The scandal over the conduct of the Secret Service personnel in Cartagena, Colombia, distracted Americans from the fact that the United States continues to show deficiencies in its foreign policy toward the Americas.
Since the end of the Cold War, conservative and liberal administrations have opted not to revise their anti-communist agenda and have abandoned development aid and other humanitarian initiatives in order to concentrate on issues such as the drug war and free trade.
Since the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, Ronald Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and George W. Bush’s Plan Colombia — and after billions of dollars of tax money spent on the war on drugs — it is clear that the drug policy has faltered. Millions of Americans continue to consume narcotics and supply continues to surge.
The post-Cold War objective of extending free trade and investor rights policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement all the way down to Argentina has also failed. Since the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, only 13 of the 32 regional members have opted to sign bilateral trade agreements with the United States.
Washington continues to rely on its traditional overbearing approach in the region, which is reflected in its bilateral trade policies, and instead of winning the region’s confidence, it has strengthened regional trading blocs, such as Mercosur. Its inability to abandon its Cold War mentality has limited the nation’s capacity to influence the region.
This was clear at the Sixth Summit of the Americas where President Barack Obama failed to capitalize on an opportunity to regain the region’s confidence and push its trade agenda. His firm rejection of Cuba’s presence at the summit or at any future summit was not welcomed by regional actors.
Obama and his advisors were not willing to move from their position on the issue of Cuba or any other issue that did not center on U.S. bilateral trade. Regional actors came prepared to discuss issues that could determine the hemisphere’s future in the years to come.
They were eager to redefine the strategy for the war on drugs and even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined the other members in pointing out that the current approach was not working. But the Obama administration showed no interest in moving past its zero-tolerance policy.
President Obama was indifferent to discussions about the possibility of expanding economic prosperity in the region, which moved beyond the U.S. bilateral trade agenda. His administration had arrived unprepared to tackle other regional economic development agendas such as the possibility of strengthening interregional markets and mitigating the impact of fiscal policies that boost the growth of industrialized nations at the expense of Latin American and Caribbean exports.
Washington’s inability to redefine its strategy toward the Americas only strengthens the agenda of the recently created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, which now challenges the existence of the U.S. controlled Organization of American States. CELAC, which held its inaugural meeting in 2011 and welcomed the presence Cuba, is truly representative of the region’s interests and successfully isolates the region from Washington’s influence by denying membership to the U.S. and Canada.
Washington’s inability to deal with a more complex, dynamic and prosperous post-Cold War Latin America may have devastating implications on the U.S. economy. Regional trade blocs have slowly reduced the region’s dependence on the U.S. consumer market. Today, Latin America represents one of the most stable markets in the global economic system with large potentials for growth.
For the first time, a final joint declaration was not reached at the Summit of the Americas because the U.S. and Canada did not accept Cuba’s inclusion for the next summit to be held in Panama in 2015. The decision isolated both nations from the rest of the hemisphere. Canada returned empty handed, and the Obama administration returned home with a scandal. Meanwhile, the other 31 nations left more convinced about the need for greater hemispheric independence.
The outcome of the summit is a clear indicator that the U.S. must approach the region with greater commitment. A new policy for the Americas is needed, one that is tailored to the region’s interests.
The region has moved beyond the Cold War. Now it is time for the United States to do the same.
Stefano Tijerina, Ph.D., is an adjunct instructor at the University of Maine and Husson University. He teaches Latin American history, Canadian history, U.S. history, policy and political economy.