Latin American countries press for substance behind Obama’s pledges

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. It also had an incorrect name for the Center. This version has been corrected.

President Obama’s visit to Latin America recalled at times the euphoria that surrounded him a few years ago in the United States: Hundreds in Rio de Janeiro lined up behind barricades at his hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, while Chilean President Sebastian Pinera complimented Obama’s basketball skills and Michelle Obama’s looks at a news conference.

Now, the question is what concrete results will emerge from the five-day visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, which ended Wednesday.

At the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, Obama uttered a phrase that Latin American officials liked so much that they have often repeated it. The United States, he said, wanted a relationship within the region of equals, not that of a “senior partner or a junior partner.”

But for those countries, that partnership includes some requests for the United States. El Salvador, for example, wants changes in U.S. immigration law, and Brazil is seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Obama can’t easily deliver either.

“His framework, I think, is very attractive,” said Eric Farnsworth, who was a top adviser on Latin American issues in the Clinton administration. “The question is what flows from that framework. These countries are looking for specific actions.”

Tensions emerged quickly, despite the excitement about Obama’s trip. Within a few hours of arriving in Brazil on Saturday, the American president was standing beside Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at a joint media event as she essentially delivered a diplomatic tongue-lashing.

Rousseff complained about U.S. tariffs on Brazilian goods such as ethanol, urged Obama to back Brazil on the U.N. issue and warned of “empty rhetoric” instead of a real alliance between the two countries. Later that day, she again pushed for the Security Council seat during her toast to Obama at an lunch that was supposed to be a less substantive affair than the formal meeting the two leaders held earlier.

In part, achieving a partnership with Latin America is challenging because of the differences among the countries in the region. El Salvador is a relatively tiny country (a population of 6 million) with a struggling economy and a problem with drug smuggling, but Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country by population (190 million) and the seventh-largest economy.

Some nations in Latin America, such as Chile, have close ties with Washington, but others, such as Venezuela, chafe at American influence.

And some of the region’s goals are problematic for Obama. His desire to win over swing voters in the Midwest limits his ability to make immigration reform a major political initiative, despite the urgings of El Salvador and other Central American countries.

The United States also disagrees sharply with some countries in the region on certain issues: Obama arrived in Brazil two days after Rousseff’s government had abstained from the Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians. The United States has deemed India to be more of a priority for a permanent Security Council seat than Brazil, since it views India as a counterbalance in Asia to China.

Obama avoided these tensions throughout his trip. His 2009 pledge aside, his tone suggested that he is aware of the reality: The United States remains something of a big brother in this hemisphere, and there is little reason for Washington to criticize Latin American countries as it does China.

That approach at times delighted leaders in Latin America, but it didn’t stop them from asking for more. Standing before reporters after his meeting with Obama, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes praised the U.S. president for coming and then repeated his requests for help in fighting the drug trade and for immigration reform.

“It sends an important message that the president made the trip, rather than canceling or postponing” in response to U.S. military action in Libya, said Cynthia Arnson, a Latin America expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “But the trip’s true significance will unfold over time, depending on the follow-up and concrete results. Whether the White House will spend political capital on some of the big-ticket items — immigration reform, agricultural subsidies — remains to be seen.”

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