The United States’ relationship with Latin America suffers from a policy vacuum.
Fifteen years ago, if a soothsayer had said that the United States would find itself in a minority of three (with Canada and Panama) in an important vote at the 34-member Organisation of American States (OAS), he would have been accused of magical realism.
Yet that is what happened in March when the OAS agreed that its debate about repression in Venezuela should be held in camera. Given that Latin America was long seen as the Yanqui “backyard”, and given that the United States is still its biggest trade partner, the administration’s apparent loss of leverage there is startling.
The reasons behind this are complex. Some are conjunctural. Whereas other countries “send good diplomats to the OAS, the US doesn’t”, a Latin American official notes. Venezuela’s far-left government wants no truck with the OAS, which–ironically–it considers a tool of American imperialism.
Petrocaribe, its programme of subsidised-oil shipments, has bought it the gratitude and votes of 15 small countries in the Caribbean and Central America. The damage done to Washington’s relations with Brazil by Edward Snowden’s revelation last September that the National Security Agency listened to the mobile phone of President Dilma Rousseff is still not fully repaired.
But there are also some weightier reasons for the United States’ relative loss of influence in the region. On the one hand faster economic growth, social progress and stronger democracies have made many Latin American countries more self-confident and independent in outlook–something that is welcomed in the White House. On the other China has turned up, as a big trading partner, investor and aid donor. The Chinese chequebook is helping to keep anti-American governments in power in Ecuador and Cuba, as well as in Venezuela.
What should Washington do about all this? Some in Congress would like to wield the big stick. Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida accuse the administration of paying too little attention to Latin America and of being insufficiently robust in supporting the Venezuelan opposition.
Together with Bob Menendez, a Democrat who, like Mr Rubio, is of Cuban descent, he has introduced a motion calling for targeted sanctions against Venezuelan officials. Others would say that the last thing the United States should do if it wants to recover influence in the region is to replicate the sanctions that for 54 years have failed to topple the Castros in Cuba.
“We’re determined to avoid bilateralising this”, a senior administration official says of the Venezuelan imbroglio. Instead, the administration is quietly encouraged that Brazil and the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) have moved from solidarity with Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, to intervening to organise talks between government and opposition.
But officials also caution that there is no guarantee that Mr Maduro can or will take the minimum steps–such as freeing political prisoners and achieving bipartisan renewal of the Supreme Court and electoral authority–required to restore calm and uphold democracy.
Barack Obama has stressed the Americas’ common interests, values and heritage and talked much of “partnership”. This embrace of multilateralism is welcomed in the region. But to be effective, it would help if there were one or two policies.
The administration’s inability to get immigration reform through Congress is a source of continuing irritation in Mexico and Central America. The fervour may have gone from the drug war but those countries continue to suffer from the failure of drug prohibition.
The most pressing policy vacuum concerns energy–or rather its lack in the small and vulnerable countries of the Caribbean basin. With its economy in a mess, Venezuela is likely to tighten Petrocaribe’s terms. The United States may soon be in a position to export natural gas–but it doesn’t do subsidies.
So some creative thinking is swiftly needed, about emergency financing and technical help with wind, solar or geothermal power. Otherwise the Caribbean may see fuel riots–or China may step in to create neo-colonies on America’s doorstep. “I don’t know that we have an answer yet,” says another senior official.
One of the region’s ambassadors to Washington declares bluntly that “Latin America doesn’t exist in US foreign policy.” That is mainly because there are more urgent problems and priorities elsewhere in the world. Neglect is often benign. But not always. To adapt Dean Acheson’s comment about Britain after the second world war, the United States has lost an informal empire in Latin America but has yet to find a role.
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