During his recent trip to Latin America, President Barack Obama made a herculean effort to suggest that his administration is forging a new relationship with Mexico and the rest of Latin America based on a partnership of equals.

“Just as Mexico is being transformed, so too are the ties between our two countries,” Obama said in a speech in Mexico City. “As president, I’ve been guided by a basic proposition — in this relationship there is no senior partner or junior partner. We are two equal partners — two sovereign nations that must work together in mutual interest and mutual respect.”

But this soaring rhetoric landed with a thud in the region. Most Latin Americans were still focused on Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks to Congress a couple of weeks earlier indicating that Latin America “is our backyard.”

This oft-used metaphor suggests that Latin America is a place where we can do as we please. It harkens back to the dark ages of the Monroe Doctrine and stings deeply in the region.



Kerry’s comment brought immediate calls for an apology from Latin American leaders. Bolivia went even further, expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development from the country.

“This is the way the U.S. government thinks,” said Bolivian President Evo Morales, “that we are their backyard. We condemn and reject (this idea) and we will never again allow Bolivia or Latin America to be the U.S. government’s backyard.”

The truth is that a new relationship between Latin America and the United States is indeed being forged, but the drive is not coming from Washington. In fact, as Kerry’s slip indicates, Washington is far from interested in a partnership of equals.

Brazil’s economic emergence, China’s increasing sway in the region and, most importantly, the electoral shifts in Latin America over the past decade that brought new kinds of leaders to power have curtailed U.S. influence over the hemisphere.

And that isn’t a bad thing, especially for Latin Americans.

Consider the two most significant policy approaches Washington has taken in Latin America over the past decade: a militarized drug war and a corporate-driven free-trade model.

The militarized approach to combating drugs, from Colombia to Mexico and Central America, has proved a dismal failure with no reduction in drug production and trafficking despite billions provided to the region’s military forces. Estimates suggest 70,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s U.S.-backed drug war.

President Obama even suggested he was skeptical about a military victory in a drug war, despite continued finding in his budget, saying “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking. This is a law enforcement problem.”

He’s less conflicted when it comes to trade policy, which was front and center on his recent trip’s agenda. He reiterated his interest in expanding trade with the region and wrapping up negotiations of the NAFTA-styled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. While such trade deals have exponentially increased trade and corporate profits, they have also undermined environmental and labor standards while devastating key sectors of local economies, such as corn farming in Mexico.

As Obama suggests, our nation’s relationship with Latin America is undergoing a transformation. Gone are the days when we could blurt out that we saw the region as our backyard without any diplomatic repercussions. Unfortunately for Washington, Latin America itself is forging this change.

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Jess Hunter-Bowman

Jess Hunter-Bowman is Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year history analyzing U.S. economic and military policy in Latin America. WitnessforPeace.org
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