U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Latin America Under President Obama: The Result Is Mixed

By Wadner Pierre

First Published by Global Diplomatic Forum

Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 8.20.34 PMIn the aftermath of the post-war period, no country in the western world has influenced and dominated Latin America socially, politically and economically, as did the United States in the post-Cold. However, the suspension of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba has forced many Latin American revolutionary-socialist political leaders to question U.S. foreign policy towards the region. Therefore, a normalization of diplomatic relationship with Cuba will be regarded as potential improvement of US foreign policy towards Latin American region.

After more than five decades since U.S. suspended diplomatic relations with Cuba—and imposed an economic embargo against the Castro regime—on December 17, 2014, in a surprising announcement, Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that their countries would normalize diplomatic relations. President Obama also acknowledged that the U.S. policy towards Cuba in the past five decades had been nothing more than a failure. He said, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, [it is] time to try something new,” implied President Obama. He added that the shift of U.S. policy towards Cuba “has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phoney excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people” (Obama 2015).

Normalizing diplomatic ties with Cuba reaffirms President Obama’s political stance to use diplomacy over force when necessary to solve global issues. Knowing the influence of both countries in Latin American internal politics, this announcement could positively impact U.S. relations with other Latin American countries, particularly those led by pro-Cuban regime such as Venezuela and Bolivia. As President Obama reflected in his speech, the US-Cuban diplomatic rapprochement could build trust amongst the members of Organizations of American States (OAS). It could also strengthen OAS as a regional platform used by member states to advance their social, political, economic, and security agenda for the continent.

A Necessity for Change 

While few months ago President Obama was praised by many for his historical diplomatic victory by ending a five decades of suspended diplomatic relationship with Cuba, he issued an executive order in which he declared “…a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” The president also imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials. President Obama’s latest diplomatic act confuses leaders in the region and prompts them to revaluate their thoughts regarding Washington’s old-school foreign policy for the region. This action also undermines the president’s effort to signal that a new era in US relationship with South American nations has begun after the historical diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba.

One thing Washington needs to understand is that Latin American region is more organized than it was 20 years ago, and that as fragile as it may appear the region is slowly moving toward democracy, even it may not be the one promoted and shared by Washington establishment. As a sign of solidarity and unity, on March 19, 2015, twelve Latin American leaders through their sub-regional organization UNASUR condemned US sanction against Venezuela and demanded that President Obama repeal/drop his executive order. They stated that Obama’s Executive order “constitutes an interventionist threat to the sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States.”

Following UNASUR’s statement Venezuelan government started a campaign and obtained millions of signatures to liver to President in person at the Summit of Americas in person. President Nicolas Maduro did not deliver the signatures directly to Obama instead as he was planned to do. The two leaders met and both parties hailed this meeting as “cordial.” Foreign Policy ‘s John Hudson reported it was a last-minute visit of the Secretary of State John Kerry’s top advisor, Tom Shannon to Venezuela to ease tension between the two countries prior to the Summit of Americas. During its short visit, Shannon met with President Maduro and Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez. As Hudson stated, a veteran diplomat who served for many years in Latin America, Shannon probably called some of his Latin American friends to talk to Venezuelan leader to pursue him to use diplomatic channel to transmit Venezuelan people message to President Obama.

UNASUR’s stance and Venezuela Campaign seemed to work. In A conference call with reporters, a senior White House told reporter that the use of threat to “national security” in the case of Venezuela is a usual language when issuing executive order to impose sanctions. The official said, “…most of the sanctions programs that we have, from Iran to Syria, Burma, across the board, rely on these same types of national emergency declarations.”

All  the opinions expressed are those of the author in this article and do not represent those of The Global Diplomatic Forum. The Diplomatic Digest is an independent and neutral page that is aimed at generating debate around key international topics.

Obama’s Policy towards Latin America: The Result Is Mixed 

Obama’s foreign policy towards Latin America was seen as a promising approach for the region in the beginning. Nevertheless, this policy has lost momentum after the Obama administration failed to distance himself from the Honduran de facto regime that seized power after President José Manuel Zelaya was ousted in the 2009 coup. As Frederick Mills wrote, “The burden of proof has arguably not yet been met by the Obama administration. It is on President Obama’s watch that the US backed a goalpost regime in Honduras.” Considering Belaya as a leftist and pro-Chavez, Washington hesitated to help reinstating him. As a result, many Latin American governments, particularly those who associate themselves with Chavez-ALBA, felt disappointed and questioned if whether Washington policy towards the region has really entered a new era (Mills 2013).

Consequently, Obama’s policy in the region has been both positive for some, and disappointing for others (Abraham F. Rosenthal 2010). Joseph Fingered wrote that the United States can improve its relationship in the region, however, “It must be willing to work with the moderate socialist leaders in Latin America, and this includes accepting governments that are not neoliberal democracies” (Fingered 2007). The diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba can set the stage or give President Obama another opportunity to improve US relationship with Latin America.

In summary, it is obvious that sooner or later the United States will inevitably need to review its foreign policy towards Latin America in order to retain its influence in the region. Nonetheless, the US would unlikely dominate the region as it did in the past for the following factors: the rise of populist-led governments; new sub-regional economic and security initiatives which strengthen the mutual interest of the countries in the region; and finally, the ongoing China and EU influence in the region appears to be more tolerable politically amongst the Latin American leaders than US’. In addition, the U.S. past human rights record in the region during the 1970s-1980s continues to downplay its role as a model democracy for the region.

Latin America, from the decline of communism to the rise of popular democracy, and the increase of drug cartels has remained a difficult terrain for the United States. Defeating the cartels requires more than military power. Human rights groups have long criticized the US and its partners for failing to protect human rights during their raids against drug-lords in the region.

Analyzing the choice that the United States had to make in the post- World War II period, Henry Kissinger wrote, “To grasp the measure of our decline we need only [to] compare the world in which we find ourselves,” (Kissinger 1960, 2). Kissinger’s assessment of the US global position in the post-World War II era, fifty-five years ago, could be relevant today to assess US position in Latin America. In that, the United States could further see a decline of its influence in Latin America if it fails to take an immediate step to amend its foreign policy towards the region. It is clear that the United States can no longer refer to Latin America as its “backyard,” rather as its neighbor or its regional partner.

Wadner Pierre is a Haitian award-winning freelance photojournalist. He received a Master of Science in International Relations from University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK, with a focus on Human Development and Security in Latin America.


Barack, Obama.2015.“Transcript: President Obama’s State of the UnionAddress.” NPR,January 20, 2105 . Retrieved, January 24, 2015(http://www.npr.org/2015/01/20/378680818/transcript-presidentobamas-state-of-the-union-address).Fingered, Joseph. 2007.”US Foreign Policy in Latin America: Time for a Change.”

Orbis 4 (Fall): 697-709.Kissinger, Henry. 1961.The Necessity for Choice: Prospects of American Foreign Policy.

New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.Mills, Frederick B. 2013. “John Kerry at the OAS: A Shift in US Policy or More of the

Same?” Council on Hemisheric Affairs. November 26, 2013. Retrieved February24, 2014 (http://www.coha.org/john-kerry-at-the-oas-a-shift-in-us-policy-or-more-of-thesame/).

Rosenthal, Abraham F.2010. “Obama and the Americas: promise, Disappointment,Opportunity.” Foreign Affairs 4 (July/August): 110-124.

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