U.S. Foreign Policy in the Obama Era

Arturo Valenzuela
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

Latin American Studies Association

Washington, DC

October 9, 2010

As prepared

Thanks so much John for that kind introduction. It’s wonderful to be back at another LASA Congress and see so many old friends and meet new colleagues. LASA has been an important part of my own professional life. I attended my first LASA in 1968, two years after the Association was founded by visionary leaders like Kalman Silvert, Bryce Wood, Rich Adams, Federico Gil and others as a place where scholars committed to the study of Latin America and the Caribbean could present papers and exchange their work. I am particularly gratified to see that the dream of the founders that LASA should become a genuinely international scholarly association has come to fruition–and that collaborative research across national boundaries is alive and well. My own engagement with LASA included service on the Executive Committee, as a Member of the Latin American Research Review editorial board, and as Associate Editor of LARR. I also chaired with Paul Drake the LASA delegation to observe the 1988 Plebiscite in Chile that led to the defeat of Augusto Pinochet’s in the waning years of Latin American authoritarianism and the end of the Cold War.

If I might be permitted a personal note – many people make reference to a supposed revolving door between academia and government service in the United States. In so far as Latin America policy is concerned, that revolving door is a myth. I have many friends that went from the world of scholarship into public and foreign policy – but those friends are all Latin Americans and an occasional European, such as Alain Rouquier. I am the first political appointee as Assistant Secretary of State since 1968 in a Democratic administration when Covey Oliver served in that post. He was also the last academic. I am honored that Bob Pastor agreed to join me on this panel. He, along with Richard Feinberg, who also served at the National Security Council are notable exceptions. The only other academic I know who served at State was Al Fishlow who was a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Ford Administration. Moving from academia to government service is not easy as Bob well knows because the academic and policy worlds are so far apart.

As many of you in this room have pointed out, U.S. policy towards Latin America during the Cold War placed the United States on the side of anti-communist regimes regardless of whether they represented the legitimate wishes of their people, thereby undermining the prospects for the consolidation of viable democratic regimes. The end of the Cold War opened the door for a dramatic shift in U.S. policy. The U.S. supported the desire of newly restored and new democracies to build safeguards to ensure against authoritarian reversals through mechanisms like OAS Resolution 1080 adopted in Santiago Chile in 1990, the predecessor of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Domestic pressure in favor of democratic reform accompanied by decisive international support from the United States led to a dramatic reversal of previous patterns.

Recall that from 1940 to 1980, 40% of all changes of government in the countries of Spanish Americas were through military coups. That was a time when the region’s politics were characterized by what Eldon Kenworthy described as a “dual currency game,” in which the popular will of the electorate could be thwarted by the coercive interests of military and economic elites. As the region began to embrace elected governments many entrenched interests were left untouched by the new democratic order – which led to the protection of traditional elites. This created the phenomenon that Charles Anderson so aptly described as a “living museum,” whereby pre-existing groups made certain that their rights were protected before allowing new actors to participate fully in the political life of the country. The result was that many of the new democracies reinforced the old social order rather than providing for greater flexibility and mobility for traditionally excluded sectors of society.

With the end of the Cold War the number of changes by military coup dropped to 20% during the decade of the 1980s. And in the 20 years that have transpired since 1990, despite the fact that several presidents were not able to complete their terms of office, only two were deposed by the military – Aristide and Zelaya.

Today there is no doubt that the continent looks far different than it did 25 years ago when authoritarian regimes were still dominant in the Southern Cone and civil wars wracked Central America. Remember too that the decade of the 1980s was also catastrophic from an economic point of view – a lost decade marked by hyperinflation and stagnation through the exhaustion of the important substitution industrialization model prevalent in the Americas. Economic and fiscal policies adopted in the 1990s contributed to ability of Latin America to withstand the worst of the world financial crisis while benefitting enormously from robust trading and export policies. I note that the theme of the LASA conference this year is “Crisis, Response, and Recovery,” and on this point Latin America has excelled. The region’s current growth rate is expected to exceed 5% this year, and much of South America is benefiting from the commodities boom generated by increasing levels of trade with Asia, especially China. More recent policy initiatives have reduced levels of poverty and inequality in some countries – helping to address the single most serious problem that the countries of the Hemisphere face – high levels of poverty and inequality. In other words, if you asked me about the state of the Hemisphere I would tell you that I am optimistic – the glass is half full, not half empty.

But of course it would be wrong not to underscore the fact that many of the gains are fragile. Elected governments in many countries have not been able to deliver. Institutions remain weak – the Americas is still the region with the highest levels of inequality and poverty that help fuel threats stemming from organized crime, street violence and corruption. Indeed 190 million Latin Americans live in poverty and the region has some of the highest levels of income inequality in the world. And, U.S. policy that in the initial period of the post-Cold War era was committed to democratization and economic reform, was sidelined by a single-minded focus on the international war against terror engendering an unnecessary and counterproductive polarization among countries in the Hemisphere.

Over the past 20 months, the Obama administration has set out to establish a new narrative for our relationship with the Americas. That narrative reflects the rich networks of ties that join our peoples. It reflects the simple truth that the United States has vital interests in the Western Hemisphere and needs to engage. And what should be the objective of U.S. policy – in a word – The success of the countries of the Americas. In other words the United States has a compelling national security interest in the success of Latin America. That success, our common success, is what motivates U.S. policy in the Americas. It is in the U.S. interest that the deep inequalities and social injustices are overcome so that vibrant societies flourish – societies able to protect their citizens and provide opportunities to all through strong, transparent and legitimate institutions of governance responsive to the people’s will through legitimate and fair elections, and the respect for fundamental human and civil rights.

Recently, The Economist magazine published a special issue on Latin America’s impressive economic and political progress and described the region as “Nobody’s Backyard.” That analysis merely reflects what the Obama administration has recognized since its first days in office: that the United States views the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean as partners in building a hemisphere that is more democratic, inclusive, and prosperous. Moreover, we view an integrated and well-governed Western Hemisphere as crucial to strengthening the stable, peaceful, rules-based international system upon which the future of the global system depends.

Those may be the objectives – but as important as the objectives is the way in which U.S. policy should be conducted. As President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said, policy must be conducted on the basis of mutual respect and co-responsibility through dialogue and engagement. The President emphasized this point at the Summit of the Americas last year, when he told the leaders of the hemisphere that, and I quote, “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations. There is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.” The United States must be a more effective and determined partner in helping countries throughout the Americas achieve their own chosen paths as determined by their own people. In that same vein our policy has to avoid the “Manichaeism” of previous approaches – of viewing the Hemisphere as divided between friends and enemies. U.S. engagement must take note of the historic and structural roots of differing political contexts. This should not be interpreted for a moment that U.S. policy should minimize what we know are our shared commitments to building a Hemisphere that respects fundamental rights and democratic practices. At the same time U.S. policy should underscore our commitment to support reform agendas that aim to improve the lot of citizens and particularly the most vulnerable, whether they are indigenous populations, women, afro-decedents or others.

There are many ways that I could quantify the strength of the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America since President Obama took office. For example, the economic ties between our countries remain extremely robust. In 2009, total U.S. merchandise trade between the U.S. and Latin America reached $524 billion and more than 40% of Latin America’s exports flowed to the United States, making us the region’s single largest export destination – and the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, absorbs 43% of U.S. exports. And half of our energy imports come from the Western Hemisphere.

Or I could discuss the personal level of commitment demonstrated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the first eighteen months of the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton set a new record by visiting 17 countries in the Western Hemisphere, which is more than any other Secretary of State dating back to Henry Kissinger in the Ford administration. In fact, the next closest was Madeleine Albright who had visited 10 countries at that point in her tenure. And President Obama has remained deeply engaged with the leaders of the region since traveling to the Summit of Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last year. And there are other statistics that I could cite about our engagement with the region, such as the more than $2 billion in development assistance that we provide. Or the rich cultural ties that exist between our countries, including the migration flows that contributed to an estimated $50 billion in remittances that flow from the United States to Latin America each year.

Today, we are pursuing an approach of ‘dynamic engagement” that seeks to advance U.S. interests in partnership with Latin America as a whole, while recognizing the value of accommodating diverse needs and interests. The Obama administration has focused our efforts on four over-arching priorities critical to people in every society. These priorities are: promoting social and economic opportunity for everyone; securing a clean energy future; ensuring the safety and security of all of our citizens; and building effective institutions of democratic governance. All this we seek to achieve while harnessing and strengthening multilateral and regional institutions, especially Organization of American States.

Of course, every one of the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean has unique attributes and challenges that present different opportunities for U.S. policy. It should be clear that the way that we address these priorities takes into account unique national and sub-regional contexts. We are mindful that it is a serious mistake to look at all of the countries of the Americas through a similar prism, and that the U.S. should not adopt a “cookie cutter” approach or a “one size fits all” strategy for the region. The realities of Brazil, the Andean region, and the Southern Cone are all vastly different, as is true for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. In order to be relevant, our policies must be tailored to the specific challenges and needs as they apply in each case.

Opportunity in the Americas

Last summer, in Quito, Secretary Clinton spoke about Opportunity in the Americas. It was a very significant venue. In a country whose democratic leader is determined to expand his peoples’ opportunities—a goal we support and cheer. As you know, our relationship with Ecuador’s government has not been automatic. We have had differences on some issues. Which makes it all the more important to engage, with respect, and search for common ground. And let me say, during the events of last week, the United States stood firmly by the government of Rafael Correa during the police uprising that threatened to spiral out of control. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton called President Correa to underscore our unwavering support for the constitutional process in Ecuador.

When the Secretary visited Ecuador in June, she outlined our vision for a hemisphere that is more competitive, equitable, and provides greater social mobility for its citizens. It used to be said that trade, not aid, would be the driving force in overcoming patterns of underdevelopment. Yet, we also understand that, even together, both trade and aid are not enough. In order to fully embrace the opportunity agenda, Latin America and the Caribbean will need to focus on increasing its own economic competitiveness and enhancing policies that facilitate social inclusion. Both are critical to building prosperous, safe, democratic, and just societies.

Latin America needs to complete its reform process and develop new public policies that can better equip it to compete in a globalized world. Expanding opportunity will require investment in infrastructure and investment in people. Unless Latin America can modernize its infrastructure it will not be able to fully benefit from the global economy and risks becoming overly reliant on commodity exports and low-value added products. Furthermore, Latin America must do a better job of educating all of its citizens and laying the foundation for a productive, thriving formal economy. Otherwise, it cannot reasonably expect to compete successfully with other regions of the world.

The United States is playing a vital role in catalyzing our regional partners to expand social mobility and justice, create a wider foundation for economic growth, and ensure that the benefits of growth and trade are distributed more equitably. This is good for the interests of the United States as well as the people of Latin America. We recognize that this means some countries will need to take tough choices, such as addressing the epidemic of tax evasion, a point that Secretary Clinton has emphasized. The wealthiest must understand that they can no longer simply seek to safeguard their own narrow interests or use the state simply to benefit the privileged, but must be willing to invest in the good of the community as a whole.

Secretary Clinton is committed to Pathways to Prosperity, which is our initiative to help countries share best practices for spreading the benefits of economic growth more broadly, such as by opening market access for women entrepreneurs. To encourage more credit for small and micro-businesses, President Obama joined with the Inter-American Development Bank to create the Microfinance Growth Fund for the Americas. Promoting opportunity not only takes sustained investment, but also ideas. As they work to meet their peoples’ needs many Latin American leaders are trying innovative policies and getting strong results. Mexico and Brazil have pioneered conditional cash transfer programs that are reducing poverty, expanding access to opportunity, and catching attention worldwide. In order to advance the dialogue on social challenges, the U.S. is participating in the Inter-American Social Protection Network that was inaugurated last fall in New York—essentially a clearinghouse for innovative policies, many conceived in Latin America but applicable more widely.

The Obama administration’s focus on traditionally marginalized and excluded groups is a special aspect of our foreign policy in Latin America. Secretary Clinton has emphasized that improving the lives of women and girls is an important U.S. priority. When we talk about creating economic prosperity and working to eliminate social exclusion, we are, in many ways, talking about ways we can work together to improve the lives of women—whether through increasing access to credit or by making communities safer so that girls and women can feel safe at school, home and the workplace.

We have also focused renewed energy on addressing racial discrimination in the Americas. In 2008, the U.S. and Brazil signed a “Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality” and in 2010, a similar action plan was signed with Colombia. In addition, we are pleased that the United Nations has designated 2011 as the International Year of People of African Descent and see this as an exciting opportunity to promote greater knowledge and respect for the diverse cultural heritage of our region.

The Importance of Citizen Security

We also recognize that crime and violence has become a major challenge to Latin America’s development. The Obama administration is reframing our pursuit of security partnerships in the Americas. We understand that keeping our citizens safe goes far beyond the drug production, trafficking or consumption. It depends fundamentally on effective and accountable institutions of governance and strengthened rule of law. It involves frank recognition of the role we all play in feeding transnational crime, and developing new networks of cooperation between governments at all levels so that our communities create the safe streets and neighborhoods that our people want and deserve.

Our partnerships with Mexico through the Merida Initiative, as well as through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and in Colombia, are also strengthening societies’ ability to fight transnational crime, protect their people and institutions, and prevent the spread of illicit goods and violence in our communities. In the process, these partnerships are transforming relationships, brokering growing cooperation between those countries and the United States, and among the partner nations themselves.

Democratic Challenges

We recognize that our goals of facilitating regional prosperity, citizen safety, and a clean energy future will require building stronger institutions of democratic governance. Very little of what we might help accomplish in other areas will be sustainable, or bring full benefit to people, unless they are based on the firm foundations of capable, legitimate, and responsive institutions. Our strong support for democratic governance and human rights is rooted in this fundamental fact. Latin America’s success will require democracy that delivers prosperity and security for its citizens.

Still, as we work with our partners to strengthen democratic institutions in the community of the Americas, we are cognizant of the continuing weaknesses in democratic procedures and practices. Collectively, we need to be clear eyed and proactive in addressing risks to our common agenda, and those include attempts to expand majoritarian or populist rule at the expense of fundamental minority rights and effective democratic governance based on dialogue and consensus within the rule of law. Though our agenda remains manifestly inclusive and seeks points of convergence even in difficult cases, we remain steadfast in our commitment to core principles and recognition of key values like human and labor rights, press freedom, and the importance of robust democratic institutions.

The coup d’etat that occurred last June in Honduras underlines the continuing challenges to democratic governance in the region. Our response shows that our interests are served by leveraging multilateral mechanisms, in concert with our partners, to support the implementation of principled policies. Together with all of the other members of the Organization of American States we condemned the coup d’état that led to the expulsion of the country’s president. By continuing to engage with the Hondurans to encourage a process of negotiation and resolution of that country’s internal crisis, we helped to strengthen the―collective defense of democracy―as a cornerstone of the Inter-American System.

Today, elected leaders who are moving to promote national reconciliation and their country’s return to the fold of hemispheric democracies govern Honduras. As Honduras moves forward, we are maintaining a vigilant eye on the human rights situation there in light of serious concerns that have been raised. While the U.S. has welcomed the return of Honduras to democratic rule, some governments have instead chosen to continue isolating the Honduran government. Their concerns centered on the alleged validity of the November 2009 elections that brought Lobo to power, despite the fact that these elections have been widely viewed as credible, fair, and representative of the views of the Honduran people. Indeed, President Lobo has prepared the groundwork for the normalization of constitutional order and the restoration of Honduras to the Organization of American States. Those efforts should be commended and supported by all the countries of the Americas.

Cuba is another case in point. Since taking office, President Obama has made clear his commitment to supporting the Cuban people’s desire to freely determine their own future. The President also laid out his openness to direct engagement when he said, and I quote, “we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.”

During the first 20 months of the Obama administration, we have begun to make progress on the vision that the President has outlined. First, we have taken measures to increase contact between separated families and to promote the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. We believe that the reunification of the divided Cuban family is a positive step toward building a better future for Cuba. In addition, we have engaged Cuban authorities on key bilateral matters like migration and direct mail service. In the wake of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, the United States worked with Cuba to expedite the arrival of critical supplies to victims and survivors of the worst natural disaster in the modern history of the Western Hemisphere.

We have also increased artistic and cultural exchanges between our countries, consistent with our long-standing support for freedom of expression. The “Peace Without Borders” concert in Havana organized by Juanes last year and performances in the United States by noted Cuban artists such as Carlos Varela demonstrate in concrete terms our desire to promote greater communication between the people of the United States and Cuba. In 2009, there was an 80 percent increase in travel licenses issued to U.S. persons under the public performances, athletic, and other competitions and exhibitions category; a 25% increase in religious licenses; and a 16% increase in licenses issued for academic travel to Cuba. Additionally, non-immigrant visa issuances for Cuban citizens have more than doubled in the last year, including visas for more Cubans to travel to the United States for cultural academic and professional exchange. This engagement has not generated overnight change, but it has advanced U.S. interests, and we are committed to continuously evaluating and refining our policies. We welcome the ongoing release of political prisoners, and note that Cuba is undergoing profound economic changes that we hope will improve the lives of the Cuban people.


Before I conclude, let me say that is also a true pleasure to be back in Canada in this wonderful city of Toronto. Canada is extremely important to the United States, and especially for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs that I manage. The U.S. has a vital partnership with Canada. When President Obama took office, his first foreign visit was to Canada. We are each other’s top trading partners, and we share a 5,500 mile border that is the longest between any two countries in the world. The United States views Canada as a vital member of the Inter-American community, so it is indeed fitting that we are gathered here today in Canada to discuss how Latin America is evolving and the role that the United States can play.

In conclusion, we are, indeed, forging a new vision for U.S. policy that is respectful, responsive, and realistic. Our common embrace of a qualitatively new level of partnership holds vast potential to help us thrive in our diversity and freedom.

I thank you for your attention.


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