Is that a nuclear trip?

di Dario Fazzi

Since he became President, Obama numbered nuclear energy among the centerpieces of his new foreign policy. He stressed this point by nominating John Holdren as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. For long time Holdren was the chair of the Executive Committee of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of that organization in December 1995[1]. Holdren’s appointment was more than a mere symbolic designation. It was intended, on the one hand, to break with the low involvement of the previous administration in the nuclear disarmament matter, and, on the other, to directly engage the new presidency in that issue.

Under a renewed internationalist and multilateral afflatus, Obama clearly spoke about the necessity to forbid nuclear proliferation in his inauguration speech[2]. Shortly after that, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee awarded him on the basis of the trust more than having considered what he had already done. The prize was a sort of investiture claiming for a new U.S. leading role in the elimination of the nuclear threat in our contemporary world. The President replied with a strong opposition to the Iranian attempts to build nuclear devices and with a more cooperative approach that brought to the signature and the ratification of the new Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010[3].

Undoubtedly Obama’s priority was to rebuild a positive image of the U.S., as well as to re-enhance a trusted cooperation in the international arena where, after the breakup of the Iraqi war, the U.S. was seen as an aggressive actor more than a well disposed one.

This kind of policy was particularly true in relation to Latin America. As it is known, most of the Latin America and the Caribbean states are part of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which established the biggest nuclear-free zone of the world. Brazil and Argentina have successfully mastered nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. They are also partner in one of the most successful nuclear regional frameworks in the world – the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC). As the director of the IAEA said few months ago, «it is no exaggeration to say that the 1980 agreement between Argentina and Brazil on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the subsequent creation of ABACC in 1991 prevented a possible nuclear arms race in Latin America»[4].

After the signature of the new NPT, Obama firmly pressured on the states of the region to move forward an integration of their nuclear policies and to work together to maintain the nuclear-free status of the Subcontinent[5].

During the past years, Obama steadily remarked his nuclear targets and convictions, both in regional and local terms. In October 2010, following with an increasing interest the launch of a Venezuelan-Russian cooperation on nuclear devices, which could have transformed Venezuela in the first Latin American nuclear country, Obama stated that Venezuela «has the right of counting with pacific nuclear energy» only if «the system won’t be used for a weapon purpose»[6]. U.S. administration, considering the common aggressive attitude of that country with its close neighbors, such as Colombia, warned that «Venezuela must act responsibly».

In January 2011, announcing an official visit to some Latin American countries to celebrate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, which was aimed at accelerating economic and social development in the Subcontinent, Obama decided to stress the importance of the transnational nuclear cooperation[7]. As the White House Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, said, Brazil’s strides in renewable clean energy and its new leader’s approach to the environmental issues influenced Obama’s decision to set up this travel[8]. Furthermore, the visit could represent a new chance for the two countries to reinforce their bilateral relations after Lula’s attempt to negotiate over Iranian nuclear ambitions[9]. Brazil is rightly considered a key actor in the region and, as it is stated in the 2010 National Security Strategy, the U.S «welcome Brazil’s leadership and seek to move beyond dated North-South divisions to pursue progress on bilateral, hemispheric, and global issues»[10]. In doing so, firstly Obama hopes the new Brazilian government will no more obstruct the U.N. sanctions against Iran; secondly, he is interested in pushing greater trades and investments, especially in Brazil’s world-class clean energy industry; finally, he needs to validate the solidity of the Brazilian endorsement in the maintaining of a nuclear weapons-free Latin America.

But Obama’s administration is not only focused on the defense of the status quo. It is also deeply involved in driving the change. It is particularly true, for example, in the case of Chile. Since that country confirmed its will to acquire nuclear capabilities, U.S. decided to lead that process and to give political and technical assistance needed. Coinciding with the scheduled Obama’s travel to Latin America, an agreement is going to be reached between the two countries. Both Washington and Santiago judge absolutely important that Chile does not face external conflicts or have problems in regional relations because of an energy shortage[11]. Quite evidently, American interest is also linked to the preservation of a vigilant surveillance of every further nuclear development in the region.

However, Obama’s visit will not satisfy everyone in Latin America. U.S. administration’s choice to forget Argentina is a controversial point. As various Wikileaks disclosed files had recently demonstrated, Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has shown her disappointment on several occasions, claiming more attention to her country[12]. From Kirchner’s point of view, Obama is not considering Argentina a key actor of the region and he is underestimating the role that Argentina should play in the field of clean energy, natural resources and so on. Except for a brief formal, perhaps multilateral, meeting, Obama has never directly discussed any nuclear issue with Argentinean President, even though his Assistant State Secretary, Arturo Valenzuela, «emphasized Argentina’s valuable role in Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and regional cooperation»[13]. Surely, some economic, social, fiscal, and even judiciary questions deeply concerned U.S. administration. Though, such an approach seems influenced more by a lack of trust directly connected to the Kirchners, than by skepticism on Argentinean future. Indeed, it will be hard that Obama will continue to ignore Argentina’s weight in the maintaining of the equilibrium of the region.

Thus, even though Latin America as a whole is sometimes seen as the fiercest supporter of a worldwide denuclearization, or, at least, of a broad non-proliferation regime, recent complaints and necessities are slowly producing several changes. Developing and overpopulated countries are asking to join programs of nuclear energy production; economic crisis and international competitors like China are pushing the U.S. to assist its continental neighbors in reaching their nuclear objectives. On the other side, Obama has to persuade those countries of the necessity of what remains his main nuclear goal: an environmentally sustainable development in a world free from nuclear threat. In some ways, it will be a historic visit, but it could also be a true nuclear event.

[1] Further details about John Holdren’s activities and role are available at

[2] In his inaugural address, Obama said: «With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat», see

[3] More details on The 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference are available at

[4] As every historian could easily remark, Latin America countries did not have too many options during the Cold War. They were protected by American nuclear umbrella and they did not directly face any nuclear Communist threat. Furthermore, U.S. administrations were worried about a possible nuclear spread in an area where non-democratic regimes, as well as sudden revolutionary changes could not have been able to give any assurance, see H. Brands, Latin America’s Cold War, Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 27. See

[5] Latin America has much to teach the rest of the world about non-proliferation. All 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are part of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which established the world’s first nuclear-weapon-free zone in a populated area even before the entry into force of the NPT. This treaty, now more than forty years old, was an inspiration for four similar treaties in Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Nearly two-thirds of the countries of the world now belong to nuclear-weapon-free zones. See See also

[8] See As the «New York Times» reports, «in Brazil, Mr. Obama will meet the new president, Dilma Rousseff. She heads a growing nation that in recent years has sought a more influential — and at times confrontational — role in international councils as the voice of emerging countries on trade, climate change and nuclear proliferation». But Obama will also visit Chile and El Salvador. «In Chile, the president will be visiting one of his country’s largest trading partners in Latin America. Mr. Obama’s stop in El Salvador is as much about domestic politics as international affairs; one of the larger and fast-growing immigrant populations in the United States hails from this nation», see

[10] See the National Security Strategy, May 2010, Washington DC, p. 44.

[12] Wikileaks files show how relations between two traditional allies deteriorated during the Kircheners’ era. Regretting the Washington consensus, Argentinean Presidents deeply criticized IMF policies and strengthen their relations with Venezuela. U.S. officials ordered some «psychological evaluations» in order to testify the mental faculties of Cristina de Kirchner or, as Valenzuela did, caused diplomatic accidents by denigrating the internal judiciary system. For more details, see


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