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What Can Obama Do in Latin America? | The Nation

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What Can Obama Do in Latin America?

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Twenty-One Different Kinds of Hate

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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Each generation seems condemned to have to prove the obvious anew: slavery created the modern world, and the modern world’s divisions are the product of slavery.

Protesters on both sides of the border are revolting against the same transnational policing and trade policies. 

Not quite, of course. Washington would return to a policy of interventionism in the cold war era. Nonetheless, the importance of this diplomatic sea-change cannot be overstated.

Montevideo was Roosevelt's first significant foreign policy success, marking a turn in the country's fortunes as an ascendant superpower. He then ordered the Marines to withdraw from Haiti, while giving the country back its national bank; he abrogated the Cuban constitution's hated Platt Amendment, which had turned the island into a US vassal-state; and he began to tolerate a degree of economic nationalism in Latin America, including Mexico's expropriation of the holdings of Standard Oil.

FDR's enormous popularity in Latin America fired his aspirations to world leadership. Visiting Buenos Aires in 1936, he was greeted by more than a million ecstatic well-wishers who gave him a "wild ovation" and "pelted him with flowers." Even Buenos Aires's usually skeptical press heralded him as a "shepherd of democracy," while hospitals expected an "enormous crop of 'Roosevelts among baby boys," despite a ban on foreign names for infants.

Improved relations with Latin America also helped the US recover from the Great Depression. With Asia off limits and Europe headed for war, Washington looked south both for markets for manufactured goods and for raw materials, negotiating trade treaties with fifteen Latin American countries between 1934 and 1942.

More importantly, Latin America became the laboratory for what eventually became known as liberal multilateralism--the diplomatic framework that, after World War II, would allow the United States to accrue unprecedented power. With the League of Nations practically defunct, diplomats began to discuss the possibility of a new "League of the Americas," which would eventually evolve into both the Organization of American States and the United Nations. (Each would enshrine in its charter the principle of absolute nonintervention.) Roosevelt himself would hold up the "illustration of the republics of this continent" as a model for global postwar reconstruction.

Cordell Hull got the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to found the UN and FDR took credit for overcoming "many times twenty-one different kinds of hate" to "sell the idea of peace and security among the American republics." But the thanks really should go to anti-imperialists like Gruening and guerrilla fighters like Nicaragua's Augusto Sandino who rendered militarism an unsustainable foreign policy.

Seventy-Five Years Later...

The parallels with today are unmistakable: a global economy in tatters; a new president with a mandate for reform, but blocked abroad by rising rivals and hamstrung by the rapid recession of US power and prestige thanks to years of arrogant, unilateral militarism. And coming on the heels of a London summit of economic powers, a Latin American conference: the Fifth Summit of the Americas to be attended by thirty-four heads of state representing every American country except Cuba.

The last time this summit convened at the Argentinean beach resort town of Mar del Plata in 2005, Argentines greeted George W. Bush not as a shepherd of democracy but as an evangelizer for war, militarism and savage capitalism. Thousands turned up from all over the continent to burn the president in effigy. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales convened a festive parallel "People's Summit," while Argentine soccer legend Maradona called Bush "human rubbish" and "a bit of an assassin." To paraphrase Michael Moore's Academy Award homage to the Dixie Chicks, when Maradona is against you, your time in Latin America is up.

With an aircraft carrier stationed just offshore and fighter jets buzzing overhead, Bush still was nervous and seemed distinctly out of his league. Coming just a few months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, with Iraq careening out of control, Bush's disastrous performance in Argentina, combined with an impressive display of Latin American unity, hastened the demise of the pretension of the neoconservatives to global supremacy. "The United States continues to see things one way," said one Latin American diplomat at the summit, "but most of the rest of the hemisphere has moved on and is heading in another direction."

And so it had, with a left turn that started with Chávez's 1998 election as Venezuela's president and still continues apace. Last year, after all, Paraguay elected a liberation theologian as president; and last month, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front--the guerrilla-group-turned-political party Ronald Reagan spent $6 billion and 70,000 Salvadorean lives trying to defeat in the 1980s--finally came to power in El Salvador.

This week many will be watching to see if Barack Obama, in what will be his first real engagement with Latin America, is ready to reverse course at this summit as Roosevelt did more than three-quarters of a century ago. To the United States, Latin America has not just been a source of raw materials and markets, but a "workshop," a place where rising foreign-policy coalitions try out new ways to project US power following periods of acute crisis. FDR did it, as did Reagan and the New Right when, in the 1980s, they used Central America to experiment with junking multilateralism, while remilitarizing and remoralizing foreign policy.

Today, President Obama is enormously popular in Latin America. A number of local politicians in the region even legally adopted his name to give themselves an edge on ballots, and undoubtedly quite a few baby boys will be called Barack. Brazil's president, known simply as Lula, says he is praying for Obama--and even Maradona admits he likes him "a lot."

But popularity only goes so far. For the first time in many decades, an American president might find that the days when the US could use Latin America as an imperial rehearsal space are drawing to a close.

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