Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Obama’s Trip to Latin America

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 10, 2011

A shaman performs a ritual in front of a photograph of President Barack Obama in Lima.

A shaman performs a ritual in front of a photograph of President Barack Obama in Lima (Mariana Bazo/Courtesy Reuters).

Between March 19 and 23, President Obama will take his first foreign trip this year – and his first ever to South America. He will kick it off in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, then head to Santiago, and finish up in San Salvador. The trip’s goal, as announced in his State of the Union address, is to “forge new alliances across the Americas.” Alongside the obvious meetings between presidents, in the works are business roundtables, a visit to one of Rio’s favelas, an Egyptian style speech to “all Latin Americans” in Santiago, and educational activities for his daughters, who, along with the First Lady, will accompany him.

Why these three nations?

Brazil is the obvious choice. It has grown into an economic and diplomatic powerhouse, weighing in on world issues from financial reform to climate change. Under Lula, it flexed its muscle at times to the discomfort of the United States – on nuclear proliferation and Middle East politics, U.S. bases in the region, and the Honduran standoff. With newly installed President Dilma Rousseff’s openness to deepening U.S.-Brazil ties, there are high hopes on both sides that the trip will open a new chapter in the relations between the two largest economies of the Americas.

On the table will be trade and investment, particularly on clean energy and Brazil’s infrastructure needs in the lead up to the World Cup and the Olympics games. Also up for discussion will be China and its currency, as companies in both countries struggle to compete with Chinese imports and investments.

The other two nations are less obvious stops. Important as nations with which the United States maintains strong friendly ties, they are also examples of pragmatic and progressive governments from across the ideological spectrum. Chile’s Sebastián Piñera is leading one of the region’s most prosperous and stable nations from the center-right– the first elected conservative leader since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship. Obama’s visit will put the finishing touches on a nuclear pact, and the two leaders will work on clean energy and intellectual property issues (in particular the steps to get Chile off the U.S. priority watch list for failing to protect IP rights). Both leaders are keen to discuss innovation and entrepreneurship – part of their domestic political platforms.

El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes rules from the other side of the spectrum. A reformed revolutionary, he is the United States’ strongest partner today in Central America. The presidents will focus on security– Funes presented a $900 million plan to Hillary Clinton last fall, which would quadruple U.S. commitments under the Merida Initiative to Central America – as well as issues of economic cooperation and poverty reduction. The future of the 2 million Salvadorans (roughly one of every four) living in the United States will also be on the table, as Funes hopes to replace the Temporary Protected Status under which many live with a path to permanent residency.

What is also interesting is who is not on the list. The President, First Lady, and family will not be stopping in Buenos Aires, Argentina; a decision said to upset President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Behind the scenes, many feel that the old aphorism once attributed to Brazil is perhaps now more applicable to Argentina, that it is “not a serious country.” Also not on the itinerary is Colombia, in part because Obama has no good news to bring his counterpart on the long-delayed free trade agreement.

Though timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, nothing so grandiose will be in the works. Nevertheless, as the heads of state meet and talk about an array of issues, Obama has the opportunity to make a significant change. In addition to the usual bilateral and regional topics, it is important that Obama bring Latin America into his thinking about global challenges. This shift, though subtle, would be the start of a real transformation in U.S.-Latin America relations.

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