The Future of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policies in Latin America have revolved around the broad goals of promoting democracy, development, and cooperation. Over the past eight years, the United States has been successful in achieving its policy goals in the region. Engaging Cuba has reduced Latin American criticism of U.S. policy and improved cooperation. Support for the Colombian peace process has contributed to reduction of terrorist violence in that country. Dialogue with both the Venezuelan government and its opposition has played a role in seeking a peaceful resolution to the political crisis there. Furthermore, newly negotiated free trade agreements such as the ratification of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2012 have encouraged economic growth.

Above all, the United States has improved its image in the eyes of Latin American nations. The election of Hugo Chávez to the Venezuelan presidency in 1998 heralded the onset of a troublesome decade. Leftist leaders were swept into office on platforms that consciously rejected U.S. policy and launched efforts to create new institutions that specifically excluded the United States. The formation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which serves as a regional diplomatic body and does not include the United States, is a case in point. By cooperating with the United States in some areas and rejecting it vociferously in others, Latin American leaders made hemispheric relations decidedly more tense in the first decade of the 21st century than before. This was the situation that President Barack Obama inherited in the beginning of his term. When he left office in January 2017, there were fewer critical voices in the region and there were prospects of harmonious relations between the U.S. and Latin America.

In the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, there have been too few moments when the region saw the United States as a true partner. However, the Obama administration came closer than most administrations in breaking the tension. Repeated U.S. invasions, covert operations, and instances of intimidation made leftist leaders across the region highly sensitive to U.S. political pressure. The reason for the Obama administration’s success was its understanding of the differences between hard and soft power. While use of force or the threat to use it have run into a brick wall of Latin American resistance, persuasion has proven to be a more effective tactic.

Hard power, which entails using or threatening military and economic measures to compel certain actions, has been the norm in U.S. policy toward Latin America since the Monroe Doctrine in the early 19th century. An accumulation of negative experiences have made Latin American governments wary not just of U.S. hard power and of intervention, but also of U.S. policy on the whole. In Chapultepec Park in the center of Mexico City, a large monument commemorates the young Mexican soldiers who died defending the country from U.S. troops in 1847. Since then, Mexican political leaders have assiduously resisted U.S. influence, including President Donald Trump’s push for making Mexico pay for the construction of a wall on the border between the nations. The memory of hard power does not fade quickly.

Because of this troubled relationship, hard power has actually prevented the United States from achieving its stated policy goals in Latin America. Such frustration was evident in U.S.-Latin America relations during the George W. Bush administration. When Bush assumed office, many political actors in Latin America were gaining domestic support by opposing U.S. emphasis on free markets and small government. Starting with Hugo Chávez’s election in 1998 in Venezuela, a series of leftist presidents came to power in Latin America with a clear anti-free market platform.

President Bush’s conservatism immediately clashed with the rising leftist leaders. As part of a speech during his presidential campaign in August 2000, he asserted that the region was “threatened by the false prophets of populism,” clearly referring to Chávez. In December 2000, shortly before Bush's inauguration, Republicans reiterated their support for the president-elect’s staunch stance against the hostile Venezuelan government under Chávez and his effort to forge ties with the Venezuelan military, which at the time comprised Chávez’s domestic opposition. Staunch posturing against the wave of leftist leaders in Latin America was consistent throughout Bush’s presidency.

After September 11, 2001, the Bush administration’s policy toward the region revolved primarily around security. The 2006 National Security Strategy described the western hemisphere as the “frontline of defense of American national security.” Latin American countries needed to be “helped to the path of sustained political and economic development.” The message was that threats to the United States, such as terrorism, required the United States government to show Latin American countries the right path toward countering those threats. In other words, Latin America could not be counted on to adequately do the job itself. America’s policy orientation fostered broad resistance in a region that—regardless of ideology—did not share the same security concerns and often resented U.S. demands to join the fight against terrorism. Latin Americans saw themselves neither on the frontline of defense nor in need of help. In particular, they did not view a global war on terror as central to their own national priorities.

In practice, this overriding attention to security meant that the promoting democracy took a backseat to preserving stability and order in Latin America. For example, the Bush administration supported the 2002 Venezuelan coup, which soured relationships with many Latin American leaders. President Bush’s efforts at promoting economic development were also consistently blocked. Most prominently, his goal of finally passing a Free Trade Area of the Americas to bring the region together fell apart completely and was never heard from again. By the time President Obama took office, the pursuit of hard power in Latin America had failed.

Joseph Nye defines soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.” Soft power increases mutual trust and creates space for dialogue, especially with states that may be otherwise resistant to policy goals. While hard power’s focus on the use or threat of force can sometimes compel other states to comply, the strategy can often backfire. Especially when there is long-standing distrust between two nations, relying on hard power may elicit resentment, which in turn makes states even less willing to follow preferred policy avenues. In other cases, governments respond by intentionally rejecting demands and thereby becoming more entrenched in a contrarian foreign policy stance. Soft power is oriented toward emphasis on shared interests rather than unilateral demands. Examples include educational and cultural exchanges, transparency in policy intents, frequent dialogue, active trade, and promotion of democracy and human rights.

When Barack Obama took office, he promised a new path in Latin America policy. In a speech he made in 2007 as a Senator, Obama argued that the “United States is seen [by Latin Americans] as supporting democracy when it produces a desired result. It is vital to reverse that trend.” While on the campaign trail, he made speeches calling for engagement with Cuba and Venezuela rather than freezing relations, arguing that “it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.”

The statement embodies the Obama doctrine. The administration’s new commitment to engaging adversaries—or at least those abiding by “international norms”—through dialogue and diplomatic channels was most visible in its effort to normalize relations with Cuba. It was also apparent in the toning down of American hostility towards the leftist Venezuelan government. There was, as one critic of the document noted, “no recognition of the challenge posed by Venezuela and neo-Bolivarianism.” That would remain a bone of contention for critics of Obama’s Latin America policy (and policies elsewhere in the world as well). Yet as time went on, “neo-Bolivarianism” proved to have more bark than bite. In other words, Obama’s strategy in Latin America was bearing fruit.

The turnaround of general attitude towards Latin America is one of the elements of the Obama Doctrine, which involves taking strategic risks to reduce tension with adversaries. It rejects the use of force solely as a means to prove credibility, asserts that the United States cannot fix all problems, and prefers multilateralism to unilateralism. Hard power does not disappear but becomes a secondary tactic behind dialogue and negotiation.

Examples of President Obama’s use of soft power in Latin America are plentiful. The Obama administration worked with Pope Francis to negotiate normalizing relations with Cuba. The administration also employed veteran diplomat Tom Shannon to maintain a line of communication with the Venezuelan government, even while imposing selective sanctions against certain Venezuelans, thus employing a combination of hard and soft power. The administration pursued deeper trade ties across the region such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included Chile, Mexico, and Peru. Finally, it encouraged anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala, a UN-sponsored effort that ultimately forced President Otto Pérez-Molina to resign.

Opponents of the Obama administration’s policies have argued that the President was following a path of appeasement. The focus on engaging adversaries has been polarizing, particularly with Cuba. As a presidential candidate in 2007, Hillary Clinton called Obama “naïve” for suggesting to meet with Cuban leaders without preconditions. In 2014, Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) argued that the president’s policy stance “is about the appeasement of autocratic dictators, thugs, and adversaries.” These criticisms were based on the perception that dialogue without preconditions is a form of appeasement. The improved relations with Latin America at the end of President Obama’s term suggest that it was not.

There are times, though, when dialogue alone is insufficient. The criminal networks that fuel violence, drug smuggling, and human trafficking in Latin America are also a security concern to the United States. Not only have they ravaged large swaths of Central America and Mexico, but also have evolved into public health, humanitarian, and gang-related problems in the United States. Latin American governments have their hands full combating drug trafficking organizations while also preserving democratic institutions, holding elected officials accountable, and preserving human rights. This is where a combination of hard and soft power—developed in conjunction with Latin American governments—becomes necessary. Along these lines, U.S. Southern Command cultivates “friendly networks” to enhance mutual trust. Thus, even as it trains Latin American soldiers, the United States Army builds trust by making an effort to share intelligence with its Latin American counterparts and being attentive to the needs of its allies.

Hard power cannot be the sole answer, but must be accompanied by persuasion and positive example. Whenever hard power is employed, it must be carefully managed to avoid militarization and to ensure that human rights are not eroded. That balance is difficult to achieve. Human rights activists in Mexico and Central America have documented the violence that too often is associated with U.S. military aid in recent years. Examples include allegations of Honduran state security assassinating activists, sexual violence committed by members of the police and military across Central America, as well as the kidnapping and murder of 43 Mexican students in 2014.

The past eight years have not been perfect. The Obama administration has deported more Latin Americans than any other presidents have done in the past, so much so that the myth-busting website Snopes felt obligated to confirm it. The Obama administration lacked consistency in its support for democracy in Honduras after the 2009 coup, though it did employ a measured, dialogue-oriented, and multilateral response to the ongoing Venezuelan political crisis. President José Manuel Zelaya was seized by the Honduran army and flown out of the country, setting the stage for months of political crisis. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton contradicted the president’s criticism of the coup. President Obama also struggled to articulate a clear human rights policy for Mexico. Even according to the U.S. State Department, the Mexican government has been implicated in serious human right violations about which the Obama administration remained largely silent. Latin American countries accuse the United States of hypocrisy for waging war on drugs on their soil while decriminalizing drugs in its own domestic society. These are not small problems, but are exceptions to an otherwise successful set of achievements.

With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the President of the United States in January 2017, U.S. policy toward Latin America entered a new and unpredictable phase. Many of Trump’s campaign promises regarding U.S. relations with Latin America forecasted a drastic change from the policies under the Obama administration. The most infamous of these was the pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and to force Mexico to pay for it, which remains both contentious and unresolved. President Trump also promised large scale deportations of Latin American undocumented immigrants, demanded changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, hurled harsh criticism at the Venezuelan government for oppressing its people, and criticized the Obama administration for normalizing its relations with Cuba.

President Trump has gone back and forth in his stance on U.S.-Cuban relations. He initially supported Obama’s proposal to thaw U.S.-Cuban relations. However, during his visit in October 2016 to the veterans of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he said, “The United States should not prop up the Castro regime economically and politically, as Obama has done and as Hillary Clinton plans to do.” After Fidel Castro’s death in November 2016, he tweeted that if Cuba does not accept a better “deal,” he would terminate it. Given that there is no single “deal” in place or in negotiations, it is unclear what this means in practice.

The overall tone of Trump’s messages throughout his campaign as well as statements in the days after his election clearly orient U.S. policy in Latin America towards hard power. Most alarming is that the messages are all unilateral and punitive. There is in fact no indication at all of soft power. Although Trump famously touts his negotiation skills, he appears to have no intention to employ this talent in managing the U.S. relations with Latin America. The challenge for the future is to maintain the momentum generated in the last eight years, during which Washington was more successful in achieving U.S. foreign policy goals in Latin America than it has been in the past. As the case of Cuba illustrates, Latin American leaders respond favorably to respectful overtures and are eager to collaborate to address mutual challenges and security threats. Using hard power as a primary policy tool is not the answer.

Steering U.S. foreign policy towards using soft power provides a clear blueprint to Washington’s actions in Latin America. To start, building more walls or imposing highly restrictive immigration policies will damage U.S.-Mexican relations and goad other Latin American countries to take defensive postures against the United States, which is counterproductive. The same is true with Cuba. Dialogue with the Cuban government should not be frozen and the freedom to travel to the island should not be rolled back. Engaging with Cuba sends a signal to the entire region that the United States is no longer trying to force unpopular measures upon the country. Finally, the United States should work in multilateral forums like the Organization of American States to promote dialogue and non-violent resolution of the political crisis in Venezuela. These soft power tactics proved to be successful under the Obama administration. The Trump administration will compromise U.S. standing and alienate allies if it does not follow that lead.

Gregory Weeks is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science & Public Administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the editor of the academic journal The Latin Americanist and is the author of numerous books and articles on Latin American politics, U.S.-Latin American relations, and Latino/a immigration to the United States. He blogs regularly on these topics at Two Weeks Notice (