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A year of drift in US-Latin American relations

This year should have been a stellar one for US-Latin American relations, marked by trade deals and Obama's high popularity in the region. Instead, 2011 held a sense of distance between the regions.

By Staff writer / December 23, 2011

President Barack Obama with Monsignor Jose Escobar (l.) and President of El Salvador Mauricio Funes (r.) stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, during a tour of the National Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 22. In a year the US thought would see improved relations with Latin America, the US saw a distancing instead.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File

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In March, US President Barack Obama took his first trip to Latin America, stopping off in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. In October, the US approved long-awaited free trade deals with Panama and Colombia. According to the 2011 Latinobarometro poll, carried out across 18 countries in the region, President Obama ranked as the most popular leader in the Americas.

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This year should have been a stellar one for US-Latin America relations, a major step forward after years of setback. But instead, despite the many positive developments, the relationship is characterized by, if not disdain, then definite distance.

“I think it’s a curious moment,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “There is no evidence of great acrimony in US-Latin American relations as there was four or five years ago. But at the same time, there is this sense of distancing and drift, especially between the US and South America.”

The greatest symbol of that is the regional body that was officially launched in December, called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which includes 33 countries across the Americas but specifically excludes the US and Canada.

Many members of the body are strong allies of the US, but long-time foes such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have said they hope it counters the other major regional body, the Organization of American States (OAS), based in Washington.

Such old-time arguments still flare. President Chavez, for example, has been weakened at home, as the country’s opposition strengthens ahead of 2012 presidential elections. In theory, that is good for the US, and the rhetoric between the two has been low-key this year. But it just flared again, with Obama sharply criticizing the state of human rights in Venezuela and the country’s relationship with Iran.

“We're concerned about the government's actions, which have restricted the universal rights of the Venezuelan people, threatened basic democratic values, and failed to contribute to the security in the region," Obama wrote in response to questions posed by the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

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