Latin America

Obama’s Low-Key Legacy of Success in Latin America

How to do more with less: Manage expectations, learn from diplomatic blunders, and cut your losses with autocrats.

Greetings from Havana.

Photographer: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

When Barack Obama made his first presidential trip to Latin America, he knew better than to expect an effusive welcome. This was 2009, the region’s “pink tide” of left-leaning nationalist leaders was cresting, and if Washington no longer stank of sulfur -- as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez once claimed during George W. Bush’s tenure -- neither was there that whiff of “fundamental commitment” that the U.S. government had pledged to its neighbors earlier that decade. Nonetheless, Obama went on to disarm his skeptics at the Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago, by calling for a reset of hemispheric relations, including with Cuba, and even poked fun at ugly Americans and their discontents.

Eight years on, how will Obama be remembered, and what remains of the “partnership” for “a new prosperity and personal security” he touted back in Port of Spain? More than meets the eye, perhaps. On the face of it, his government paid scant attention to the region. After all, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to wind down, conflict in Syria, and the Asia pivot in play, arguably there was little room for backyard initiatives.

Maybe that’s just as well. An old saw about the Americas has it that after years of prickly relations across the Florida Straits, a bit of benign neglect by the hemispheric hegemon isn’t always a bad thing. Obama’s achievement was to do more with less by managing low expectations, learning from diplomatic blunders, cutting his losses with tendentious autocrats, and parlaying diplomatic gestures into unlikely policy wins. True, U.S.-Latin American relations are still a work in progress, and often pocked with setbacks -- illegal migration and international drug crime are just a couple -- but they’ve also evolved in ways that a few years ago might have seemed unimaginable.

Start with the decision to reach out to the regime of Cuban President Raul Castro. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes recently hailed it as “the number-one reason why we’ve been able to transform our relationship with the hemisphere.” That was an overstatement. The region’s economic downturn, brought on by a decade of populist profligacy on top of the global commodities glut, did more than anything to bring down a suite of Latin leaders who’d made enmity with Washington their trademark.

And yet by reestablishing relations with Cuba, Obama did more than bury the last quarrel of the Cold War; he also robbed the region’s ranking authoritarians of their convenient foil. “Overall, Obama’s legacy in the region was to recognize that antagonistic relations tend to empower those players that pose the biggest threat to U.S. interests,” said Matthew Taylor, a Latin America scholar at American University. “And that friendly engagement with democracies, and partnering rather than dictating terms, may yield the best fruits in the long haul.”

Granted, the road to friendly engagement was strewn with mistakes. Washington spymasters’ directive to tap the mobile phone of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff created a scandal that prompted Rousseff to cancel a state visit in 2013 and drove a wedge between the U.S. and its biggest partner in Latin America. Obama also failed to broker immigration reform, managing instead to inflame partisan ire on both sides of the Rio Grande by deporting undocumented Latin Americans by the droves while also issuing executive orders seen by right-wingers to coddle illegals.

The administration’s bet on Asian trade was a snub to its neighbors in the Americas, which account for one-fifth of U.S. foreign trade, and in retrospect it was possibly a mistake, since Donald Trump has announced he’ll scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Then there were lesser but still toxic incidents, such as the antics of rogue Secret Service agents before a regional summit in Cartagena, Colombia, which damaged Obama’s charm offensive and generally confirmed the standing conceit about gringos gone wild abroad.  

And yet U.S. penitence for those gaffes, and a backlog of others as in Guatemala and Guantanamo Bay, may have helped set the tone for smoother relations. Interestingly, many of the U.S.’s boldest initiatives in the Americas were drafted before Obama’s time. It was President George W. Bush who gave lavish support to Colombia’s war on the narco-guerrilla insurgency, known as Plan Colombia, and helped broker the hemisphere’s strongest pact for democracy, inscribed in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Obama’s predecessor also took the lead in favor of the Free Trade in the Americas Act, aiming to open borders and grow trade from the Arctic Circle to Chile.

However, much of the U.S.’s most activist diplomacy quickly ran aground. Lefty leaders like Venezuela’s Chavez, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner shot down the free-trade pact, which they saw as a neoliberal plot to dominate the region. Decades of diffidence and a speak-no-evil camaraderie kept Latin American leaders from invoking the groundbreaking democracy charter against one another -- creating an ideological bling ring that sheltered Bolivarian autocrats like Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. And while Plan Colombia brought the hemisphere’s fiercest guerrilla insurgency to its knees -- and, eventually, to the negotiating table -- even that vindication of U.S. muscle diplomacy was a victory celebrated on Obama’s watch.

Obama succeeded by building on inherited success, but also by lowering his voice in the face of ideology-charged bluster. “He was not a confrontational guy and took care not to overreact when blowhards like Morales and Chavez lashed out,” said Jaime Aparicio Otero, Bolivia’s former ambassador to Washington. That flexibility helped him ignore slights, navigate hot-button topics and ramp up 12 bilateral trade agreements to work the edges of conflicted regional economic relations. Even as the Obama administration courted Asia, trade with Latin America grew by nearly 50 percent to $421 billion from 2008 to 2015.

Most importantly, perhaps, Obama knew how to spin gesture into substance. “He knew that in relationships without real global importance, which abound in our region, symbolism is important,” Aparicio told me. That hardly makes Obama the most ambitious leader to engage the hemisphere, but he may have been one of the few U.S. presidents to “get Latin America,” as Aparicio noted. 

With bluster again on the rise in Washington, that nuanced grasp of hemispheric relations may be missed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.