President Obama makes the first visit of his life to Latin America this week. For some time now the thirty-four-nation continent has been ignored by the United States, in comparison with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine and now North Africa, not to mention Europe. The irony is that Latin America has experienced a wave of democratic elections and a new era of independence after a generation of US-backed dictatorships. Obama has a choice between establishing a genuine “good neighbor” policy in the anti-interventionist tradition of Franklin Roosevelt or, more likely, building a bloc of moderate allies to offset Venezuela in the region and China in global power politics.
The United States has not exactly slept through Latin America’s democratic era, as some might say. Obama has eased travel restrictions slightly towards Cuba, and US prosecutors have used Cuban investigators and doctors to go after Luis Posada Carriles in an El Paso courtroom. And Obama has shared warm handshakes with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez at a hemispheric summit.
But Obama switched from criticizing to accepting the military coup in Honduras, which was widely condemned across the region. The United States currently is lobbying to prevent the return to Haiti of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, deposed in a 2004 US-supported coup. Suspicions still exist about US ties to the police who threatened Ecuador’s Rafael Correa earlier this year. Latin America opposes the expansion of US military bases placed in Colombia after Correa removed them from his country. And despite the campaign talk of direct dialogue, the United States has pulled its ambassadors from Venezuela and Bolivia. Finally, Obama has continued assistance to the drug war from Central America to Mexico, where 34,000 have been killed since 2006.
All while the Obama team has invested huge political capital to “reset” relations with Russia, but none so far with Latin America, until this week.
Obama will hold meetings in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, three countries that have achieved the transition from dictatorship to democracy that the president frequently celebrates. Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, is a former insurgent who was imprisoned and tortured under the military dictatorship of 1964–85. Her ally the previous president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was jailed under the same military regime.
In Chile, Obama will meet the conservative billionaire president, Sebastian Piniera, in a country where thousands died under the Pinochet dictatorship strongly supported by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In El Salvador, Obama will be greeted by the highly popular president, Mauricio Funes, an independent elected on a platform with the FMLN, the guerrillas opposed by the United States in a civil war that claimed 70,000 lives. Funes’s brother was one of those killed by the Salvadoran right during the conflict. The party of the FMLN now leads the National Assembly, and Obama will surely meet its leadership.
According to Raul Hinojosa, a Latin American specialist at UCLA, “It would be great if the US realigns itself with the social democratic project underway in the region, instead of the former right-wing and neoliberal agendas. It will be very interesting if the new US allies include the people they fought with in the sixties.” In other words, a positive relationship with Latin America could require Obama to show his progressive side, a reversal of the dynamics of US politics pulling him to the right.
Hopefully, Obama is aware that another divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting the allegedly “good left” against the “bad left,” will not work. There is a shared consensus towards integration across Latin America, including opposition to Washington-dominated trade agreements, military bases and the embargo of Cuba. Brazil has positive ties with Venezuela, and Obama’s visit will be an opportunity for the Brazilians to encourage rapprochement between Washington and Caracas. (Chávez will meet with Brazil’s Rousseff the week after Obama leaves.)