For much of President Barack Obama’s time in office, he has been accused of ignoring his southern neighbors. Drawing down military involvement in the Middle East, along with continued crises in other areas of the world, has resulted in little public attention paid to Latin America for the past six years.
Obama’s announcement in mid-December of his intention to begin normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba proved to be a critical juncture—his administration overturned a policy long repudiated by other Latin American leaders and showed his willingness to work with a growing array of leftist leaders in the region.
This new policy, however, received only cursory mention in his State of the Union speech earlier this week. While no topic in the sprawling address outlining his policy objectives for the next two years received much individual attention, Obama delighted many watchers by vowing to overturn a policy that was “long past its expiration date.” He continued:
“When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new. Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo. As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba. And after years in prison, we’re overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs. Welcome home, Alan.”
On the eve of formal talks between the two countries beginning with a focus on migration policies, Obama was careful not to delve too much into the details of what normalization would look like. While much still needs to be decided, normalization of relations has the potential to be a huge part of Obama’s foreign policy legacy and his State of the Union address referenced this policy without risking the possibility of upsetting the start of talks.
What about everyone else?
While that approach can be seen as pragmatic, what was more surprising was the way the rest of the speech failed to address any other country in the region. In the past year, a number of major shifts have occurred in Latin America, but Obama did not touch upon any of them.
One the greatest omissions was perhaps Mexico. The past year has seen major upheavals in the country, particularly regarding the distrust between the Mexican state and its people. This past week, another scandal broke to further degrade this relationship when it was revealed that President Enrique Peña Nieto had bought his home in a resort town from the same developer that subsequently won billions of dollars in government contracts.
While this discovery alone might not have been devastating, it contributes to a shaky relationship that exploded during the investigations into the missing Ayotzinapa students late last year. The state is largely seen as bearing some responsibility for the students’ deaths, as a result of local officials’ strong links to drug cartels and impunity with which they rule many areas of the country. The United States has been largely silent on both issues, and has ignored the growing unrest across its borders, including in Tuesday’s speech.
Silence on immigration
Surprisingly, Obama barely addressed the perennial hot-button issue of immigration, either. He did point out the passion present in the debate, but stopped there.
Yes, passions still fly on immigration, but surely we can all see something of ourselves in the striving young students, agree that no one benefits when a hardworking mom is taken from her child and concede that it’s possible to shape a law that upholds the United States’ history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
This brief mention fell far short of calling on Congress to pass a comprehensive reform or to extend his executive action. In 2014, one of the biggest issues of the year surrounded the thousands of children refugees fleeing from Central American nations via unsafe passage through Mexico. While Obama did pass a reform to grant these populations refugee status in hopes of stemming the difficult journeys, he failed to focus on the larger issue of immigration roiling along the nation’s borders. Especially given the increasing voter interest and stake in the issue, his decision not to address immigration confounded many watching the speech.
And the list goes on. Obama failed to address evolving relations with Brazil, the ongoing upheaval in Venezuela, nor the significant elections that took place in Uruguay and Colombia.
However, Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech failed to engage even one significant policy or diplomatic relation in the entire region. Therefore, Obama’s omission of his southern neighbors follows a long line of ignoring the region in his major policy speeches. Perhaps Cuba, finally, will open up the space and connections for the U.S. President to spend the last two years more deeply connecting with his diplomatic partners in Latin America.