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U.S. Refocuses Policy Approach in Latin America

March 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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With Brazil's global status on the rise, the United States is re-evaluating its approach to Latin American policy. Margaret Warner reports on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to several South American nations.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: Secretary of State Clinton travels to a more assertive Latin America.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: It was time for Brazilians to crow last fall when Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, over Chicago. It was perhaps symbolic of Brazil’s rising global status, vis-a-vis its powerful neighbor to the north, the United States.

And yesterday, during her Latin American trip, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came face-to-face with Brazil’s determination to chart its own course, the issue at hand, stopping Iran’s nuclear program. The number-one objective of her trip was to persuade Brazil to support tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran.

In meetings with the Brazilian foreign minister, Clinton urged just that.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. secretary of state: We both do not want to see Iran become a nuclear weapons country. We both support the goal of nonproliferation. We both believe that engagement and negotiation is preferable to sanctions and pressure. And, to that end, President Obama has been reaching out to the Iranians for more than a year. And, unfortunately, that outreach has not been reciprocated.

MARGARET WARNER: But Brazil, which currently has a seat on the Security Council, has resisted calls for tougher sanctions so far. And, yesterday, even before Clinton spoke, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, preempted her plea.

LUIZ INACIO LULA DA SILVA, Brazilian president (through translator): I already told all of you, you cannot push Iran against the wall. The prudent thing to do would be to begin negotiations.

I have stated publicly, I want the same things for Iran that I want for Brazil. I want them to use and develop their nuclear energy for peaceful means. If Iran agrees with that, then Iran will have Brazil’s support.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Shifter, incoming president of the Inter-American Dialogue, thinks Brazil is resisting sanctions in part because of growing commercial ties with Iran. But more important, he says, is Brazil’s desire to show independence from the U.S.

MICHAEL SHIFTER, Inter-American Dialogue: Brazil is feeling very good these days. There’s a lot of — they have a lot of pride. They’re doing very well. They’re connected and deal very closely with other major powers, with India, with China, with Russia. And they don’t want the United States to set the terms of their agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, concurs.

MOISES NAIM, editor, Foreign Policy: It has to do with the notion that — of conveying to the world that Brazil has arrived, that Brazil is no longer taking orders or instructions from the United States, that Brazil is a global player, and it is a very important actor that needs to be taken into account and can — can — sometimes can do things and take positions that are at odds with those that the United States would prefer.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s more, says Naim, defying the U.S. is popular with Lula’s leftist base. Clinton was confronted directly on the issue of Brazil’s independence at a town meeting in Sao Paulo last night. She parried by acknowledging, it’s a new world.

WILLIAM WAACK, Globo Network: State Secretary, this is a question from the Internet which, again, relates to what you just said about Brazil being a global player: “Does it mean that Brazil will have to support you in the Security Council, playing like the big guys do?”

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Well, I think Brazil is a global player with an independent mind, just as the United States is. I mean, you — every country has to make a judgment about what is in their core interests, their security interests, their economic and political interests. And we work with Brazil on many, many issues.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama came into office pledging to reinvigorate U.S. relations with Brazil and all the other countries in the region.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We think that there’s enormous possibilities of making progress in Latin America.

MARGARET WARNER: But the past year has seen the U.S. at loggerheads with many of its southern neighbors over the handling of the coup in Honduras, the ongoing presence of U.S. military bases in Colombia, and the continuing U.S. embargo against Cuba.

The old U.S.-Latin American relationship is symbolized by this stately building near the White House, the Organization of American States, or OAS. But the Latins, who have long chafed at what they see as U.S. domination here, last week voted to form a rival group that includes Washington’s nemesis, Cuba, and excludes Canada and the United States.

The creation of that new regional bloc was met with applause at a summit in Cancun, Mexico, last week.

FELIPE CALDERON, Mexican president (voice-over): The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States should promote regional political consensus for Latin American and Caribbean agenda in global forums and the better positioning of Latin America and the Caribbean in important world events.

MARGARET WARNER: Moises Naim sees the new bloc as a pipe dream.

MOISES NAIM: In principle, it’s not a bad idea to have something that is an entity that coordinates common positions among Latin American and Caribbean countries. In principle, it’s not a bad idea. In practice, it’s an impossible idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Impossible because?

MOISES NAIM: Impossible because these countries don’t see eye to eye.

MARGARET WARNER: But Michael Shifter believes it sends an important political signal.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: But I think it should be taken seriously as an expression of — at least of political distancing of Latin America and an attempt to come together, all of the countries, for the first time.

MARGARET WARNER: Clinton’s trip wasn’t filled entirely with setbacks. After the inauguration of Uruguay’s new president, Jose Mujica, the two held fruitful talks.

In Buenos Aires, she pleased the Argentineans by urging talks to ease the standoff over Britain’s drilling for oil near the Falkland Islands. And she and her offers of American help were greeted warmly in earthquake-ravaged Chile by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and her incoming successor, Sebastian Pinera.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: And I brought with me 25 of these satellite phones. And I’m going to give this one to you, Madam President.

MARGARET WARNER: Still, Shifter says, U.S. influence in the region has waned for good.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: The U.S. capacity to affect events in Latin America has diminished and it’s likely to continue to diminish. And this is something, it’s a new reality, and it reflects the relative position of both the United States and Latin America in the world.

The risk is and the danger is that the United States will be tempted to withdraw, become disengaged from the region. I think that would be a serious mistake. The United States has to hang in there and — and do the hard work, the hard diplomatic work that needs to be done.

MARGARET WARNER: Naim thinks the trend is reversible, if Washington will do that hard work.

MOISES NAIM: I think the United States can easily regain influence. The United States continues to have a very powerful gravitational pull, both in terms of trade, and investment, and culture, and links. And geography matters. And the United States and Latin America are very close, in a variety of ways.

MARGARET WARNER: After stops in Costa Rica and Guatemala, Clinton returns to Washington tomorrow, and to other pressing global issues that may make it hard to give Latin America the attention it seeks.