In 1982, Ronald Reagan went on a disastrous tour of Latin America. In a series of gaffes that would have embarrassed an especially out-of-touch Japanese politician, Reagan proposed a toast to ‘the people of Bolivia’ at a dinner with the president of Brazil, and opined that Guatemalan military strongman Ríos Montt, who is now facing genocide charges, was ‘totally dedicated to democracy’. After the trip, Reagan memorably told reporters that ‘I learned a lot…you’d be surprised, yes, because, you know, they’re all individual countries.’
President Obama will himself be heading to Latin America in April for the sixth Summit of the Americas, where he will meet the leaders of other nations in the Organization of American States (OAS). While it’s improbable that he will cause as much offense as Reagan, he could still be in for an awkward weekend.
US relations with Venezuela, for example, have scarcely improved since the days when George W. Bush’s nemesis, Hugo Chávez, was calling the ex-president a ‘donkey’ and a ‘drunkard’. Earlier this year Washington chucked Livia Acosta Noguera, Venezuela’s consul-general in Miami, out of the country. No explanation was forthcoming, but there were rumors that it was related to a murky affair during Acosta’s time as a diplomat in Mexico, when, it is claimed, she engaged in discussions with students about possible cyberattacks against US interests.
Reacting to the ignominious expulsion of his representative in Miami, Chávez announced he was closing the consulate, a decision which caused some irritation in the locality, even leading to a small demonstration. This was the latest spat in what has been a fractious three years. In 2010 Chávez refused to accept President Obama’s nominee for the post of US ambassador to Caracas, Larry Palmer, whereupon Washington got its own back by revoking the visa of Venezuela’s ambassador to Washington. The two states still do not have full diplomatic relations.
The Obama administration has also decertified Venezuela three years in a row for failing to cooperate sufficiently with Washington’s anti-narcotics efforts. Even the amount of Venezuelan oil imported by the US is in decline, only accounting for about 8 percent of total US imports in 2010.
Still, despite the early optimism, it was somewhat predictable that the US-Venezuela relationship would not recover from the deep freeze of the Bush presidency. Even as a candidate, Obama had called the Venezuelan leader a ‘demagogue’ who spouted a ‘predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy.’
Relations with Bolivia can’t be said to have gone smoothly either. Like Venezuela, Bolivia has repeatedly been decertified by the Obama administration for having ‘failed demonstrably’ to meet its international anti-narcotics obligations. Not until November 2011 did the two countries agree to restore full diplomatic relations, which had been suspended in 2008 when Washington and La Paz engaged in tit-for-tat expulsions of ambassadors, and Bolivian president Evo Morales sent the US Drug Enforcement Agency packing. Morales’ government continues to insist that the DEA will not be permitted to return to Bolivia.
As for Cuba, it’s effectively been business as usual. Although Obama went through with his campaign pledge to remove barriers to family travel for Cuban-Americans seeking to visit the island, Washington’s fifty year old trade embargo has not been lifted and the Caribbean nation still features on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Havana has expressed a wish to attend April’s summit in Colombia, but the likelihood is that it will not, as the US has stressed that its old adversary will only be invited if it carries out democratic reforms.
Both Cuba and Bolivia bristle at the existence of US ‘democracy promotion’ programs targeting their countries. In 2009 a contractor named Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his role in the US Agency for International Development (USAID)’s ‘democracy promotion’ activities in the Caribbean nation. Gross had been engaged in setting up internet access in the island – in violation of Cuban law – and smuggled prohibited, state of the art components into Cuba. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying.
The US president will at least be able to rely on a warm welcome from his hosts. He has spoken approvingly of Colombia, calling it ‘one of our strongest partners not only in the region but around the world.’ The administration’s foreign aid request for 2013 seeks roughly US$330 million in socio-economic and military assistance for Colombia. While this is considerably less than Bush-era aid packages for Colombia, it continues Washington’s long-standing and controversial support for Bogotá’s fight against drugs, insurgents and poverty.
The Colombian government has another reason for being well-disposed towards Obama. Last year the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) finally passed Congress, almost five years after it was signed by President Bush. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has, like his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, been a strong advocate of the CFTA. Although this trade pact is controversial, partly because Colombia is the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, Obama has argued that it represents ‘a major win for American workers and businesses.’
Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.