s presidential election (and is has not been engineered by the US).

In regards to Central America:  CAFTA-DR (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) has not gone away, nor has it been blunted in some capacity.  As such, it seems that Noriega is blaming Obama for the lack of performance of the policy because, well, because (and, again, did I mention the Great Recession?).  Beyond that is it worth noting that during the Obama administration the US-Colombia FTA and the US-Panama FTA were approved (both negotiated by the Bush administration but implemented by the Obama administration) meaning that there was not a lot of policy deviation in these areas.

And in regards to “drug-fueled violence” this is not anything new (sadly).  Further, it is driven by US demand for the drugs in question and the US war on drugs (again, areas of continuity from the past to the present, and likely into the future).

Noriega concludes with the following two paragraphs:

Like many U.S. liberals, President Obama sees Latin America and the Caribbean as a bundle of grievances against an imperious superpower. Rather than offering straight talk on Venezuela’s lawlessness and corruption, Obama pretends not to notice the country’s descent into chaos. Rather than engage Brazil and Mexico on transparency and private-sector growth, he leaves them to fend for themselves. Rather than help Central Americans maximize the benefits of free trade, he watches them retreat to cronyism and dysfunction. Rather than defend the rights of Cubans, he caves to Castro.

It’s not too late for Obama to recognize that his serious counterparts in the Americas don’t need a pal, they need a partner. They need investment and trade, capital and technology. They need solidarity in the defense of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.  They don’t want anabrazo, they want a handshake.

In regards to the first of these paragraphs, I can’t help but think of the Green Lantern theory of international politics:  with enough will an American President can create amazing outcomes.  How is “straight talk” on Venezuela going to influence outcomes in that country?  Indeed, what, exactly, does that even mean?—further it isn’t as if the Obama administration hasn’t been critical of Maduro.  What are the magic words that Noriega wants to have deployed that will solve the woes of Mexico and Brazil?  This is nonsense.

In regards to the conclusion:  a)  investment, trade, etc. continues, and b) a handshake and not a hug?  What does that even mean?

At the end of the day it would be nice if advisors/those who seek to be policy-makers would be able to suggest more than wishful thinking and platitudes.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Latin America, Science & Technology, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Modulo Myself says:

    If it begins with ‘RealClear’, you know exactly what you are going to get.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Wow, just read up on this Noriega. According to his Wiki page, the guy was involved in the 2004 coup against Aristide. Nothing like being lectured about democracy and human rights by some scumbag with blood on his hands.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    For Republicans all foreign policy problems can be solved by a display of manly virtue.

    If the President of the United States has sufficient swagger, if his chin protrudes in a determined way, if he has chest hair and a tendency to speak in broad platitudes stripped of any doubt and always concluding with “God bless America,” the whole world will simply forget their own interests and adopt ours instead.

    And if they don’t we’ll launch a half-assed manly invasion followed by a completely incompetent manly occupation leading to a manly refusal to take responsibility for the godawful mess we leave behind.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Existing policies aren’t working…and haven’t for 50 years.
    We can’t find an ample supply of Unicorns.
    What else you got? Nothing? OK.

  5. An Interested Party says:

    …the vast majority of the region’s citizens would rather live in the Chile built by Augusto Pinochet…

    Ahh, the love affair with the Chilean dictator continues…who cares that thousands of people were tortured and murdered under his junta…the free market just washes all that blood away…

  6. Modulo Myself says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Of course, Pinochet’s free-market policies were a disaster, but that just adds to the heft of the necessary disinformation.

  7. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @An Interested Party: And, at least according to Rodan Shinbun in NK, a vast majority of North Koreans would prefer living in NK to the squallor and uncertainty of living under cruel General Park’s daughter. Is Noriega as sanguine about their preferred life style? Somehow, I expect not.

    By the way, is Roger any relation ot Manuel?

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Thank you for the excellent point by point rundown on why Noriega is wrong about Obama’s policy and its effects. However, it depends on tracing things back to root causes and as George Lakoff points out, conservatives don’t do complex causation, a truth we see demonstrated every day. They’re content with cum Obama, ergo propter Obama. And whatever is cum was the same under the Bushes, but is now terrible because Obama.

  9. wr says:

    “It is unclear to me how the issues in Brazil are the result of US policy”

    Apart from whatever issues derive from the CIA supported coup and US backed military dictatorship that followed.

    But righties like Noriega love dictatorships, because they privilege the right people — the ones with money — while forcing those ugly lower classes to shut up and do what they’re told. Which is why he can state — and presumably believe — that people would rather live under a regime that tortures, murders and disappears any of their citizens who step out of line than one in which there is a lot of poverty… and very few plutocrats. The Noriegas of the world are never the ones to be tortured, or to search for years to find out what happened to their loved ones. So what’s the problem?

  10. Slugger says:

    The remark about FARC being in every major city in the US strikes me as strange. I am quite sure that in my city we can rely on El Nortes to keep them out.

  11. Modulo Myself says:


    Considering how much faith he has in free markets, it’s strange to blame the suppliers for the popularity of cocaine.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    Well, I live in Brazil. There is something of an affinity for Cuba among some people in the left, but it´s also clear that there is affinity for Democratic Institutions. And people may not like the Castros, but they also don´t like the embargo.

  13. @Andre Kenji:

    And people may not like the Castros, but they also don´t like the embargo.

    Funny how that can work.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    And people may not like the Castros, but they also don´t like the embargo.

    Indeed, because the embargo doesn’t actually hurt the Castros, but rather, it hurts the people it was enacted to supposedly help…

  15. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    On the other hand, why should the embargp be blamed for the fact that these people clearly lack the resolve to change their conditions and overthrow the government? The embargo has accomplished our goal–the nation is an economic shambles and a failure economically. We’ve done our part; if they are unwilling (and isn’t it always a failure of will?) to do their part, why is that our fault?

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Clearly, Obama needs to invade Uruguay.