Obama in Latin America: So Not Nixon

News Abroad

Dr. McPherson is associate professor of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of "Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations."

President Obama is not the only high-profile U.S. official to have kicked around a soccer ball in Latin America, as he did in Brazil a few days ago.

When Vice President Richard Nixon toured Latin America in 1958, he walked out onto a soccer field in front of ten thousand Ecuadorians and did some dribbling, joking that he never could use his head.

Obama did not try to head the ball in Rio, but I bet he could have.  He is not only more athletic than Nixon ever was but also a better statesman.  His popularity in Latin America is another testament to that.

In the fifties Nixon went to Latin America ostensibly to woo the middle classes but he wound up lecturing them and reverting to patting dictators and militaries on the back.

Obama, in contrast, went to connect with all groups.  He met with elected presidents from the left and the right, and with business groups.  In Rio he visited a slum and spoke, like the former community organizer that he is, of the possibilities of self-improvement.  In El Salvador he visited the crypt of Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain by a U.S. ally in 1980.

Obama came to the poor and forgotten.  Nixon avoided them, so they came to him:  when he landed in Caracas, Venezuela, denizens of a lower-class neighborhood rushed his motorcade, spit on his windshield and banged it with iron bars, almost killing the vice president.

Obama has shown that he can use his head and his heart.

He can also use his identity, which he seems reluctant to do.  During his visit Brazilians often explicitly spoke of his African heritage, seeing in him an exemplar of the possibilities of progressive, mixed-race societies.  Obama also obliged crowds with some Portuguese and Spanish.  Nixon, in contrast, was a white, only nominally Quaker, middle-class suburbanite from southern California.  He couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish, and we all know what he thought of minorities.

Of course, Obama’s success is not all due to his personality and policies.  He is president in different times.  The Monroe Doctrine that allowed U.S. officials to lord it over Latin America is dead.

In Nixon’s time, U.S. officials themselves bemoaned that Latin America was so economically dependent that when the United States caught a cold—say, a mild recession—Latin America caught pneumonia—a full-blown depression.  The recent global crisis has witnessed the opposite.  The United States is still in bed recovering, and Latin America has healed from its mild head cold, growing at 5 percent, back out on the soccer field.

Obama is thus faced with ample opportunity for growth in trade and for tackling common concrete problems.  Accordingly, in contrast to the launch of the Alliance for Progress fifty years ago this month, during this latest trip the U.S. president signed minor technical agreements and stayed away from major unilateral commitments.

In a broader sense, unlike Nixon, Obama can convince Latin Americans that all “Americans” have an essential common identity and interest in which there is no domineering “big brother.”  The administration’s language of “partnership” with the Americas is a good start.

The Obama administration has also been unfurling an interesting rhetoric about history when dealing with Latin America.  Since Obama went to the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago in April 2009, he has both acknowledged tensions in the past but has refused to get bogged down in apologies or debates about them.  “I didn’t come here to debate the past, I came here to deal with the future,” he said at the Summit.  “We must learn from history.  But we can’t be trapped by it.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated the dual message in Ecuador in June 2010.  “We have had—the United States and Latin America—at times a contentious history,” she said.  “I would never deny that.  There have been real and perceived problems that have sometimes interfered with our working together.”  Yet she called on the hemisphere’s governments “to elevate what is best about our shared past and rise above the acrimony that too often has interfered, even prevented us from moving forward.”

During this latest trip to Chile, a Chilean reporter asked Obama if he would “ask for forgiveness” for the Nixon government’s support for the régime of Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende and then killed and tortured thousands.  Obama offered to give Chile access to the CIA’s Pinochet file, but refused to apologize.  “The history of relations between the United States and Latin America has at times been extremely rocky,” Obama said, echoing Clinton.  “I can’t speak to all of the policies of the past. . . . It’s important for us to learn from our history, to understand our history, but not be trapped by it.”

What Obama is really trapped by is Nixon’s Republican Party.  If it can only use its own head, stop blocking all progress in inter-American relations, and enter the twenty-first century as Obama has.

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Jeremy Kuz - 3/25/2011

To add to Mr. Scherben's excellent comments, Obama's Latin American record has been very disappointing, as Greg Grandin has chronicled in The Nation. He has expanded US military bases in Colombia, beefed up aid to repressive internal security, police and military forces in Mexico and Colombia under the guise of the War on Drugs and gave tacit approval to the Honduran coup. He appears to be more style than substance like John F. Kennedy whose foreign policy was also highly problematic.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/24/2011

that he often speaks good, but when it comes to actions, i.e. delivery on his words/promises, he looses the integrity and will, the hopeful masses believed he had.
Moreover, in case of Iraq, Afghanistan, and essential concessions in health care reform he lost all his credibility even with the folks that enthusiastically supported him before.
Thus, politically he does not look much better than Bush (and all but gone), while personally - like typical opportunist and self-aggrandizer.