Since he took office, U.S. President Barack Obama has articulated a policy toward Latin America that is centered on the idea of partnership. As he said last April, there would be “no senior or junior partner to this new engagement.” The United States, in other words, would be but one actor on the regional stage, not its director. But recent crises -- from the coup in Honduras to simmering tensions in the Andes -- have revealed a fundamental weakness in the Obama administration’s nascent Latin America policy.

Without strong U.S. leadership, partnership in the Americas risks inertia or, even worse, an escalation of tensions on many of the hemisphere’s critical issues, such as transnational crime, democracy, and security. Although some countries -- including Brazil and Chile -- have been willing to take on diplomatic responsibilities commensurate with their economic status, they remain averse to conflict with neighbors, even to the point of willfully downplaying existing disagreements.

Such an approach may have served Latin American governments well in the past, when a unified front helped to push issues such as debt relief and alternative thinking on antinarcotics policy. But the failure of any one country to assume a larger regional profile -- especially with regards to protecting norms and security -- has allowed problems to fester. Yet again, the United States has been forced into a position of default leadership.

But simply reasserting U.S. leadership will not be easy. For one, distrust of Washington’s motives still runs deep in the region. The George W. Bush administration was hampered by missteps and its perceived unilateralism and interventionism. Allegations that the United States supported a coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002 have proven hard to shake. Although general suspicions have since softened, skepticism and latent resentment of the United States remain potent forces. 

Second, nearly a decade of strong economic growth -- real GDP growth in Peru, for example, rose from five percent in 2004 to nearly ten percent in 2008 -- has stoked ambitions and ideological assertiveness in the region. This, in turn, has made the interests of individual states increasingly diverse and complex.

The boom in commodity prices that began in 2000 benefited two groups of Latin American countries: the economically and politically moderate (Brazil and Chile) and the erratic and profligate (Venezuela under Chávez). When countries have failed to fall in line with his self-proclaimed “Bolivarian Revolution,” Chávez has resorted to name-calling and bullying. Although these dramatic and undiplomatic scenes may seem ridiculous at first blush, they have served a deeper purpose: in a region where countries stress solidarity and are historically loath to appear subservient to the United States, Chávez’s brand of nationalistic baiting has cowed more moderate governments.  

Brazil and Chile represent the opposite of Venezuela. In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself a former union leader, has become a symbol of Latin America’s new pragmatic left. His policies combine responsible macroeconomic management -- Brazil was one of the first countries to bounce back from the global economic recession -- with a broader agenda of social inclusion and poverty alleviation. Similarly, in Chile, the government of President Michelle Bachelet has overseen an extended period of economic expansion and was able to save much of the windfall from the high price of copper -- more than $20 billion by the end of 2008.

Individual governments have grown more assertive as power within the hemisphere has become more diffuse, and their interests have diverged on everything from trade relations to human rights and energy policy. With this as the backdrop, many regional leaders have tried to take advantage of Obama’s more conciliatory approach in an attempt to either sideline or undercut the U.S. administration.

Only four months into his presidency, Obama arrived at the Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago, to talk about a new era of hemispheric collaboration. His intention was scuttled by countries such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with a different agenda: embarrassing the U.S. government over its Cuba policy. In anticipation, the Obama administration lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances several days before. Although this move may have avoided a dead-end debate at the summit, it allowed the group to avoid a serious discussion of Cuba and its human rights concerns, as well that of the other important issues, such as energy security and sustainable development, that should have been on the table. This same dynamic revealed itself again two months later, when members of the Organization of American States, led by Venezuela, hijacked an annual meeting in an effort to push for Cuba’s readmission into the OAS.

Negotiations last summer to expand access for U.S. military personnel to seven bases in Colombia also drew immediate fire from Chávez and other regional leaders. Chávez denounced the effort as Yanqui imperialism, claiming that the plan was to establish a U.S. military base in Colombia. That was not the case; in fact, the Obama administration simply planned to shift existing antidrug operations from Ecuador to Colombia under a preexisting cap of 1,400 service personnel and contractors mandated by U.S. law. 

But the clearest test of regional leaders’ ability to resolve a crisis on their own came in June, when a peaceful coup removed José Manuel Zelaya from power as president of Honduras. The OAS denounced the coup, and its members voted to eject the new de facto Honduran government; U.S. officials, meanwhile, spoke out strongly against Zelaya’s ouster. But the OAS had a credibility problem: it had failed to denounce Zelaya when he overstepped his powers by attempting to rewrite the constitution to allow him potentially to run for another term. The OAS was thus powerless to bring the two sides to the table. 

It took U.S. leadership -- not partnership -- to break the deadlock. For its part, Brazil, supposedly a regional leader, did little beyond allowing Zelaya to hole up in its embassy when he snuck back in the country. When the U.S.-appointed mediator, Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, failed to reach an agreement, the United States sent its own officials to negotiate. In the end, Zelaya and the de facto regime agreed to an accord that would restore democratic constitutional order with elections in November. Although the United States said it would accept the results of those elections, other nations, including Argentina and Brazil, argued that such an outcome would amount to a tacit endorsement of the coup.

It was clear that the United States had changed its position on how it would deal with the de facto government. Elections were an imperfect solution, but they offered a way out of the deadlock. Latin American countries were clearly waiting for leadership and seemed unengaged in the responsibilities of true partnership.

The coup was a punctuation mark demonstrating the end of the era of broadly shared goals or values that could form the basis of collective action in Latin America. Now, tough issues have been set aside in the name of solidarity and partnership -- or, in some cases, leaders have come together under the pretext of scoring a few cheap shots against the United States. 

It is time, therefore, for the United States to refocus efforts on defining its national interests in the region and to forge and lead the ad-hoc alliances necessary to further them. This approach means moving beyond traditional bilateral relations and building on the discrete initiatives begun in the last years of the Bush administration. For starters, the Obama administration and Congress must strengthen ties with Brazil (cooperating on biofuels and antidiscrimination laws), Uruguay (strengthening commercial relations), and Colombia and Panama (forging free-trade agreements).

It is the private sector, civil society, and academic institutions that have the most impact in shaping the region’s attitudes toward the United States. In an example of scale, in 2006, U.S. bilateral development assistance to Latin America was $1.6 billion, while total private investment to the region was $26.8 billion. On such issues as labor rights, transparency, and the rule of law, the U.S. government has a shared set of interests with business coalitions.

Even more, this last decade has seen the emergence of a number of strong local NGOs that are committed to addressing many of the long-standing social inequities that governments have failed to resolve. The United States should lead alliances with these groups to complement state-to-state relations. 

All of this suggests that partnership alone cannot be the fulcrum of the U.S. relationship with Latin America. With Obama’s assistant secretary of state, Arturo Valenzuela, in place, the United States must now balance its ideas of partnership with steadfast and strong leadership. Latin America’s leaders -- although keen to reap the benefits of a more prominent global standing -- have shown themselves unwilling to address crises out of fear of domestic and regional backlash. As a result, Washington has learned that it will occasionally have to break with the regional consensus to deal with the challenges of Latin America. Aspiring Latin American leaders need to learn that lesson, too. Working with individual partners and across sectors can help the United States achieve exactly that.

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  • CHRISTOPHER SABATINI is Senior Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Editor in Chief of Americas Quarterly. JASON MARCZAK is Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Senior Editor of Americas Quarterly.
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