Obama and Latin America

A Promising Day in the Neighborhood

Closer, but no cigar: watching Obama on television in Havana, July 2015. Alexandre Meneghini / Courtesy Reuters

In April 2009, just three months after he took office, U.S. President Barack Obama traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. There, he told Latin America’s leaders that he wanted to begin “a new chapter of engagement” and an “equal partnership . . . based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.” Most dramatically, he pledged to seek “a new beginning with Cuba,” which had not enjoyed diplomatic relations with the United States for five decades.

Six years later, at the April 2015 summit in Panama, Obama declared that he had met those commitments. Indeed, the previous December, Obama had announced his intention to normalize relations with Havana. The turnaround delighted Latin American leaders of all ideological stripes, who have long seen the U.S. embargo against Cuba and its exclusion from hemispheric institutions as counterproductive. In Panama, Obama sealed the new policy by sitting down for an hour with Cuban President Raúl Castro, the first face-to-face meeting between leaders from the two countries since U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon met with Raúl’s older brother Fidel in 1959.

Cuba aside, over the past year or so, the Obama administration has also unveiled new initiatives to help Central American governments battle drug-related crime and help Caribbean island states overcome their chronic energy shortages. It has begun playing a more direct role in talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas, naming a special envoy for the peace process. And it has shifted its focus from interdicting drug supplies to reducing demand and has at least tried to reform immigration policy, efforts that have been warmly received in the region.

According to the Obama administration, these initiatives, coupled with an inclusive, multilateral approach, are in tune with the new Latin America: largely democratic, increasingly prosperous, and more self-confident than ever. The administration’s opponents, mainly on the right, accuse Obama 
of abandoning American values in the region. In their view, he gave Cuba a free pass

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