April 8, 2010
When it comes to Latin America, the Obama administration's change in tone from the early days of the last administration has been tremendously important. The emphasis on multilateralism has helped to salve long-standing wounds. The emphasis on broader social goals and the willingness to listen has echoed the growing demand to be listened to south of the border. And President Barack Obama's State of the Union shout out for free trade with Panama and Colombia has demonstrated that this administration will not jettison the best initiatives of President George W. Bush in the name of partisanship. All this is very welcome.
But still there's been a troubling sense of anachronism in this administration's rhetoric toward Latin America. Part of this reflects the understandable tendency to define things in regional generalities; but doing so tends to boil them down to retrograde platitudes. It obscures policymakers' sophisticated understanding of differences in the region--and the changes that have occurred in the last 10 years.
If the first 5 years of the Bush administration seemed like a replay of 1980s, with the Manichean obsession with our enemies, unabashed support for specific candidates and a loss of sense of scale--with an inordinate amount of attention devoted to Cuba, Nicaragua and El Salvador--today it's beginning to feel like we're partying like it's 1999. We're running out of retro.