Why Obama is courting his troublesome neighbours

In a world of shifting power balances, the president is wise to re-engage Latin America.

Barack Obama brings to a close today what for him has been a troubled, and troubling, five-day tour of Latin America.

Before he began his trip in Brazil on Saturday, Hillary Clinton had talked up the visit as heralding "a new era" in US-South American relations. Events in Libya have largely focused the world's attention since then. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of this trip for US-Latin American relations. In that sense, Clinton may well be proved to be right – if not quite in the way she imagined.

Because, for all diplomacy-friendly images of Obama playing soccer with kids in a Rio slum, or the first lady dazzling the Chileans with her fashion sense, the picture this trip has revealed above all is that the US is in a weaker position with respect to the continent than it has been for years. Whisper it quietly, but there seems even to be a sense of concern within the Obama camp that the US might have dropped the ball in what it has long thought of as its own backyard.

Just last year, 32 Latin America and Caribbean countries formed a new regional organisation, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLAC), with just the United States and Canada excluded. The year before that, China overtook the US as Brazil's major trading partner. It has been offloading investment ever since.

Were it not for the sheer weight of Brazil's growing stature and the extent of economic interest by China, the US would doubtless have been only too happy to jog along for some years to come in the cold war redux mode Obama began with. It was certainly ambivalent at best during the coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009.

But 2009 is beginning to feel like a long time ago now. Since then, Brazil under Lula has spoken out in support of Iran. And even as the Obama roadshow got under way, Dilma Rousseff had Brazil abstain in voting on the UN Security Council resolution on the situation in Libya. If this doesn't make clear the challenge that Brazil poses to US political clout in the region, Rousseff's trip to China next month almost certainly will.

Hence the distinctly audible change in Washington's tune, as articulated by the White House adviser Ben Rhodes. It is "imperative", he says, "that the United States not disengage from these regions". To which Obama's senior Latin American adviser, Dan Restrepo, added that what is at stake during this trip is "the restoration of American influence and appeal" in the region.

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You wouldn't have heard that a few years ago, but global political and economic circumstances are changing fast. And in US geostrategy, "engagement" is the new defensive play of choice. The cold war was all about containing and distancing threats, either militarily or economically. Today it is all about insisting on reconnection – and Latin America looms large here.

Which is why this trip has gone ahead even though Obama was forced to juggle dinner with Chile's president, Sebastián Piñera, alongside updates from national security advisers on the situation in Libya.

A still-fractious recovery from financial crisis and high unemployment rates make it almost essential the US expand trade southwards. And Obama knows only too well that Latin America stands to play an important role in American moves towards energy security, too. Engaging in both these arenas will also be seen domestically as a way to get some of America's 14 million officially unemployed back to work.

But engaging in this way will mean eating more humble pie than Republicans, at least, are likely to want to digest. Above all it will mean some measure of support by America for Brazil's gaining a permanent seat on the Security Council – the major challenge here being whether it now makes sense to try to hasten that process, cultivating Brazil in order to later use it as a foil against the other Brics, which also abstained during the Libya vote.

So, too, will it mean listening to the voices of ordinary South Americans, rather than reading their needs through the polarised right-left rhetoric that clogs up most debate on the continent. Judging by Obama's willingness throughout the trip so far to extol the virtues of Latin American democracies as an example of what Arab nations in the Middle East might aim for, there seems to be at least some willingness here to budge a little from positions of the past.

Just beware America's interpretation of what a good functioning democracy actually means in the Latin American context. That may be one thing that is slower to change.

Either way, we now have a better sense of where Obama's current thinking on Latin America is heading. And the answer is that he is looking at it through the prism of 2012.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.