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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.