CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Inter-American Relations

Inter-American Relations

George W. Bush pledged to focus on Latin America during his second term but shifted his focus to the War on Terror in the advent of 9/11. A heavy-handed approach towards the region, dominated by the simplistic dictum that “you are with us or against us”, and an overemphasis on militaristic and repressive policies–on drugs and immigration, for example–generated widespread resentment. The rise of democratically elected leftist regimes both capitalized from and fostered the resurgence of anti-Americanism, leading some commentators to declare that the US had “lost” the region, opening it up to the influence of adversarial powers like China, Russia, or even Iran.

When elected, President Obama pledged a return to multilateralism, and offered to engage countries in the region as equal partners. He argued that the nature of the threats facing the Western Hemisphere in the twenty first century–organized crime, environmental degradation, climate change–were beyond the pale of any individual country, and should be tackled jointly. This new rhetoric, accompanied by the recognition of a shared responsibility for the drug trade, given demand fordrugs and supply of arms originating in the US, created an auspicious moment for US-Latin American relations. Yet, tensions reemerged as policy differences became manifest between the US andregional powers, particularly with regard to the expansion of a military base agreement with Colombia and the handling of the democratic and diplomatic impasse generated by the coup against Zelaya in Honduras. Moreover, Obama’s inability to move forward in any of the substantive policy issues most relevant to the region, from comprehensive immigration reform to the ratification of free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, created a sense of stasis.

The Obama administration did reverse Bush-era restrictions on travel to Cuba, eliminated the limits on remittances, opened the way to investment in key areas, and accepted the premise of a conditional return of Cuba to the OAS. However, it showed little willingness to go further in reversing the embargo, widely perceived as a failed policy and universally resented in the region. Obama has also further committed the US, through Plan Merida and the Central American and Caribbean Security Initiatives, to a war on drugs increasingly decried as ineffective and evendangerous. This led to claims that Obama’s policies towards the region exhibit substantive continuity with those inherited from his predecessor. Nonetheless, regional polls show that the President enjoys high popularity in Latin America and that majorities now express favorable views of the US and its influence in the region, which suggests that the administration’s efforts to appear more even-handed in its approach to the region are favorably perceived.

It could be argued that the US has little choice but to engage the region on this basis. While the US is mired in political stalemate and suffering from lackluster economic growth Latin America seems to be on the rise, enjoying an era of social, political, and economic success. Its governments are democratically elected, economic growth is solid, and strides have been made against poverty and inequality, often through the introduction of innovative policies. There has been a shift in global power towards emerging economies, which has enabled them to adopt a more assertive and independent stance in international relations, including with the United States. Still, challenges remain. Most economies in the region continue to rely excessively on commodity exports, fueled by demand from China, for their growth. Some countries have experienced a weakening of democratic institutions. And the region is still a long way from fully escaping the ravages of poverty and inequality. While the tenor of relations has indeed changed, the US will remain a significant and important regional player. This was evidenced by Obama’s 2011 trip to the region, which was framed by the themes of respect and partnership. The choice of destinations–Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador–suggested a focus on likeminded allies with the greatest potential for mutually beneficial partnerships. For example, at least 10 partnership agreements were signed with Brazil during the trip,ranging from trade and energy to nuclear non-proliferation. On the other hand, the administration avoided openly sparring with countries that oppose it, thereby attempting to move forward on the basis of mutual respect.

In sum, inter-American relations have evolved in their complexity. Integration has continued apace and there are broad areas of common interest and much to gain, but the rules of engagement have been altered. While the US is still the most powerful player it must now deal with more autonomous and assertive regional players that are increasingly willing and able to diversify their relations with extra regional players.

Key general research questions in this area include the following:

  • How will American interests in the region continue to evolve and what are the implications?
  • How might policy towards the region evolve, if at all, under the currently divided US Congress? What are the implications for the region of the presidential campaign of 2012?
  • Will the US continue to pursue a policy of partnership and respect? What are its implications?
  • What can be expected of regional integration efforts? With what consequences?
  • What is the future role of regional and sub-regional institutions?
  • What are the implications for Inter-American relations of the new found assertiveness and autonomy of regional powers?
  • What are the threats of rising arms purchases in the region and a potential arms race between regional powers?
  • Is there a danger of the resurgence of democratic slippage, or even authoritarianism? How might these affect Inter-American relations?
  • What are the greatest threats to peace and stability in the region?
  • What is the best approach to deal with transnational security issues like gangs, the drug trade, and other forms of international crime?

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