Obama in the Americas: Change, or More of the Same?

Mexican writer Hugo Cervantes weighs in on Barack Obama’s visit to the Americas

Do his words pack heat?

At least he didn’t Mariachi the news

President Obama must have known that Mexican university students were not an easy audience. It would take more than slow jamming the news to win them over.

During Mexico’s presidential campaign of 2012, thousands of the nation’s youth swept to the streets to protest  Enrique Peña Nieto, the leading candidate and now Mexico’s president. To Mexican youth, Peña Nieto represented a dangerous return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that unilaterally dominated Mexico for much of the 20th century.  His inability to relate to this critical demographic—in stark contrast to Obama’s success with youth in the US—did not help matters.

Since Peña Nieto won his election in June, and Obama re-election in November, both youth groups have learned a painful less: For all the excitement of a campaign—for all the promises of a new day—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A Failed Background Check

A more seasoned politician than Peña Nieto, President Obama avoided his counterpart’s faux pas during his visit to Mexican university. His speech, rich in references to Mexican intellectuals, leant an atmosphere of empathy through praise. President Obama clearly attempted to distance himself from the long-held US pretence that Latin America is Uncle Sam’s backyard.

For example, President Obama damned lax gun laws that allow firearms to flow into Mexico. “We recognize that most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the United States” he said, “at the same time, as I’ve said back home, I will continue to do everything in my power to pass common sense gun reforms that keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people”.

Unfortunately, like the Rio Grande, the guns keep flowing.  Now five years into Obama’s presidency, approximately 253,000 firearms are still smuggled into Mexico annually.

He could have at least Mariachied the news

Do his words pack heat?

Stymied gun legislation can hardly be pinned on Obama. Yet Mexicans have noticed a divergence between the President’s words and actions. We are all familiar with the Fast and Furious fiasco. In order to track drug cartels’ movements and capture capos, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) allowed gun dealers to sell firearms to cartels for several years in order to track down the guns and hence the cartels’ leaders.

Putting aside the dubious legality of the operation, the results were disastrous: the majority of the 2,000 guns trafficked between 2006 and 2011 were lost, and the original goal of the operation was not met: no cartel head was detained. Barely a third of the guns have been recovered, and those that have been have typically been found at bloody crime scenes. Mexican authorities calculate that at least 300 hundred Mexicans have been wounded or killed with guns from Fast and Furious.

President Obama did not have a role in the execution of the operation, but he certainly did in its clarification. The President asserted executive privilege in order to maintain documents secret from congressmen and, by extension, from any citizen. While the issues became politically polarized in the US, Mexicans do not view Fast and Furious through a Democrat – Republican prism. They just see a contradiction to President Obama’s promise to limit gun flows to Mexico. The President’s words become but a syrupy verbal flourish that covers the same old slop.

More of the Same?

Relations between the US and Latin America were expected to improve under President Obama, especially after the controversial performance of the George W. Bush administration. Unfortunately, the asymmetric nature of power between Washington and Latin American has changed little. Rather than countering this narrative, President Obama’s visit to tiny Costa Rica served to solidify it.

President Obama’s agenda had two stated intentions: 1) Ensure Central American presidents’ acceptance of a US led security policy in the region and 2) Deepen the economic integration brought about by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

However, as in most cases, the small print is bigger than the headlines. Despite Obama’s promise to demilitarize the war on drugs, several studies have demonstrated that total US military spending in Central America will nearly double by 2014 compared to the beginning of Obama’s second term.

A friendly visit from your neighbor: Black Hawk helicopters anticipate Obama's arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica

A friendly visit from your neighbor: Black Hawk helicopters anticipate Obama’s arrival in San Jose, Costa Rica

Moreover, the Obama administration’s laissez-faire economic policy has shown mixed results at best. NAFTA was supposed to increase Mexicans’ quality of life—instead it has increased the number of Mexican billionaires.  By several metrics, poverty has worsened. The early outcome of CAFTA with the US seems similarly underwhelming from the southern perspective: US exports to Central America have increased 80 per cent while Central America has seen an increase of only 55.

The reunion between President Obama and his Central American counterparts could hardly be described as a negotiation table. President Otto Pérez Molina from Guatemala hoped Obama would reconsider the legal status of drugs; Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli requested preferential gas prices to boost the region’s competitiveness, and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla asked for US support in a bid to join the OECD. All seem plausible requests. All were met with a disheartening response. In words of President Obama, these issues will “be considered”.

Nevertheless, despite an apparent unwillingness to bend policy to match Central American demands, President Obama remains popular in Mexico and Costa Rica. This is good news for the hemisphere; it shows that, despite many reasons for bitterness, Mexicans and Central Americans remain willing to work with the USA.

Sustaining this momentum will require Obama to practise what he preaches and to actually treat Mexican and Central American leaders as partners and not as pawns. Hopefully, in the inner-circles of the Obama administration, this too will “be considered.”

Something to consider...

Something to consider…

Hugo Cervantes is a writer and graphic designer in Mexico City. He formerly served as Editor-in-Chief of the Johns Hopkins University Journal of Latin American Studies

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