Commentary: Latin America isn't high on Obama's priority list

President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

One year after the election of President Barack Obama, it's time to ask whether his ambitious campaign promises about Latin America are being fulfilled, or whether, like others before him, he has placed the region at the bottom of his foreign policy priorities.

Let's take a quick look at some of Obama's key campaign promises for the region:

• Obama, who had never had much contact with Latin America before his run for the presidency, promised to launch "a new alliance of the Americas" to end "years of negligence" toward the region. These vows largely fizzled as a result of the 2008 economic crash.

• Obama told me in a campaign interview that, in an effort to focus more U.S. attention on Latin America, he would propose changing the 33-country Summit of the Americas -- held every three or four years -- into an annual event.Obama has yet to make that proposal.

• Obama promised to appoint a special envoy to the Americas, as a way to focus greater attention to the region. So far, he has not done that.

• Obama promised to close the U.S. detention center at the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba. As president, Obama has ordered the prison camp emptied by Jan. 22. White House officials say the deadline may slip, but that they are still committed to closing the prison camp.

• Obama promised to make immigration reform, including the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants, a "top priority" during his first year in office. Administration officials say they hope to have an immigration debate in Congress in 2010.

• Obama promised to "substantially increase our aid to the Americas." While the U.S. economic crisis has largely dashed such plans, Obama supported in April a decision by the G-20 -- a group of mostly industrialized countries -- to expand International Monetary Fund loans to developing countries, as well as to increase the representation of emerging economies within the IMF board.

• On Cuba, Obama had promised to "immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island." As president, he has ordered and implemented both measures.

• Obama promised to depart from the Bush administration's ``unilateral'' policies toward Latin America. Most Latin American diplomats give credit to Obama for condemning the June 28 ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, and for working alongside countries in the region in efforts to restore that country's rule of law.

• Obama promised a closer relationship with Mexico. Mexican officials give him credit for supporting the Merida Initiative to help fight drug cartel violence, and for ordering U.S. law-enforcement agencies to move against the smuggling of U.S. weapons to Mexico. They also applaud the fact that he did not suspend flights to Mexico as Cuba, Argentina and other countries did when the swine flu pandemic broke out in Mexico earlier this year.

Asked to rate Obama's performance with Mexico, Mexico's Ambassador to Washington Arturo Sarukhan told me, "On a scale from 1 to 10, I give him an eight."

Overall, White House officials say that the best thing Obama can do for the region is to resurrect the U.S. economy. That will get U.S. trade, foreign investments and family remittances back on track and boost the region's economies, they say.

My opinion: Obama has not made Latin America one of his top foreign policy priorities, although it's not entirely his fault. He has a lot on his plate, most importantly reversing the U.S. economic crisis that he inherited. He has not been able to put his own Latin American team in place because conservative Republicans are blocking the congressional confirmation of his nominee, Arturo Valenzuela, as head of the State Department's office of hemispheric affairs.

But Obama has succeeded in changing the U.S. image in Latin America, to the point that most polls show that he is among the most popular leaders in the region. The big question now is whether he will use that goodwill to meet his campaign promise to be "a relentless advocate for democracy" and help the poor in the region.

I still hope that he will, although -- given his foreign policy priorities -- I'm somewhat less ready to bet on it than I was a year ago.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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