Obama in Latin America: Brazilian Ethanol, Washington Bombs and Venezuelan Nukes

According to Michael Froman, Obama’s national security adviser for international economic affairs, “This trip fundamentally is about the US recovery, US exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States.”


Obama isn’t the first US president to seek a solution to domestic crisis by pushing for open markets, but his administration might be the first to so candidly admit that is what it is doing. 

According to Michael Froman, Obama’s national security adviser for international economic affairs, “This trip fundamentally is about the US recovery, US exports and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States.” It’s a startlingly honest admission that, unable to overcome domestic obstacles (that is, the cult of austerity that enthralls Republicans and Democrats alike) to investment and stimulus, the United States is looking abroad for relief. Obama is making the case that more globalized trade—including the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement—will pull the United States out of its slump.

In the past, trade with Latin America did inordinately benefit the United States in all sorts of ways, underwriting its cold war Keynesian and post–cold war neoliberal economies. Today, though, things are different and it’s unlikely that more “free trade” with Latin America would heal what ails the United States.  

Setting that point aside, the very same set of obstacles that blocks Obama at home makes it impossible—as I’ve noted here earlier—for him to offer serious concessions in exchange for Brazil’s help, particularly when it comes to the sticky issue of ethanol tariffs, subsidies and intellectual property rights. There was goodwill and great photo ops of the first family’s trip to Brazil, especially to Rio’s City of God favela. It was, as many noted, highly symbolic for the first African-American US president to visit the country with the largest African population outside of Africa (especially since Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, did once ask Brazil’s president, “Do you have blacks, too?”—which prompted Conde Rice to give her boss a quick tutorial in the history of New World slavery).

But it was short on substance. Brazil’s new president Dilma Rousseff was friendly and “warm,” as expected, but she did criticize the United States’s shameless ability to preach “free trade” while practicing protectionism. And Brazil was extremely disappointed that Obama, despite indicating that Washington was ready to deal with Brazil as an equal, did not endorse its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.     

Washington and Brasilia signed a few inconsequential trade agreements, but Obama offered nothing that could jumpstart the stalled Doha negotiations—where any real movement in trade relations would take place. Over the years, Brazil has taken the lead in opposing a world trade agreement that didn’t address the issues of first-world agricultural subsidies and tariffs and intellectual property rights. Nothing in Obama’s trip suggests Brazil’s demands have been met, despite Dilma’s much admired cordiality (Lula was always extremely cordial; he also was steadfast in his vision of a more equitable global playing field and confident that Brazil, with its enormous economy, was in a position to demand it).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Washington Post’s op-ed page, feeling emboldened by the hawks’ success in ginning up yet a third, poorly conceived, open-ended war, took the opportunity of Obama’s Latin American trip to run a piece by Roger Noriega, perpetual plumper for all things bellicose, asking if here is a Hugo Chávez “terror network on America’s doorstep.” Noriega is part of the same Iran/Contra crowd, led by Otto Reich, that continues to have an inordinate influence on US policy in Latin America, even when Democrats are supposedly in charge (it was Reich who inaugurated the destabilization campaign against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya). They have long tried to link Venezuela to some international conspiracy, either involving nuclear weapons or Islamic terrorism. Both claims have been debunked by the State Department (via released Wikileaks cables) and the Pentagon. But as with Iraq, they never let the facts get in the way of an insinuation.  

In fact, Chávez, in the wake of the disaster in Japan, has called a halt to Venezuela’s fledgling nuclear program. When Venezuela signed a deal last year with a private company in Russia to develop nuclear power, the Noriegas and Reichs perked up, charging that Venezuela was opening a back channel to get nukes to Iran. That deal now is on hold, and Chávez probably used events in Japan to cut loose an expensive program with very little expected return. Still, it’s a welcome policy reversal. As he put it, speaking of nuclear power generally, “it is something extremely risky and dangerous for the whole world.” Only Mexico, Brazil and Argentina have working nuclear power plants in the region.

In Chile, however, where Obama will arrive today, President Sebastián Piñera has taken the opposite lesson. Though his country sits on the same so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire” of seismic activity that does Japan, and suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami nearly exactly a year ago, Piñera said he was keeping the nuclear option open. In anticipation of Obama’s visit, Chile and the United States just signed a nuclear co-operation deal, which is to include US training for Chilean nuclear engineers.

So far, Obama’s visit to Latin America has entailed a series of ill-timed events: arriving in Brazil just after Aristide returned to Haiti; announcing the bombing of Libya from Brazil, a country that abstained from and criticized the UN Security Council resolution; and signing a nuclear accord with Chile, which recently suffered an earthquake and tsunami, just after Japan’s earthquake-induced meltdown.