The military coup in Honduras is a real test of the United States’ commitment to what USC College professor Abraham Lowenthal calls “the Obama Approach” to Latin American relations.
“In the past, one U.S. administration after another has trumpeted a new policy, but more often than not, these new approaches have faded away,” Lowenthal says.
President Barack Obama has focused on improving U.S. relations in the hemisphere by strengthening partnerships with Mexico and Brazil and moving carefully to build a mutually respectful relationship with Cuba, Lowenthal notes. The administration is pragmatically improving relations with populist regimes on a case-by-case basis, and taking responsibility for the U.S. sources of some regional difficulties.
Lowenthal considers Obama’s strategy an improvement over those of previous administrations, because it acknowledges the significance of Latin American and Caribbean nations to the United States, and seeks to build cooperative solutions to shared problems.
Honduras was a stumbling block once before, in 1963, when the elected president was overthrown, Lowenthal says. The Kennedy administration had announced it would not recognize governments established by force. However, though there was an initial suspension of diplomatic relations, ties were restored less than two months later. This sequence of events contributed to the so-called Mann Doctrine, which dropped the American insistence on democracy.
Lowenthal wonders whether the administration will abandon its early positive steps, because, once again, the Honduran case is a difficult one.
Even before the coup, the Obama Approach was being tested, Lowenthal says. Though the U.S. respects the right of Latin American countries to diversify their relationships, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern about the increasing presence of China and Iran in the region. In addition, Obama’s promise that comprehensive immigration reform would be a first-year priority became just a commitment to hold consultations on the topic. And though the administration first agreed on the need to regulate small-weapons exports from the U.S. to Mexico, the president then suggested that this was politically unrealistic.
To follow through on the Obama Approach, Lowenthal believes that the president needs to support multilateral and institutional processes — relying on the Organization of American States and its Inter-American Democratic Charter — and encourage Latin American leadership.
“The Honduras crisis provides an opportunity to reaffirm the Obama policies in the Western Hemisphere,” Lowenthal offers.