President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba and Argentina next week will be rich in both substance and symbolism.
Early in his first term, President Obama said he was determined to open a new chapter of engagement between Latin America and the United States, one based on mutual respect and shared values. By abandoning the policies that for decades were the hallmark of U.S.-Latin America relations, the Obama administration has therefore succeeded in building stronger and more productive ties between the United States and its southern neighbors.
This is the right approach for a region that, despite some notable exceptions, has over the past 30 years overwhelmingly embraced democratic institutions, held regularly scheduled elections, and, more often than not, respected political alternation.
Of course, Latin America was hardly at the top of President Obama’s foreign policy priorities when he came to office, given challenges facing the global economy and the growth of extremism across the Islamic world, among other issues requiring his immediate attention. Still, the administration can chalk up a list of important achievements across the region, from the historic opening of relations with Cuba, to trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, to continued security support for Colombia, which contributed to a major peace breakthrough with left-wing guerrillas.
Meanwhile, despite the current inflammatory political rhetoric, commercial ties between the United States and Mexico are at an all-time high, with trade between the two countries reaching $1.46 billion per day.
The region has also benefited from Obama’s critically important decision to designate Vice President Joe Biden as his point person on Latin America. Using both his natural charm and his deep knowledge of a region he has visited 14 times over the past seven years, Biden has successfully bridged a gap in relations with Brazil and persuaded the U.S. Congress to approve crucial aid for Central America.
True, it has not all been a succession of victories and achievements. U.S. relations with several Latin American governments remain testy, and the administration has maintained a war of words with Venezuela over the need for greater democratic pluralism in that country. However, President Obama has understood that the region is not a monolithic block, that in every country democratic institutions will evolve at their own pace, and that the role of the United States is to support and encourage rather than dictate and interfere.
This is underscored most clearly in the fact that Barack Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in almost 90 years. His policy toward the island is, without a doubt, his boldest hemispheric initiative, as it chips away at a more than half-century-old embargo policy that has hurt ordinary Cubans, put U.S. commercial interests at a disadvantage compared to those of other countries, and poisoned the U.S. relationship with the rest of the continent.
Critics of the rapprochement cite Cuba’s human rights record, and they are right to do so — it is a topic of considerable concern. But we are in a better position to have a real impact if the United States establishes a more fluid rapport with Havana. The truth is that the embargo has ultimately failed to persuade the Cuban authorities to allow a more open and democratic society. It is time to try a different approach.
President Obama’s decision to visit Argentina just over 100 days into President Mauricio Macri’s term, meanwhile, is also very significant. The trip, which is the first visit by a U.S. president since 2005, clearly recognizes the newly elected President’s determination to reinsert Argentina into the global economy, as well as his willingness to build a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States. In Buenos Aires, there will be an opportunity for both leaders to engage in a substantive dialogue about the future of the region, as well as expand on an extensive bilateral agenda that includes trade, investment, education, renewable energy and climate change, citizen security, and drug policy. Most importantly, the trip recognizes Argentina’s new direction under President Macri’s leadership and the unique opportunity it represents for both the people of Argentina and the hemisphere.
With just over nine months before he hands the reins over to a successor, President Obama continues to implement his strong vision for the region, anchored in building new relationships and renewing old ones as well as creating partnerships across countries linked not just by geography but by shared history, interests, and values. This is the right path for increased and long-lasting prosperity for all.