Obama’s Latin American Tour
By Aleksander Aguilar*
After two years in power, President Barack Obama will undertake his first Latin America tour at the end of March, when he will visit three countries: Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.
The criteria for this visit could well be pragmatic. US diplomacy wishes to show where US international policy interests and concerns lie, so it has selected for the visit countries that are governed by heads of state with whom the Democrats consider they can work.
According to the Director of the Inter-American Dialogue Centre, Michael Shifter, in an interview in the Portafolio newspaper, the criteria for the visit, in brief, are: El Salvador for the challenges posed by organised crime in the region; Brazil for its geostrategic weight; and Chile, for its economic success
President Mauricio Funes, an open “follower” of the former Brazilian President Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party political model, maintains a fairly centrist policy marked by pragmatism, which at times is in conflict with his own party, the FMLN, an ex-guerrilla organisation turned institutional political party after the 1992 Peace Agreements which marked the end of the Salvadorian civil war. Washington’s concerns over the alarming level of insecurity in Central America have risen considerably and the visit to El Salvador could be seen as lending support to the government, which is looking for ways to fight this problem. According to Salvadorian National Civil Police statistics, 3,367 people were killed between January and October of last year; this works out as an average of 12 murders a day for a population of less than six million people.
Furthermore, El Salvador is known for having one of the highest rates of emigration, especially to the USA. The US authorities are keen to reduce this rate, particularly as the migrants put their live at risk by crossing Guatemala and Mexico, both dangerous countries with high levels of human rights abuses.
As a preparatory move to Obama’s visit, the US government is discussing the country’s incorporation into the Partnership to Grow Plan: a White House programme which aims to boost economic growth in various countries, which are politically stable but are going through an economic crisis. In Central America, El Salvador is the country which has grown least in the last few years and was the worst hit by the 2008 global crisis. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Central American region grew by 3.5% ast year, compared with the much higher 6% for Latin America as a whole. .
Brazil continues to gain economic weight on the global scene; it has its own diplomatic and commercial agenda and seeks to assume the role of spokesperson for the G20. The Brazilian Minister of External Relations, Antonio Patriota, has already announced that the country’s foreign policy goals will not radically change under the new government of President Dilma Rousseff, also from the Workers’ Party. However, the White House is hoping for a new closer relationship with Brazil through Rousseff, due to the President’s supposed greater pragmatism. There are issues that inevitably unite Washington and Brasilia, such as interest in renewable energies, and it is possible that Obama will make public his interest in the new Brazilian oil reserves.
The US also wants to boost its investments in Brazil, given that China has become the country’s main trade partner. Brazil and the US are due to sign at least ten bilateral agreements, including some which will try to weaken health regulations for the export of meat and fruit.
Sebastian Piñera is a right-wing President who is believed to be an agile politician, as shown in the miners’ rescue, and the US is interested in establishing a new alliance in South America, one as trustworthy as the one they share with Colombia. Colombia’s old demand for the approval of a free trade agreement, something that Obama still does not seriously have on his agenda, may have been the reason for the country’s removal from the tour.
*Aleksander Aguilar is a journalist based in Brazil, who has specialised in international affairs.
This article was translated by Tian Spain.