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Opinion

Opinion

Obama loses glow in Latin America

December 9, 2009

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Love can be fleeting.

Only a few months ago, Latin American leaders hailed the Obama administration as a new beginning in hemispheric relations. But now, the honeymoon is over.

Brazil, the biggest country in the region, perhaps emboldened by its steady economic growth, oil discoveries and a recent cover story in The Economist magazine headlined “Brazil takes off,” is stepping up its criticism of U.S. foreign policy. And several of its neighbors are going along.

The U.S.-Brazilian spat over the Nov. 29 elections in Honduras is the latest in a series of recent confrontations after an eight-month love affair. President Barack Obama was widely applauded at the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago and got much applause in June when Washington joined the rest of the region in voting to lift Cuba’s 5-decade-old suspension from the 34-nation Organization of American States.

But in recent weeks, the elections in Honduras and Brazil’s open support for Iran, as well as Colombia’s decision to allow U.S. anti-narcotics troops to use its military bases, have soured the atmosphere.

• On Honduras, Brazil — supported by Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others — has refused to recognize the recent election. On the other hand, the United States — supported by Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica and Panama — says it will recognize the Honduran vote.

Both sides have a point. Brazil and its friends argue that recognizing an election convened by a de facto government would set a bad precedent and encourage coups in other countries. U.S. officials counter that the Honduran election was planned long before the coup, and that most of the current Latin American democracies were born out of elections convened by de facto regimes.

In addition, critics of the Brazilian position point out that it doesn’t make sense to impose sanctions on Honduras, which held multiparty elections, while demanding to lift sanctions on Cuba, which hasn’t held a multiparty election in five decades.

• On Iran, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva recently gave a red-carpet welcome to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, giving Iran’s racist president a much-needed international image boost after the United States and much of the world blasted Iran’s nuclear program and Ahmadinejad’s dubious election victory earlier this year.

In a telephone interview, Arturo Valenzuela, the head of the U.S. State Department’s office of Western Hemisphere affairs, downplayed the rift in U.S.-South American relations. He said Brazil and Washington see eye to eye on most issues, although he highlighted U.S. concerns about Lula’s support for Iran.

“I don’t see a worsening of relations,” Valenzuela told me. “We are disappointed about Brazil’s vote (on Iran’s nuclear program) at the United Nations IAEA, because it was a vote in which China, India and Russia agreed, and Brazil abstained.”

He added, “We also appreciate the fact that many countries, including Argentina and Uruguay, voted in support of a Canadian-sponsored human rights resolution that criticizes Iran on human rights, in which Brazil also abstained.”

Why is Brazil taking a more confrontational stand? Some Brazil analysts say that widespread optimism about Brazil has gone to Lula’s head, while others attribute it to Brazil’s quest for Third World votes in its campaign for a permanent U.N. Security Council seat.

Most likely, however, it has to do with Brazil’s domestic politics. Brazil will hold presidential elections in October, and Lula’s candidate, government chief of staff Dilma Roussef, is trailing Sao Paulo state Gov. Jose Serra in the polls.

Both Roussef and Serra are left-of-center candidates. Lula may be trying to make sure that his candidate is not outflanked on the left, and could be preparing the ground to cast Serra — who has criticized Lula’s embrace of Ahmadinejad — as a candidate with weak “progressive” credentials.

My opinion: Obama will prevail over Lula on the Honduran crisis. Already, the 27-nation European Union is inching toward the U.S. position. And after the Jan. 27 inauguration of President-elect Porfirio Lobo, the Honduras crisis will fade out of the headlines and more Latin American countries will quietly recognize the new government.

Still, U.S.-Latin American relations may not go back to what they were a few months ago. Obama has won many friends by departing from former President George W. Bush’s arrogant foreign policies. But not being Bush is no substitute for a proactive policy in Latin America.

Unless Obama pays more attention to the region, there will be more cracks ahead in U.S.-Latin American ties.

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