Political Risk Latin America Blog @PolRiskLatam

Obama and Latin America: New Beginnings, Old Frictions

Posted in News and Articles, Political Risk by politicalrisklatam on February 1, 2010

by Michael Shifter, for Inter-American Dialogue, February 1, 2010.

Hugo Chávez’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2009, did not receive much attention. The speech was notably more restrained than his famous address on the same occasion three years earlier, in which the Venezuelan president had called George W. Bush the “devil” and referred to the “smell of sulfur.” This time Chávez was forced to depart from his usual, incendiary script because of Barack Obama’s favorable image and his preference for engagement—”We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” the US president had declared in his inaugural address. Indeed, Chávez said the smell of sulfur had been replaced by “the smell of hope.”

Nonetheless, Chávez—ever resourceful—hinted at what might become a common view regarding Obama’s approach toward Latin America and the Caribbean. He referred to “two Obamas,” one projecting a friendly, conciliatory image, and the other adhering to the course of Obama’s predecessors, who typically treated the region as the “backyard” of the United States. Chávez raised doubts about whether old practices and concepts would in fact give way to more genuine and equitable cooperation. His speech referred directly to three issues that caused friction in hemispheric relations in 2009: Cuba policy, the US military presence in Colombia, and the Honduras crisis.

The past year has actually seen relatively little substantive change on a number of longstanding disputes. And toward the end of 2009, inter-American strains were further aggravated by the sensitive question of Iran’s growing involvement in the region. The November visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Venezuela, Bolivia, and, most significantly, Brazil coincided with deepening concerns in Washington and the international community about Iran’s nuclear program…(continue reading)

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