Saturday, March 26, 2011

President Obama's visit to Latin America

Obama’s first trip to Latin America ended Wednesday, having been largely overshadowed by events in Libya and Japan. The U.S. media was both critical and supportive of Obama’s decision to go on the five-day trip, despite the crises in Libya and Japan, but seemed largely underwhelmed by the actual content of the trip. But what was the Latin American media’s response to the trip? Last week we looked at what was being said in the days leading up to the trip, now we focus on the trip itself.


  • Obama widely praised Brazil during his visit for the country’s successful transition to democracy and economic success, saying that Brazil is “a country that shows how a call for change that starts in the streets can transform a city, transform a country, transform a world.” He also emphasized that the two countries must be “equal societies”, although he stopped short of supporting Brazil’s bid to gain a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Instead, a statement was released saying that he “expressed appreciation” for Brazil’s desire to gain a seat on the council, a move that did not sit well with Brazil’s President Rousseff, who reportedly “barely looked at Obama during her remarks” in which she called for an end to what she sees as the “empty rhetoric” that has characterized relations between the two countries in the past.

    Rousseff was also less than pleased by Obama’s focus on Libya during his visit, because, in her words, “I don't like declarations of war, wherever they occur.” She expressed disappointment that more wasn't done during the U.S. president's visit to remove U.S. barriers to Brazilian products

  • Brazilians denounced the U.S. security for Obama’s trip, calling it “aggressive”, with Brazil’s minister of science and technology Aloizio Mercadante calling it “unacceptable”. For its part, the U.S. embassy in Brazil maintained that it was a “classic system of security.” Similar criticisms were seen in Chile.
  • In spite of the intense security surrounding Obama during his trip, he did make a much-heralded trip to the City of God (Cidade de Deus) favela in Rio de Janiero, the largest of the city's slums “pacified” by the Unidades de Polícia Pacificadoras (UPPs) or the Police Peacekeeping Unit, a program Adam Isacson looked at in greater detail here on our blog.


  • During his stopover in Chile, Obama stirred up controversy, agreeing to help Chile deal with the human rights violations committed during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, but avoided apologizing for U.S. policies in Chile at the time, that are believed by many to have led to the 1973 coup that ousted democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and began the brutal dictatorship of Pinochet. While President Obama noted that it is important to “learn from” and “understand” our history, he said that we should not be “trapped” by it. According to MercoPress, “Chilean judges are still pursuing criminal investigations into nearly a third of the 3,065 deaths of leftists and other Pinochet opponents, including the two former presidents, whose deaths remain shrouded in mystery.”
  • The president also faced criticism over tight security during his trip to Chile, because it didn’t allow much opportunities for Chileans to actually see Obama, with no public appearances scheduled during his visit comparable to his trip to Brazil’s City of God favela. However, the security situation during Obama’s visit to Chile probably wasn’t helped by the small bomb that exploded in Viña del Mar just hours before the U.S. president arrived in the country.
  • Despite disappointment over the tight security, there was praise for President Obama's visit, with Patricio Melero, a right-wing Chilean politician, calling Obama's expressed view of Chile “fair recognition of our way to development.” Ignacio Walker, president of the Christian Democratic Party, meanwhile, stated that the U.S. president's visit served to “highlight the capacity to reconcile democracy, politics, economic growth and social equity.”

    Not everyone was as pleased by Obama's visit. Osvaldo Andrade, president of the Socialist Party, was one of several critics of the lack of concrete agreements between the two countries, labeling the president's visit to Chile a "show".

  • As for the president himself, Obama referred to Chile as a one of the “success stories of the region” and said the rescue of 33 miners trapped in the San Jose mine in Copiapó in October “inspired the world.” However, the Secretary General of the Organization for American States (OAS) Jose Miguel Insulza and Chilean President Sebastian Piñera criticized the lack of free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

El Salvador

  • While President Obama’s stopovers in Chile and Brazil were focused mainly on economic successes, the tone shifted on his stopover in El Salvador, during which issues surrounding drugs and immigration took center stage. Drug cartels pose a growing threat in El Salvador and the rest of Central America, and earlier this year, the U.S. pledged $200 million to fight the problem, as part of the the Central American Regional Security Intiative (CASI), aimed at increasing border security and expanding community-based anti-gang initiatives. Obama announced during his visit that the U.S. had pledged an additional $200 million to support security in the region, and that the U.S. would work with Central America to develop a new security strategy. Analyst Paolo Luers criticized the move, saying the only way for the U.S. to help combat the drug violence El Salvador and the rest of Central America faces is to legalize drug use and address the problem with drugs as a “public health problem” because “Washington knows it will never win the war against narcotrafficking.”

    President Obama also focused on immigration, saying that despite opposition, he would continue to fight for immigration reform, a move supported in El Salvador, as there are over 2,000,000 immigrants in the U.S. from El Salvador. The remittances from these Salvadorans are an important source of income to maintain the Salvadoran economy.

  • Obama left El Salvador a few hours ahead of schedule to turn his attention to the ongoing crisis in Libya, but still managed to make a visit to the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, just before the 31st anniversary of his assassination. The archbishop was a revered Catholic figure, and the visit was seen as symbolic of Obama's support of human rights in El Salvador, where approximately 75,000 people were killed during a bloody 12-year civil war.
  • Some analysts and politicians were critical of the president's visit to El Salvador, which lasted less than 24 hours and, they say, caused “much noise” with little policy action, although some, such as analyst Salvador Samayoa, here, praised the visit, due to the “distinction” and “international attention” it brought to the country.

Entire Region

  • During his visit to the region, Obama lobbied for a “new era of partnership” in Latin America, saying the region, which has seen impressive economic growth in recent years, has become more of asset for U.S. prosperity and security than in years past. Latin America, said Obama, is a “guide” to others seeking a transition to democracy. The region has shown that there is “no substitute for democracy” and that there is an “obligation to defend” democracy throughout the world, said the U.S. president.

This post was written by CIP Intern Erin Shea