Throughout the last decade, it has become apparent that the United States is no longer basing its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean on the Monroe doctrine, dominant pretty much throughout the entire 20th century. However, old habits die hard, and the country’s stand on regional priorities has often led to contradictory perceptions. This article tries to take a look at the United States’ main changes in its foreign policy towards Latin America, during Barack Obama’s administration, and to assess the limits of such changes.

Even before the end of George W. Bush’s era, the need for a transformation in the United States and Latin America’s relations was evident. On one hand, the agenda setting post 9/11 had marked other regions, countries and issues as vital priorities – Middle East, Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, transnational terrorism, etc. Nevertheless, even prior to this the United States thought of Latin America as a region in perpetual need of more democracy, more market, and a fight to the death against the War on Drugs. Given that the means to those ends had not always been innocuous, today’s resistance in the region towards the United States’ meddling comes as no surprise.

That is why stakes were high when Obama rose to power in 2008, defending change in all fronts. However, as it usually happens with electoral promises, hopes vanishes after some time, leaving room for reality. Some challenges stood out in his agenda: the immigration reform – which his predecessor had unsuccessfully attempted – and the international financial crisis that burst just months before the president took charge. His foreign policy was mainly focused on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently he has put his eye on Iran and Syria as well. But apart from the impact that a reform on immigration would have on the country’s “Latino” population, what room was there left for an agenda that made amends with what once known as the United States’ backyard?

Two approaches in the foreign policy towards Latin America prevailed. The first stressed the need to rearrange priorities and methodologies when dealing with relevant issues – some old, some new: inequality, economic growth, sustainability, migration, trade, citizen security, regional transnational crime, youth employment, just to name a few. Many of these were – and still are – threats to the democratic stability in the region, and may not be completely separated from what the United States intended for Latin America in the first place. However, they have become issues that can stand on their own: for example, strategy planning in the region today cannot leave out the fact that Latin America is one of the most inequitable parts of the world, and that itself is a challenge worth tackling.

The second approach has been focused on emphasizing that Latin America and the Caribbean should cease to be treated as a homogeneous region. Foreign policy has come to understand that not every issue on the agenda affects each country the same way; maybe even more importantly, because the United States has as many friends here as it has foes. A ‘grand strategy’ usually comes to a halt when it has to deal with the resistance of strong regional leaderships. To that end, policy recommendations have stressed the need for the United States to focus on the countries or regional structures they can work with, on the issues that are relevant to them – in a case by case approach – and try to be more pragmatic with those who refuse a stronger relation.

Though innovative when compared to the United States’ history with Latin America, these approaches have not always translated into concrete policy. The efforts towards fighting inequality have been deemed insufficient by many analysts, due mainly to the lack of appropriate resources in aid development programs. The Alliance for Progress was a previous experience that had some of the same problems; particularly, a struggle against internal resistance from political factions that did not wish to encourage opposing regimes. Just very recently there have been hints at a change of policy towards the War on Drugs, a costly war that now faces an evolution: while trafficking has been almost eradicated in Colombia, the problem has moved to countries such as Mexico – bringing the problem to the United States’ doorstep – or Peru, Bolivia or Argentina, which are not ready to cooperate with the same energy as Colombia did, given that they do not share the methods the United States used in Colombia in the first place.

As for the American pragmatism, one can say it has been the biggest success in Obama’s administrations so far. Stepping away from the spotlight and surreptitiously working their way into free trade agreements, the United States has managed to concentrate on NAFTA – with mixed results for Mexico, have signed bilateral agreements with Panama, Colombia, and continue to pursue further associations – such as the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will bring Chile and Peru into the picture. It is understandable that within this framework the United States has ‘blessed‘ the Pacific Alliance between these countries.

There are still many things to be accomplished in bettering the prospects of Latin America’s relations with the United States. Cuba, in particular, remains an unfinished business, and Latin America’s support for the Caribbean country has grown considerably over the last decade. The United States cannot ignore this situation anymore, particularly when countries such as Venezuela use it as another excuse for belligerence. If we add this to a serious compromise in working on the most acute issues concerning Latin America, the promise of a new chapter in the United States and Latin America’s relations might actually lean towards becoming a reality.

Image source: USAID Flickr page.