Small Countries, But Big U.S. Interests in Latin America

By Gene E. Bigler

The Obama administration continues to win praise over its handling of Latin America, most recently following the display of mutual admiration between President Obama and Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet during her June visit to the White House. Yet, after almost six months in office, the meager substantive progress in the region reflects the old problem of neglecting issues that involve small countries—even though the United States’ relationship with Latin America involves some really big U.S. interests.

If the President is going to be able to manage both the long term relationships and the unexpected crises, such as the recent coup in Honduras, a key challenge will be to get Congress to focus on the big interests and push our lawmakers to provide the support the president needs. In inaugurating University of the Pacific’s Inter-American Program last fall, former Colombian President and OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria also pointed to the need for reviving idealism in support of hemispheric cooperation.

When the U.S. first got fully engaged with Latin America more than a century ago in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the asymmetry between the U.S. and these countries was enormous. At that time the total population of the 34 countries that today make up the Organization of American States (including Cuba) was still under 70 million, while the U.S. already had over 76 million. No wonder the U.S. easily had its way with countries such as Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Honduras that had from a few hundred thousand to just over a million inhabitants.

Today, the Western Hemisphere neighbors of the United States total about 620 million people, well over twice the 307 million population of the U.S., and over a 100 million more than the European Union. What is more important is the increased intensity with which the people of these neighboring countries now relate to us:

• Latinos and non-white Hispanics now constitute America’s largest minority, about 15 percent of our population, and our southern neighbors, which up to 1940 provided less than 10 percent of our immigrants, now account for well over half. This population will also increasingly determine our nation’s future since their children now account for almost a quarter of the U.S. population under 18.


• Our Western Hemisphere trade partners also drive our commerce, providing almost 40 percent of our merchandise trade. From 1996 to 2007, trade with the region increased 137 percent, compared to 114 percent for the European Union and 110 percent for Asia. At a time when rekindling economic growth is vital, our immediate neighbors provide by far the most fertile ground for our recovery.


• Drugs and drug-related crimes constitute the greatest challenge to our personal safety and the security of our children--both here and increasingly in Latin America. More importantly, countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Honduras have recently proven themselves to be reliable partners in fighting drug trafficking, and they suffer even more than we from drug-related violence.



Both Congress and some of the least cooperative countries in our region have influenced the Obama administration’s lack of progress in developing closer cooperation with our neighbors. In a manner far too reminiscent of the way the U.S. traditionally imposed its will on Latin America, Congress has repeatedly raised the bar or forced Panama and Colombia and Mexico to meet unreasonable demands before approving trade and aid deals or stemming the illicit flow of weapons to drug traffickers.

Just as obnoxiously, the few openly anti-American countries of the region tied up the agenda of the recent Summit of the Americas and the meeting of the Organization of American States with the Cuba question, knowing that the Obama administration’s hands were largely tied by Congress.

As Barack Obama convinced most of us during the election campaign, now is the time for change in our relations with those countries which share our most strategic interests, including our neighbors in the Americas. His administration has shown that it knows the way, making impressive proposals for new hemispheric partnerships and showing how simpatico even gringos can be.

The administration’s handling of the crisis in Honduras, host to the most important U.S. base in Latin America, shows how crucial situations may arise in which we will need to call on other nations for help. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez already stridently blames the U.S. for the coup, but the U.S. stand in support of the Inter-American Democratic Charter and close cooperation with our friends in the region is what will settle the crisis there in our interest, and derail the phony blame game.


Stockton, California

June 29, 2009

A retired U.S. Foreign Service officer with 17 years experience in Latin America, Gene E. Bigler is now a visiting professor of international relations at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.