Alex Sadler, JHU:
Last week, Barack Obama made a historic visit to Cuba, becoming the first sitting president to visit the island nation in almost 90 years. Garnering less attention than the Cuba visit, the Obamas left Cuba on Tuesday night to visit Argentina. This was Mr. Obama’s first visit to Argentina during his presidency. Of course, President Obama had previous opportunities to visit Argentina but waited until a new, pro-USA government assumed power in December of 2015. Overall, the trip was declared a success by Argentinian President Mauricio Macri and President Obama. Obama was happy to announce that Argentina would be reassuming its role as a key partner to the United States. And, in a surprising turn of events, President Macri, a hardline conservative who has expressed little interest in prosecuting aggressors in the Argentinian military dictatorship that killed upwards of 30,000 people, asked for President Obama to release additional documents about the strong role the U.S. government played in propping and maintaining the brutal military dictatorship of the late 1970s.
As a first generation American born to Argentinian parents, I was happy to see President Obama finally visit the country where my parents grew up and much of my family currently lives. What is troubling is that it took President Obama more than seven years to make this trip. Even more troubling is that Mr. Obama would most likely not have made this trip if leftist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli had been in office rather than Mr. Macri. Obama, like most of his predecessors, has a tendency to avoid countries that are critical of the U.S. power structure throughout the world. Of the thirteen South American countries, President Obama has only visited four of them throughout his seven and a half years in office. Of the four South American countries he has visited, three (Argentina, Chile, and Colombia) have had conservative, pro-USA governments. While it is important for the American president to maintain good relations with the U.S.’s heavily trusted allies it is also important for the nation’s chief diplomat to visit the countries where the leadership has shown critical attitudes of the United States government.
It is easy to disregard countries that have a more critical perspective of the U.S. but it does not mean that these countries should be ignored. First, it is important to understand why a critical view has been taken and how to ameliorate the strained relationships between the two nations. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rose to power in 1999 with a platform focused on nationalizing several industries and kicking out several foreign investment companies, many belonging to the United States. After Chavéz’s election, U.S. reaction was to not attempt to discuss potential partnerships between the two countries. Instead, the U.S. administered an attempted coup against President Chávez in 2002. With an unsuccessful coup, an incensed Venezuela – an oil rich nation – turned to rely on other countries like China and Russia to trade with rather than the U.S. A U.S. president has not visited Venezuela since before the leftist movement in 1997. Although U.S. presidents have been reluctant to negotiate with the Venezuelan leadership, this has not stopped other American politicians from making deals. In 2006, then-Congressman Bernie Sanders reached out to Venezuela seeking a deal for the oil-rich nation to help supply heating-oil to low-income Vermont residents. President Chávez had no reason to make a deal with a country that attempted to remove him from power just four years prior, but Congressman Sanders demonstrated the power of simple diplomacy.
Economically, establishing and maintaining relationships with those more critical of the U.S. government can only help. When U.S. leaders show reluctance to negotiate with big economic powers like Brazil or Argentina, those countries decide to focus their attentions on other world powers like Russia or China. Under the leftist government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina and China made great strides in bringing the economies of both countries closer. Even in countries like Bolivia, which has never received a sitting U.S. president, deals as simple as making gondolas in the country’s capital of La Paz could have gone to American firms rather than Austrian firms.
Finally, how can diplomatic advances be made when we are only negotiating with countries that already support us? It’s not too difficult to strengthen economic ties or combat different issues when the negotiating government has a highly favorable view towards the U.S. While maintaining and strengthening these relationships is critically important, the Obama administration and that which succeeds it need to make it a priority to establish new relationships with nations that might not share the exact same views as us.