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Obama Administration Relations With South America: A Conversation With Five U.S. Ambassadors

January 22, 2010 // 10:00am11:30am
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In Washington for an annual State Department conference of the top U.S. diplomats in the Western Hemisphere, the five U.S. ambassadors to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of Latin American domestic politics, foreign policy, and U.S. relations with the countries of the Southern Cone.

In comments at the Woodrow Wilson Center on January 22, 2010, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Vilma S. Martínez emphasized the strong economic and strategic partnerships between the two countries. U.S.-Argentine trade is in excess of $13 billion and over 500 U.S. companies operate in Argentina, she said. Martínez emphasized the density of relationships at the working level in a host of areas, including agriculture, science, technology, and culture. She cited Argentina's founding of a National Cancer Institute in conjunction with the U.S. National Institutes of Health. She described Argentina as "one of our best partners in counter-terrorism efforts," and reminded the audience that Argentine President Carolina Fernández de Kirchner would be one of a handful of Latin American presidents participating in an April 2010 summit in Washington on nuclear non-proliferation issues. Martínez praised the response of the Argentine government to the 2008-09 economic crisis, saying that at a time that the rest of the world was focusing on shoring up international financial markets, President Kirchner zeroed in on the importance of work and work equality (trabajo decente).

U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Thomas A. Shannon called the U.S.-Brazilian relationship "a global relationship due to the global natures of both of our countries." In areas of policy convergence, Shannon saw the potential "to create synergies" helpful to the United States, Brazil, the region, and the larger global system. He cited examples that ranged from helping cure malaria in São Tomé e Príncipe to assisting in Haiti's recovery process after the earthquake. Shannon noted, however, that "Brazil and the United States will begin encountering each other in places where traditionally we have not run into each other," a challenge that will "require some creativity."

Asked about Brazil's relationship with Iran, he made clear that Brasília has acted on its own initiative and not on behalf or with incentive from Washington, as officials in Brazil have suggested. On the nuclear issue, he said that "Brazil has found a way to deliver some really important messages" shared by the international community regarding the "serious lack of confidence in the transparency of [Iran's] nuclear program" and the importance of respecting human rights and religious freedoms. The ultimate test of diplomacy, however, was its results, not its processes Shannon said, calling such an approach "fact-driven diplomacy." (A transcript of Shannon's remarks appears here.)

According to U.S. Ambassador to Chile Paul E. Simons, "The U.S.-Chilean relationship…is probably the best it's ever been." He underscored the mutual commitment to democracy, free markets, and social justice in the hemisphere, but asserted that institutions are what make the U.S.-Chile relationship unique. Chile's strong democratic institutions would make the transfer of power to the center-right government of Sebastián Piñera a smooth one, he said. President-elect Piñera's intention to boost Chile's competitiveness, productivity, innovation, and long-range growth possibilities would accelerate the trend of private sector-driven integration, and open "tremendous opportunities" for U.S. companies.

Simons pointed to China's demand for copper as well as Chile's 50 or so trade agreements with other countries as a "major element" in the reduction of poverty in Chile during the period of the Concertación, from 40 percent of the population in 1990 to 13 percent in 2008. He described the bilateral U.S.-Chile free trade agreement (FTA) as an "extraordinary success story," boosting U.S. exports 250 percent in the first five years.
Chile's accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) will also promote further opportunities for trade and growth in next 15 years, he predicted.

Liliana Ayalde, U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, said that U.S. efforts have focused on assisting President Fernando Lugo in attacking corruption, reducing poverty, and assisting with job creation. The Millennium Challenge Corporation plays an important role in these areas, she said, and U.S. development assistance to Paraguay has doubled over the past several years. U.S. assistance is also directed at professionalizing the national police and customs agents, and to improving the efficiency of the health sector. Ayalde reiterated a commitment to cracking down on corruption and illegal activity in the tri-border region between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and expressed interest in pursuing the U.S. legislative proposal to include Paraguay as a beneficiary under the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Enforcement Act. Paraguay's economy is expected to continue to grow about 4 percent per year; in addition to fighting corruption, Ayalde said, the answer to poverty lay in creating more jobs.

"Uruguay plays a very important role in the hemisphere and more broadly," affirmed U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay David D. Nelson; the country is one of the largest contributors to peace keeping missions around the world, he said, and is "one of the most successful democracies in the hemisphere." He highlighted Uruguay's commitment to well-functioning institutions, freedom of the press and of opportunity, and respect for its citizens. He praised the Frente Amplio government's commitment to market-based growth coupled with social investment and broad distribution. He indicated that Uruguay was the first country in the world to provide a laptop to every child in school, a measure with "tremendous implications and opportunities" for technological education and connectivity distribution throughout the country. In addition, he said, the country maintained an impressive four-year 7 percent GDP growth until the downturn of the global economy. Uruguay's economic slowdown is temporary, suggested Nelson, and the country should be able to return to impressive growth numbers in coming years. In response to a question, Nelson declined to comment on the recent vote in Uruguay to leave in place an amnesty for those who committed human rights abuses during the period of the dictatorship, calling the vote a "sovereign decision" on which the United States did not take a position.

 
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