15 Minutes of Fame

Michael Shifter, the venerable director of the Inter-American Dialogue, thinks that now is the moment Obama will direct his energies towards Latin America.  Thinking about this, there’s a saying in Spanish that comes to mind: “ya hemos visto esta pelicula” or, “we’ve seen this movie before”.

In a piece in Argentina’s Clarín newspaper, Shifter asserts that America is suddenly being caught off guard and that “issues that have long been on the agenda between the US and Latin America are alive again as Barack Obama looks to his second term”. These issues, Shifter continues, are drugs, Cuba and immigration.

Now while Republicans are busy clawing back their electoral losses with Hispanics, we’re not going to pretend again that there’s any serious U.S. policy towards Latin America taking shape, are we?

Yes, presumptive President Peña Nieto is busy telling President Obama that Mexico’s more than a drug war and source of illegal immigrants, but this doesn’t mean that suddenly U.S. policy will reflect any orientation towards Latin American issues that go beyond direct links to U.S. constituencies.

When Dilma and Obama start talking about energy, when the State Department starts looking at ways to stimulate trade and travel between Latin America and the United States, I might see a trend happening. But to resurrect all of the bogeymen in America’s Latin past like Cuba, drugs and immigration and ascribe that to some newfound interest in Latin America betrays Mr. Shifter’s experience with the region.

Shifter claims in his piece that there’s no greater friction point in Latin America-US relations than the Cuban embargo. But ask many young Colombians or Brazilians eager to visit Orlando and New York or businessmen looking to get E visas, and Cuba will be a faint and quaint memory of another time in US-Latin relations and immigration policy will only matter insofar as they can plan their shopping or family visitation trips.

I dare anyone to find a plurality of Latin Americans that view glasnost in Cuba, immigration reform in the U.S., and (apart from northern Mexicans) drug violence at the top of their policy agenda.

Cuba has already begun an economic and social reform process independent of U.S. reciprocation. Mexicans have already begun leaving the United States at a faster rate than they’re arriving. And sensible governments across the region have been legalizing the recreational use of drugs, highlighting the U.S.’s failure to pull its own weight on the consumption front of the drug war.

Similar to when the U.S. pursued a ‘reset’ with its Russia policies, scholars like Shifter and policymakers should instead be looking towards an ‘update’ in Latin America.

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