Obama's Unfinished Business: Latin America

As President Obama starts his second term, host Michel Martin takes a look at his foreign policy agenda. She speaks with NPR's Juan Forero about upcoming opportunities and challenges in Latin America — from drug trafficking, to changes in leadership, to the evolution of the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it boasted a distinguished roster of alumni, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee. But it remains one of the only all-male liberal arts colleges in the country. We are talking about Morehouse College. It has a new president and we will speak with him about that institution's storied past and hopes for the future in just a few minutes.

But first, President Obama was sworn into his second term yesterday. We have been looking at unfinished business from his first term and this week we are turning our attention to foreign policy. Today, we want to focus on Latin America. It's an important region but many there feel neglected by this president while the issues on the horizon that require some diplomatic attention remain, including drug trafficking and aging and frail leaders in Cuba and Venezuela, respectively.

Joining us to talk about the challenges facing Obama in his second term is NPR's South America correspondent Juan Forero. Thank you so much for joining us.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we look at specific issues, do you agree that many people in the region wish they had gotten more attention from this president during the first term?

FORERO: You know, I think it depends who you ask. I mean, some people here in Latin America think that the U.S. should be paying a lot more attention to Latin America and they hoped that they would and they had hoped that Obama would have spent more time here.

Also George Bush, I might add, in the previous administration. And then there's other people who just simply say, hey, it's best that the United States not pay attention to us. Let us do what we're doing and we'll handle things. So it really just depends on the country and who you're talking with.

MARTIN: Is there an overall theme that anybody has successfully described about this administration's perspective or policy in Latin America?

FORERO: Well, I think that there are a number of policies that are important to the region like, you know, drug trafficking and commerce and so forth, and the Cuba issue. But I have to tell you, what's sort of surprising about Obama and Latin America is that the administration is popular here but I would say it's not so much because of what they do in Latin America but what they do outside of the region.

And I think that has a lot to do with George Bush, too, because the Bush administration was very unpopular in the region for its foreign policy in the Middle East. And the Obama administration is not blamed for that policy, even though in many ways, of course, the Obama administration has followed the line. And so I think Obama is much more popular because of that.

He's also come down here on a couple of different occasions and those have been fairly successful trips.

MARTIN: Let's start with a country where there was a very difficult and tense relationship with the George W. Bush administration, and that is with Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez, he's been a hero to the international left, a staunch opponent of kind of U.S. policy in the region. But he has had significant health problems in recent years, hasn't been seen in public very much at all.

What's going on there? For people who haven't kept up with this.

FORERO: Well, the latest came just a couple of days ago when the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, said he was optimistic that Chavez could be back in Venezuela sooner rather than later. But like everything in Venezuela, you know, especially about Chavez's health, there was very little detail.

Let me recap and tell you what's going on. Chavez has been battling cancer for about 19 months. And on December 11th, he surprised the country when he announced that he would undergo a fourth operation. In fact, it was that day when he underwent the operation to remove cancerous tissue from his pelvic region.

The thing is, he hasn't been heard from since. Keep in mind that Chavez is a guy who's been on TV daily over 14 years, giving speeches that, you know, last hours. He's constantly tweeting. He's talking on the radio. But now it's six weeks and we have heard nothing; just a few little tidbits about his health. Some of it has been pretty dire. But we don't know what kind of cancer he has, where in his body it's located, or whether he's even coming back to Venezuela.

MARTIN: So what's been the U.S. posture toward all this? How has the U.S. reacted to all of this?

FORERO: Well, the U.S. has been cautious in its comments. It's coming out to say that they'd like to see a peaceful transition, meaning a peaceful constitutional transition if Chavez were not to come back to power or if he were permanently sidelined, either because of death or because he's incapacitated.

What's really gotten the attention in the United States, and I guess in Latin America, is how the U.S. has over the past few weeks been working back channels to renew frayed relations that Washington has had with Caracas, with Venezuela, for years. These countries do not have ambassadors. In other words, there's not an American ambassador in Venezuela.

The DEA, which used to operate in Venezuela, is not permitted to do much of anything. And of course Chavez frequently rails against U.S. imperialism and warns that the U.S. is on the verge of invading. So the Obama administration is hoping that if there is a transition they'll be able to have better relations with the next guy.

MARTIN: Let's move on to Cuba. And if you're just joining us we're speaking with NPR's Juan Forero. We're talking about the challenges facing President Obama in Latin America during his second term. Let's talk about Cuba. One of the big news items from the region has been the Cuban government has finally relaxed its travel policy after many, many years.

And so now there's talk of a reciprocal move by the Obama administration. What can you tell us about that?

FORERO: Well, I think there's two policy shifts in Cuba that are super significant. I think one of them is what you just mentioned, you know, this visa policy. And the other one is that the Cuban government has also been moving to permit small-scale private enterprise on the island. Things are so bad there that the state has been releasing workers - in other words, laying people off. And those people are supposed to try to find jobs and get things rolling with their own little businesses. That's going to be very tough in a country like that. And these are big changes. And of course there's talk about whether the United States would ever move on any significant change such as ending its economic embargo of the island.

And I don't see that that is going to happen. I mean, the U.S. has long said that the Castros - that is Raul, the president, and his brother Fidel - have to be gone before the U.S. engages Cuba. And I think it's important to note that American diplomats, I think, would love to see an end to the embargo.

Because it's very damaging to the U.S. It permits the Cubans to claim it's being bullied by a superpower. And the embargo just hasn't worked. You know, it hasn't ousted the communist government there. But the Obama administration, I think, faces domestic issues here. First of all, most Americans simply don't care about Cuba. And I think that the Cuban-American community, which does, has a leadership which continues to support a hard line against Cuba.

And Obama knows full well that that community, the Cuban-American community, particularly in Florida, does vote.

MARTIN: And, Juan, what about your base, Columbia? What's happening there?

FORERO: Well, a little-noticed trend but a very important one for the United States. The U.S. has been helping the Columbian government for years now in trying to push back against rebels and against drug traffickers. And it's quite possible that by the end of this year there's going to be a peace pact here.

And so that's going to be huge, that a country of this size - you know, it's the third or fourth largest economy in the region - is going to finally bring an end to this long, long conflict here. And the U.S. had a big role in pushing this forward and making this a possibility.

MARTIN: One thing that a number of observers think may be changing is the whole attitude regionally around drug trafficking. But a number of other countries have sort of indicated they don't want to go along with what sort of the status quo has been in recent years. Sort of kind of a policy of law enforcement first, you know, eradication and so forth.

Can you talk a little bit about that? Do you see sort of a prospect for change? And what are the shifts in these attitudes around the region on this question?

FORERO: Yeah. This is a big trend. Let me just first say that, you know, critics have long said that the policy, what is the drug war, the U.S.-funded drug war in Latin America, has resulted in a lot of violence and that it hasn't stopped the flow of drugs.

And so what's important now is that presidents and important statesmen like, you know, former Brazilian president and so forth, people across the region are saying, look, enough. Let's rethink this. And there's some prominent - this is very surprising - some prominent U.S. allies who are saying this. Among them is president of Columbia, Juan Manuel Santos. And he's no shrinking violet. He's a key U.S. ally.

Hard line against guerillas and against drug traffickers. But he says, look, we need to think about a better way. It needs to be discussed. And you have a situation where, for instance, in Uruguay - small country the government says it wants to legalize marijuana. You have the president of Guatemala saying the drug war has failed. That country's been hard hit by the drug war. This doesn't mean that there's going to be a huge policy shift any time soon, but it is significant that these leaders are talking about it. And keep in mind that these policies have just been in place for a long, long time, but there is a debate right now. There is talk.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, Juan, one of the things that we're talking about, one of the stories that perhaps has not gotten as much attention in the U.S., is just the level of the improvement in economic conditions in Latin America. And I know it's hard to - there are a lot of countries in Latin America and lots of different circumstances, but can you just talk just more generally about the mood there, particularly about the quality of life that people have there and just what their sense of their relationship that they want to have with the United States.

FORERO: Well, I think that that's a very important question because there has been a really dramatic change in Latin America over the last decade and that is that you're seeing rising living standards and stronger democracies across the region. You see that in places like Brazil and Chile and Peru and Columbia.

Mexico, despite all the coverage about its drug war, has a fast-growing middle class, so you see a lot of changes like that. Brazil, I think, is the country that's gotten sort of the most attention because you had a period of several years where 30 million people were lifted into the middle class. That's huge, and Brazil also, of course, won the right to hold the summer Olympics and soccer's World Cup, and so, you know, that's a country that has a very bright future.

But there's a whole bunch of other countries too that have also experienced kind of the same thing - rising foreign investment, less inequality. Latin America is a region with the highest inequality in the world, but a lot of these countries are chipping away at that. So all that has been a positive thing.

At the same time, I think the negative thing is that there are still some weak institutions in a lot of these countries and you see that in places, particularly in places like Venezuela, you know, where the institutions have been taken over by, you know, what is basically, you know, a government that has some very authoritarian tendencies, and you do have in a few other countries too. You have that in Nicaragua and in Ecuador and so forth.

So not all the news is good, but I think that the overall trend has been very positive, that a region that had suffered through so much poverty and so forth is seeing itself, you know, really surge.

And you know, one last thing I'd like to say is that I think that it's been particularly prominent - people have really paid attention in the last two or three years because, you know, with Europe and the United States going through very hard economic crises, you're seeing Latin America sort of escape that problem. In the past, you know, other countries would have problems and Latin America would just be plunged into despair, economic despair, and that hasn't happened this time around.

MARTIN: Juan Forero covers South America for NPR and he joined us from his base in Bogota, Columbia. Juan Forero, thank you so much for joining us.

FORERO: Thank you, Michel.

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