Monday, February 3, 2014

VOXXI: Latin America continues to be far away from the White House

Latin America continues to be far away from the White House
W. Alejandro Sanchez
February 3, 2014
Originally published:

It is not a big surprise, but once again Latin American and the Caribbean continues to be out of the radar and the agenda of the White House, and the most recent State of the Union (SOTU) address is proof of this.
President Barack Obama barely mentioned U.S. foreign policy towards the Western Hemisphere during his SOTU) speech last week. In the same line, the Republican responses were focused on U.S. domestic policy. In other words, there was not even a hint of a new doctrine regarding the future of the inter-American system. This is not a surprise.
The Facts of SOTU
The American Presidency Project, maintained by the University of California Santa Barbara, has broken down President Obama’s 2014 SOTU: his speech contained 6923 words and lasted 1 hour and 5minutes.
In spite of the hour-long speech, the U.S. leader only commended commercial and educational partnerships in the Americas, without mentioning specific allies or initiatives. He did pledge to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, but he has promised this for years.
Looking back at President Obama’s recent SOTUs, we find that he has not traditionally focused on Latin America or the Caribbean. In his 2012 speech he solely declared, “Our oldest alliances in Europe and Asia are stronger than ever.  Our ties to the Americas are deeper.” Meanwhile, 2013 he stated, “In defense of freedom, we’ll remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa […].”
This should not be surprising, as the U.S. government currently is mostly focused on domestic issues, while its foreign policy is centered around Asia and Iran, as well as ending a very unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, as a Latin Americanist, I certainly would have liked to see more about the Western Hemisphere in future State of the Union addresses.
The Republican Response to SOTU
After President Obama’s speech, Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave a response in Spanish. The Republican also did not break ground regarding a new inter-American system.
Representative Ros-Lehtinen explained how her “family fled the tyranny of Cuba in search of freedom, democracy and opportunity.”
Nevertheless, her proposals for the future were focused on domestic issues, such as the economy and a vague statement about “permanently [fixing] a broken immigration system.”
A Latin Americanist Staff
As an analyst of Western Hemisphere issues, both President Obama’s State of the Union and the response by Representative Ros-Lehtinen do not provide policy statements or proposals to analyze in order to create a concise analysis of the future of U.S. relations with the rest of the continent.
Certainly, the U.S. leader and one member of congress are not the sole individuals that formulate U.S. foreign policy. In a January 2013 commentary for VOXXI, I discussed that President Obama’s cabinet members should not just be of latino descent; they need to include Latin Americanists, meaning experts on Western Hemispheric affairs. Despite this, some senior policymakers have carried out significant initiatives to improve Washington’s stance in the Americas.
For example, in November 2013 Secretary of State John Kerry gave an important speech at the Organization of American States in which he historically stated that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Meanwhile U.S. military operations in the Western Hemisphere are in the safe hands of an expert military officer, General John Kelly, the commander of Southern Command.
There have also been progressive initiatives towards the region under President Obama, such as improving– albeit at a snail’s pace– ties with Cuba. Moreover, the President has met with regional heads of state. In 2013 he visited Mexico and Costa Rica while Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Brazil, Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago. Additionally, President Obama will meet with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Harper in mid-February in Mexico.
An Ideal Speech for Latin America
In a utopian speech regarding the future of Western Hemisphere affairs, it would have been nice to hear the president discuss the future of U.S. aid to Mexico and Colombia, and to address U.S.-Brazil relations after the NSA scandal.
As for commercial matters, this speech should include the future of CAFTA, NAFTA (now in its 20th year) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (now in its 10th year). Finally, the Trans Pacific Partnership would also have to be discussed at length as this potential free trade zone will serve as an umbrella for nations in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific that have U.S.-friendly governments (i.e. Australia, Chile, Singapore and Peru).
Overall, President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union showcased a minimalist approach towards the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Republican response by Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen was focused on migration, an off-handed remark about Cuba and no discussion about foreign policy towards the region as well.
If nothing else, these recent speeches highlight that Latin Americanist analysts have to continue raising awareness about the plethora of issues in Latin America and the Caribbean that deserve Washington’s attention as they are in the U.S.’s national interest.

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