Obama and the Americas: Promise, Disappointment, Opportunity

Abraham F Lowenthal. Foreign Affairs. Volume 89, Issue 4. July/August 2010.

Incoming U.S. presidents, from John F Kennedy to George W. Bush, have often announced a new policy initiative toward Latin America and the Caribbean. But few expected this from Barack Obama. His administration was inheriting too many far more pressing problems. During the presidential campaign, moreover, he had said little about the region beyond suggesting that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) be renegotiated and expressing vague reservations about the pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

Soon after Obama’s inauguration, however, the administration organized high-level visits to Latin America and the Caribbean and announced various initiatives toward the region. Calling for a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuban relations, it loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban Americans, said it would consider allowing U.S. investment in telecommunications networks with the island, and expressed a willingness to discuss resuming direct mail service to Cuba and to renew bilateral consultations on immigration to the United States. The administration also backed away from Obama’s earlier comments about the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. In April 2009, the president announced that he would press for comprehensive immigration reform, a move that was welcomed throughout the region. He also won praise for his consultative manner and his interest in multilateral cooperation at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, in Trinidad and Tobago in April 2009.

In addition to the White House’s preexisting commitment to attend the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, there were two main reasons for the Obama administration’s surprising early attention to the Americas. One was the hope that it could score a quick foreign policy victory: people in the region had widely rejected George W. Bush’s policies, but more because of style-a combination of neglect and arrogance-than because of any deep, substantive conflict. Obama aimed to do better.

Second, and more important, was the new administration’s perception that although the countries of the region posed no urgent issues for the United States, some of them were increasingly important to its day-to-day concerns. Mexico drew U.S. policymakers’ attention early on with a surge in homicides and in confrontations between its government and its narcotics cartels, as well as an abrupt economic downturn, a consequence of the U.S. economic crisis that was then exacerbated by an outbreak of the H1N1 virus. Washington faced a choice: try to quarantine Mexico, a neighbor with a population nearing 110 million and a shared border some 2,000 miles long, in order to insulate the United States from its problems or fashion a more effective partnership to help Mexico deal with those problems and mitigate their implications for the United States. The administration moved promptly to focus on working with Mexico. Mexico’s crisis, moreover, had illuminated the increasing everyday importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, especially that of its closest neighbors in the region.

A Positive Vision

In preparing for the summit in Trinidad and Tobago, the Obama administration assessed the legacy of recent U. S. policies. Administrations of both parties had emphasized regionwide summits, but these had produced little besides rhetoric and an occasional new process of consultation. After 9/11, Washington mainly viewed the region through the prism of international terrorism-and therefore mostly as a low priority-instead of focusing on the issues that were, and still are, the most important to people there: poverty, education, income distribution, and citizens’ security from street and gang violence and organized crime.

Many in Latin America and the Caribbean felt that a Cold War mentality lingered in Washington. They opposed some policies of the Bush years, including the invasion of Iraq and an ideological insistence on the benefits of the “Washington consensus.” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, bent on restructuring the international system in favor of the Global South, took advantage of this sentiment by stepping up his flamboyant anti-American rhetoric. He also sought influence by subsidizing gasoline prices and offering other significant economic assistance throughout the region.

The challenge to U.S. leadership in the Americas was not limited to Venezuela and its Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (an organization that includes Bolivia, Ecuador, and five Central American and Caribbean states). Many other Latin American and Caribbean countries began deepening subregional integration, partly through new formal institutions, such as the Union of South American Nations and the South American Defense Council, but mostly through growing regional trade and investment, multinational corporations, and business networks.

As the self-confidence of Latin American and Caribbean nations has grown, support for Pan-American approaches to the region’s problems has waned. The Organization of American States has often been ineffectual, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is intended to strengthen democratic institutions in oas member countries, has produced few meaningful results. The influence of the Inter-American Development Bank has also weakened in recent years, as liquidity in private international capital markets has increased and both the Andean Development Corporation and Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development have gained importance.

Several countries-notably Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela-have been vigorously building ties beyond the Americas, with countries of the European Union, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and China, India, Iran, and Russia. Brazil has developed a strategic alliance with India and South Africa; strengthened its links with China and Russia; played a leading role in the G-20, the Doha Round of international trade negotiations, and the Copenhagen talks on climate change; and offered to act as an intermediary to manage conflicts in the Middle East and with Iran. As actors outside the Americas have become more important to Latin American and Caribbean countries, Washington’s influence has declined perceptibly.

Recent U.S. administrations assumed that the paths of Latin American and Caribbean countries were converging: with Chile showing the way, all (except Cuba) were thought to be moving toward free markets, democratic governance, sound macroeconomic policies, and regional integration. The Obama administration, however, recognized from the outset that the countries of the region are actually going in very different directions. This is the result of important structural differences among them, including the level of their demographic and economic interdependence with the United States; the degree and nature of their openness to international economic competition; the strength of key aspects of their governance, such as checks and balances, accountability, and the rule of law; the relative capacity of the state and of their domestic civil and political institutions beyond the state, such as political parties, the media, religious organizations, and trade unions; and their ability to integrate traditionally excluded populations, including the more than 30 million indigenous people, Afro-Latin Americans, and migrant workers in the region. Washington’s policies would have to take account of these differences; clearly, one size would not fit all.

In reframing U.S. policy toward the diverse mix of Latin American and Caribbean countries, the new administration proceeded in line with its broader resetting of U.S. foreign policy: it would be more open to engagement, even with adversaries; more disposed to multilateral cooperation; and more respectful of international law and international opinion. Once these changes became clear, the Obama team posited, the international economic crisis might make inter-American cooperation attractive again.

In devising this approach, the incoming administration drew in part on policy changes that had been introduced during the second term of the Bush administration by Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who became assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in 2005. In contrast to his predecessors, political appointees who had pursued Cuba-centric policies redolent of the Cold War, Shannon fashioned a carefully nuanced, case-by-case approach to the various populist and potentially populist regimes of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Shannon emphasized that social and economic inequities were the root cause of many of the problems in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This was in line with the prevailing view among many nongovernmental experts on the region. A series of think tank reports before and soon after the 2008 election had recommended more emphasis on poverty, inequality, citizen security, and energy; new approaches to narcotics and gun trafficking and immigration; increased cooperation with Brazil and Mexico; restrained, nonconfrontational, rope-a-dope responses to Chavez; and initiatives to move beyond the Cold War impasse with Cuba and to assist Haiti’s development-all ideas that contributed to the new administration’s thinking.

Instead of reverting to grand rhetoric, the Obama administration began working on a few concrete matters: bolstering financial institutions, restoring credit and investment flows, and meeting the challenges of energy security, the environment, and citizens’ safety. Rather than unfurl broad Pan-American initiatives, the new administration sought to bring together different clusters of states with comparable concerns to deal with specific issues.

In its first months, the Obama administration refocused U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean from the “war on terror” to challenges more salient in the region, including economic growth, job creation, energy, migration, and democratic governance. It also began to shift from the so-called war on drugs, which had concentrated on eradicating crops and interdicting narcotics, to focus instead on countering drug-money flows, reducing the demand for drugs, and offering treatment to addicts. (Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief, who is known for treating the drug problem as a public health issue, not a criminal one, became the U.S. drug czar in May 2009.)

The new administration eschewed hemisphere-wide approaches and identified four priority regions: Mexico and the United States’ closest neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean; Brazil, the region’s largest and most powerful country; the diverse and troubled nations of the Andean ridge; and Cuba, a neuralgic issue for the United States long overdue for a new approach. It seemed to recognize that the realities of the region called not for smaller but for more efficient governments that would concentrate on combating crime and violence, expanding education, and providing infrastructure and other needs that are not adequately provided by market forces alone. The Obama administration also understood that progress on key issues affecting U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean-immigration, narcotics, trade-would require efforts from the United States at least as much as efforts from states in the region. Washington began to acknowledge, for example, the role that the United States has played in fueling the drug trade and the associated traffic in small arms and bulk cash.

On all these fronts, the Obama administration introduced concrete first steps, without making bloated claims or using excessive rhetoric. The president’s background, as an African American who grew up in modest circumstances, had already made a powerful positive impression. When Obama stated at the Americas summit in Trinidad and Tobago that he sought to develop a new relationship with “no senior partner or junior partner,” that goal came across as fresh and attractive. According to various public opinion polls, Obama’s popularity and that of the United States rose strikingly in Latin America and the Caribbean during the first half of 2009. Obama was off to a very promising start.

Hopes Dashed

By the end of the Obama administration’s first year, however, the prevailing sentiment about its Latin America and Caribbean policy was turning to disappointment. Criticism came not only from the predictable sources-the Castro brothers in Cuba; Chavez; Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president; the Kirchners, the Argentine first family; Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president-but also from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, and many experienced analysts in both Latin America and the Caribbean and the United States. The Wall Street Journal and several Republicans, particularly Senator James DeMint of South Carolina, rejected Obama’s entire approach. And think tanks on the left and some influential centrist observers who had been strongly sympathetic to his initial stance expressed disappointment as Obama seemed to back away from it.

In late 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to dash hopes that the United States would drop its hegemonic attitude when she warned Latin American and Caribbean governments that might be tempted to “flirt with Iran” to “take a look at what the consequences might be.” Even Latin Americans wary of Iran were rankled. Obama’s welcome call for a new approach to Cuba produced little change. After reversing some sanctions imposed by the Bush administration, the Obama government indicated that Cuba would have to make the next move before Washington considered any more steps toward rapprochement. Far from ushering in a new beginning, the Obama administration seemed to revert to the stance of several previous U.S. administrations: it would wait for Cuba to change.

Obama’s promise to prioritize comprehensive immigration reform gave way to a more limited commitment to begin consultations soon-and even that modest goal then receded. And after the administration acknowledged the need to regulate the export of small weapons from the United States to Mexico, Obama himself suggested this objective was unrealistic because of the power of the U.S. gun lobby, especially in the politically contested mountain states.

The Obama administration’s approach to trade policy was confusing at best. First, it rejected protectionism; then, it accepted a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus package. Having signaled a willingness to proceed with the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, it postponed taking any concrete action. It talked up energy cooperation with Brazil but continued subsidizing U.S. corn-based ethanol and maintained high tariffs on ethanol imported from Brazil. Even as it was actively promoting an enhanced U.S. partnership with Mexico, it let lapse an experimental program that allowed Mexican truckers to enter the United States, thus placing the United States in noncompliance with an important Nafta provision.

Perhaps even more damaging than the failure to implement its own stated goals was the administration’s handling of two issues that were not on its original to-do list. Washington’s first response to the overthrow and deportation of the constitutionally elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, by the Honduran armed forces in June 2009 was to reject the move and push for a strong multilateral response through the OAS. But then Washington proved reluctant to apply the harsh sanctions that many Latin American countries-not just those it often disagrees with, such as Venezuela, but also Brazil, Chile, and others-were calling for. Although its reticence reflected its general preference for less intervention and its assessment that restoring Zelaya would be widely unpopular in Honduras, Washington was also responding to criticism in the United States that intervening to restore Zelaya, an erratic leader and an acolyte of Chavez, would hurt those Hondurans who were longtime friends of the United States. Shannon, who was then still assistant secretary (he is now U.S. ambassador to Brazil), was sent to Honduras to break the impasse between Zelaya and the regime that had replaced him. He brokered an accord between the two parties, but each interpreted it differently.

No mutually acceptable solution took effect, and the de facto government, which had the explicit blessings of the Honduran Congress and the Honduran Supreme Court but was unrecognized by any other government, proceeded to organize previously scheduled national elections. Washington continued to deny the government recognition but also indicated that it would treat as Honduras’ legitimate leader whoever won the election-so long as the new government established a truth commission, as mandated in the accord brokered by Shannon, and worked to ease the country’s divisions. No Latin American government presented a practical alternative to the U.S. approach, but many nonetheless criticized it on the grounds that Washington’s behavior had weakened the hard-won norm against condoning military coups in the region.

In August 2009, the Obama administration mishandled its communications with South American nations about a new ten-year defense cooperation agreement it had negotiated with Colombia. The plan would give U.S. military personnel in the country (capped at 1,400, as before) access to seven Colombian military bases. When news of the accord was leaked in advance of an official statement, Brazil and several other South American governments expressed concern, and some called for full disclosure of the deal’s provisions and formal guarantees that U.S. military activities would be restricted to Colombian territory. Worry subsided when the U.S. and Colombian governments provided additional details and, earlier this year, Brazil reached its own security cooperation agreement with the United States. Still, the incident undercut the Obama administration’s stated commitment to consultation and transparency.

Conflicting Concerns

IT IS much too early to know how the Obama administration’s policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean will develop or how U.S. relations with the regions diverse countries and subregions will ultimately evolve. This is partly because U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean is shaped less by strategic considerations than by the continuous interplay of various domestic pressure groups in a policy process that is open to so many external influences. On issues other than imminent threats to national security, it is often easier for various groups in the United States to influence U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean than it is for the U.S. government to coordinate or control it.

This tendency has been reinforced in recent years by the proliferation of U.S. government agencies involved in inter-American affairs. The Departments of State and Defense and the cia no longer monopolize U.S.-Latin American relations, as they did from the 1940s through the 1970s. Today, the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Trade Representative, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Drug Enforcement Administration also have considerable influence in many Latin American and Caribbean countries. Congress, with its various committees and caucuses, is more relevant than the executive branch on many issues, including immigration, narcotics, and trade. Even state and local governments have a say-as was illustrated this spring, when Arizona passed a law authorizing the detention of anyone reasonably suspected of being an undocumented resident. The conflicting concerns of bureaucracies and interest groups generally have more impact on U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean than do grand foreign policy designs.

All this was clear during the Obama administration’s first year. The White House’s approach to Cuba was constrained both by pressure from Cuban Americans and by the procedures of the U.S. Senate. Lobbying from labor unions precipitated the trucking dispute with Mexico and stalled progress on the Colombian and Panamanian free-trade agreements (in the case of the deal with Colombia, human rights groups also interfered). Throughout 2009 and in early 2010, the administration failed to press forward with comprehensive immigration reform largely because it feared that making an aggressive push would hurt its chances of getting congressional approval for its ambitious health-care plan and for a bill to stimulate job creation. Lobbying from agricultural groups in the Midwest ensured that both the subsidies for U.S. cotton and ethanol producers and the tariffs on ethanol from Brazil would be maintained. The clumsy handling of the Colombian bases agreement pardy reflected a power imbalance between the Pentagon and the State Department, thanks to blocks in the Senate on nominations for top posts in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. And Washington’s ambivalent policy on Honduras was influenced by the anti-Zelaya lobby in the United States, which seemed motivated more by an eagerness to weaken Chávez and embarrass Obama than by any concern for Honduras itself.

The Obama administration has faced serious difficulties in implementing its incipient policy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Its accomplishments to date should not be overlooked; nor should one discount the possibility that many of these constraints could be at least partially overcome if the administration were to clearly articulate and vigorously pursue the approach implicit in its initial steps. More concretely, the Obama administration’s tacit abandonment of regime change as the primary aim of U.S. policy toward Cuba may turn out to be much more important than its caution in moving toward normalizing relations with the Cuban government as long as Havana is unwilling or unable to reciprocate. Likewise, the Obama administration’s highprofile commitment to working out a way to grant citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants in the United States could be of historic import. And its increasingly close day-to-day cooperation with Mexico on a wide variety of border, economic, social, health, and law enforcement issues may ultimately transform this crucial bilateral relationship.

Looking Ahead

The evolution of the Obama administration’s policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean will largely depend on factors that are still difficult to gauge, including what the U.S. government does about homeland security, its budget deficits, interest rates, trade and currency issues with China, and Iran’s nuclear program. A great deal will depend, for instance, on how well the U.S. economy recovers. A prolonged downturn would mean a loss of the U.S. public’s confidence in the U.S. government. That, in turn, would undermine the Obama administration’s leverage and make it more vulnerable to pressure from interest groups on several issues in U. S. -Latin American relations, ranging from trade and immigration to energy and narcotics. Whether Obama can build momentum now, after the passage of his health-care reform package, to increase his support in Congress and with the U.S. public will determine how much authority he can bring to bear on a host of other issues.

The initial hope for a new era in inter-American cooperation may very well continue to be dampened by the many pressures to which the administration is subject. But it is also still quite possible for the Obama team to carry out the innovative approach that it began to pursue but never clearly outlined during its first months: cooperating with different clusters of Latin American and Caribbean countries on shared transnational challenges and opportunities; developing innovative approaches to Mexico and the United States’ closest neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean; forging a strategic relationship with Brazil; responding in carefully differentiated ways to the region’s diverse populist and nationalist movements; moving cautiously toward a pragmatic working relationship with Cuba without ignoring concerns about fundamental human rights; and supporting efforts by Latin American and Caribbean governments to strengthen their effective democratic governance.

Obama’s positive but never fully articulated vision for Latin America and the Caribbean can still be realized. It fits well with his overall internationalist approach, domestic priorities, and political coalitions. It is supported not only by the president’s own foreign policy team but also by the career bureaucrats who specialize in Western Hemisphere affairs and by major groups outside government. In that regard, unlike the Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan administrations, the Obama administration is unlikely to see its policy for Latin America and the Caribbean torpedoed by infighting between political appointees and career officials. Interest groups in the United States will continue to press their views, but many of the most important ones-large corporations, religious organizations, environmentalists, human rights advocates-generally share the administration’s vision.

Moreover, the 2008 elections weakened the groups that had been shaping U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean in the recent past. Hard-liners in Florida’s Cuban American community have lost ground, while Cuban Americans born and raised in the United States and Latino voters of other backgrounds-groups that generally support the Obama administration’s proposals on immigration and toward their countries of origin-have gained influence. The U.S. farm lobby has lost clout during this period of fiscal concern, and the trade unions’ calls for protectionism have been weakened by the urgent need to increase U.S. exports in order to revive the U.S. economy.

The Obama administration may well have more room to maneuver than did recent U.S. administrations. Indeed, this is suggested by various steps it took in early 2010: Obama called for doubling U.S. exports worldwide within five years, he identified Colombia and Panama as important trading partners of the United States in his 2010 State of the Union address, there have been moves to resolve the trucking dispute with Mexico, there have been growing efforts on Capitol Hill to repeal the U.S. tariffs on ethanol from Brazil, the United States offered concessions to settle the dispute with Brazil over cotton subsidies, and there has been a push to produce a bipartisan plan for immigration reform.

Several Latin American and Caribbean governments, including some that differed sharply with the Obama administration over how to handle the coup in Honduras and the U.S. -Colombian defense cooperation agreement, may also be ready to reach out to Washington. Important groups in foreign and finance ministries and in the private sector understand that the chances of forging more positive relations with the United States are probably greater with the Obama administration than they have been in many years. Facing mounting difficulties at home, Chavez may not be able to exert as much pressure on Latin American governments to keep their distance from Washington. And significant moves by a few key Latin American and Caribbean governments, especially Brazil, toward closer ties with the United States could help revive Obama’s initial approach.

Ready, Reset, Go

The catastrophic earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile early this year were dramatic reminders that policies must often respond to the unexpected. The Obama administration quickly demonstrated its solidarity with the victims of the disasters by emphasizing multilateral cooperation in its participation in relief efforts. In Haiti, it worked with Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Venezuela, and others under the aegis of the United Nations to provide rapid, substantial, and effective aid. High-level meetings between top U.S. officials and their counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and Uruguay in the first few months of 2010 provided another chance for the Obama administration to refocus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Considering how many other problems, domestic and international, the administration was facing at that time, this spurt of attention suggests that it is still eager to improve U.S. relations with the region.

In order to grasp that opportunity effectively, the Obama administration needs first and foremost to articulate a broad framework and compelling goals for its relationships in the Americas. It was prudent not to announce at the outset of the new administration an overly ambitious program, like the Alliance for Progress, John F Kennedy’s sweeping plan for economic cooperation in the Americas, and it was wise to attend the 2009 Summit of the Americas primarily in a listening mode. But this sensible restraint should not preclude the administration now from clearly setting forth why Latin America and the Caribbean matter to the United States; what interests, ideals, and concerns they all share; and how they can work together to pursue common aims. Elements of such a vision have been implicit in the Obama administrations approach to discrete issues, but they need to be expressed in a comprehensive and authoritative way.

Latin America and the Caribbean matter to the United States today not for the traditional security and ideological concern of limiting the influence of outside powers in the region but rather for much more contemporary reasons. Massive, sustained migration and growing economic integration between the United States and its closest neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean have given rise to “intermestic” issues, complex issues that have both international and domestic facets: the narcotics trade, human and arms trafficking, immigrants’ remittances, youth gangs, and portable retirement pensions, among others. U.S. cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean nations is critical in confronting these issues, as well as transnational ones such as energy security, climate change, environmental protection, public health, and nuclear proliferation.

Latin American and Caribbean countries are also a prime source of energy and other natural resources for the United States and a major market for U.S. goods and services. About one-quarter of the energy the United States imports comes from Latin American and Caribbean suppliers, and there is great potential for expanded energy production in the Americas, from both renewable and nonrenewable sources. The region buys 20 percent of all U.S. exports, more than the European Union. U.S. firms-which still have a competitive advantage in Latin American and Caribbean markets thanks to proximity, familiarity, and demographic and cultural ties-see opportunities in expanding consumption among the region’s fast-growing middle class, especially at a time of economic stress in the U.S. market.

Finally, the people of Latin America and the Caribbean share important values with the people of the United States, especially a commitment to human rights, effective democratic governance, and the rule of law. In an international environment that is often hostile to the United States, the Americas remain a largely congenial neighborhood.

For all these reasons, the Obama administration should reinvest in its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. To do so, it should certainly help strengthen the Inter-American Development Bank, which has become more relevant in the wake of the international financial crisis and in these days of tight credit, and the OAS and other institutions that can take on select regional challenges on which there is broad consensus. But the administration should explicitly recognize that overarching Pan-American partnerships are less relevant today than cooperation with individual countries or clusters of countries on specific issues.

For example, Washington should explicitly recognize that U.S. relations with Mexico are unique because of the high degree of functional integration between the two societies and economies. Developing new concepts, policies, modes of governance, norms, and institutions in both countries to deal with this unprecedented integration should become a strategic priority. The United States should also invite Mexico and Canada to engage with the United States over the long term to assist in the development of the countries of Central America and the Caribbean with which they have strong demographic and economic ties and overlapping security, public health, environmental, and humanitarian concerns.

The administration should also work closely with Brazil to reform and reinforce international trade, finance, and investment rules; combat climate change; prevent and contain global pandemics; curb nuclear proliferation; and strengthen international governance arrangements. It is natural that these two large and complex countries with such different global positions and different domestic political exigencies will not see eye to eye on every question. But it should be a concern of high priority to negotiate and compromise on matters on which the interests of the two countries are compatible.

Finally, Obama should invite all the countries of the Americas to join in dealing with the hemisphere’s main shared challenges: restoring sustainable economic growth while ensuring that the fruits of economic recovery are spread more broadly and more equitably; expanding employment opportunities, especially for young people, while increasing access to quality education so as to facilitate participation in the global knowledge economy; strengthening the institutions and practices that can curb the drug trade and organized crime; improving citizen security by examining its connections to poverty, social equity, political participation, community policing, and judicial and penal reform; and making the institutions of democratic governance more inclusive by incorporating large numbers of historically excluded people, especially the indigenous. All of these are issues on which the United States can learn as well as teach and gain from cooperation as well as offer assistance.

Obama became president of the United States at a critical time for the country, the hemisphere, and the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that is increasingly important for the future of the United States, the Obama administration can still make progress on many issues-but only if it clearly articulates and vigorously pursues a proactive, integrated strategy. That is the essence of Obama’s opportunity in the region. It is not too late to seize it.