By Anna Edgerton
On the same day that President Obama spoke in Rio de Janeiro to the Brazilian people, celebrating their country’s emergence as a global power, he had to explain to the world why the United States was leading coalition forces into military engagement with Libya.
Obama cast the healthy democracies and economies of Latin America as a model for the people of the Middle East. This made for inspiring speeches that flattered his hosts in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, but it also served to justify the timing of his trip in the midst of multiple crises elsewhere in the world.
Throughout the week, Obama heaped praise on the successful transition to democracy made by many Latin American countries after decades of dictatorship, suggesting that people everywhere yearn for the same rights to freedom and a representative government. In Rio, he mentioned Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya specifically, and “the struggle for these rights unfold[ing] across the Middle East and North Africa.”
He repeated this message on Monday in Santiago, Chile when he described all of Latin America as “a guide for people around the world who are beginning their own journeys toward democracy.” In a clear allusion to upheavals in the Middle East, he said that Latin America could be an example of “how to build political parties and organize free elections; how to ensure peaceful transfers of power; how to navigate the winding paths of reform and reconciliation.”
This might not be a fair comparison, however, said Patricio Navia, a Chilean columnist and expert on international relations, in an interview. Most countries in Latin America had a previous history of democracy that made the transition easier, returning to democracy after a period of authoritarian rule. “Whereas in the case of Chile you could work with existing political parties that had been proved,” he said, “you can’t quite do the same in the Middle East because you don’t have the same prior history of democracy.”
Obama’s repeated praise of democratic ideals in Latin America largely served as a rhetorical connection between his trip and events unfolding in the Middle East. Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, said the United States should not focus on just the crisis areas of the world. “The fact that the American president has taken this moment to visit countries that are democratic, that are basically positive stories, tells us something about the United States needing to engage with positive examples,” he said.
Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, on the other hand, said he found the week’s visit to be devoid of substance.
“Latin America has been repeatedly a target of highfaluting rhetoric,” Birns said, but “very rarely have we seen sound policies that show respect for the region.” He said Obama lacked a vision for the southern half of the hemisphere, while admitting that “visions haven’t fared particularly well in Latin America.”
When Obama delivered his state-of-the-hemisphere like speech in Chile, he held up the Alliance for Progress, an economic program that President Kennedy initiated exactly half a century ago, as a shining example of regional cooperation. Although this plan fell short of its goals for economic cooperation, Obama neither recognized past shortcomings nor presented a clearer proposal for the future. The speech was consistent with the administration’s expressed desire for partnership on equal ground, but left little hope that Obama’s attention would linger any longer on Latin America.
Washington has understandably been focused on the Middle East, but even there, Obama’s foreign policy has also been characterized by hedged calculations. To lead military action in Libya with vague declarations about democracy and freedom from Rio leaves much to be desired in terms of leadership. Gary Sick, a senior research scholar at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, said that no country can serve as a model for democracy for another country. “Egypt can’t be a model for Yemen; Bahrain can’t be a model for Libya.” He added that South American democracies certainly couldn’t be a model because in addition to political differences, “it’s a totally different culture.”
Still, Obama’s personal popularity abroad is an advantage in the face of significant foreign policy challenges. He still enjoys an 84 percent approval rating in Africa according to the 2010 U.S.-Global Leadership Project by Gallup. In 2010, two years after Obama’s election, 64 percent of Latin Americans had a positive view of the United States, up from 45 percent in 2008, according to Latinobarómetro, a Chilean poll.
He receives his warmest welcome in El Salvador, where he offered a commitment to reforming immigration. Still, he stopped short of providing Temporary Protected Status for the over 2 million Salvadorians living in the United States.
If Latin America’s gains in economic growth and democratic governance are to be an example for the Middle East as Obama suggested, part of the message must include the hard road ahead. The challenge for Obama’s administration will be to engage both parts of the world with more than just talk of economic cooperation and democratic ideals. “He has not inspired the region,” said Birns, “and this trip will be forgotten in a millisecond.” After one day back in Washington, it seems that it has.
Anna Edgerton is a graduate student at Columbia University School of Journalism and an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alicia Nijdam.