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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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The Colombian Option

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

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So what will Obama offer in Trinidad and Tobago? He will, like Hull in 1933, be intent on "radiating goodwill," but he will not necessarily "be friendly with everyone." He's already poisoned the water by insisting that Hugo Chávez is an "obstacle" to progress. Love Chávez or hate him, he is recognized as a legitimate leader by all Latin American countries and is a close ally to many. For eight years, a Bush administration policy of driving a wedge between the rest of the region and the Venezuelan proved a dismal failure, except when it came to increasing the outflow of Washington's hemorrhaging power in the hemisphere.

On many fronts, however, the president is likely to discover that his real obstacles to progress south of the border lie uncomfortably close to home.

In preparation for the summit, the Obama administration has made some overtures to Cuba, responding to demands by nearly every Latin American country that Washington end its cold war against Havana. The need to keep Democratic senators from Florida and New Jersey (states with large Cuban-American populations) in the fold means that the general travel ban and trade embargo will, however, stay in place, at least for now. (In 1933, Hull tried to prevent the Cuban envoy from speaking, fearing that he would give a fiery anti-American speech; Gruening appealed to the principle of free speech to reverse the ban.)

Obama will probably reiterate recent official statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, that the United States bears real responsibility for Mexico's drug-war violence and perhaps bemoan the way an "inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border" fuels drug-related killings. Like every other administration, though, Obama's will have to answer to the National Rifle Association (NRA), which at this point carries out its own foreign policy.

In 2005, for example, when Brazil held a referendum to implement a stringent gun-control law, the NRA spent considerable money lobbying to successfully defeat it. So expect the NRA to fight any attempt to stem the flow of guns south of the border. In fact, Wyoming senator John Barrasso hopes to use the fear of Mexican drug violence to force a greater distribution of assault weapons. As he put the matter, "Why would you disarm someone when they potentially could get caught in the crossfire?... The United States will not surrender our Second Amendment rights for Mexico's border problem."

And so it goes: On nearly every issue that could either actually help relieve the suffering of Latin Americans or allow the US to win back strategic allies, domestic politics will hinder Obama's range of action, even if not his immediate popularity.

Just recently, a study group made up of some of Latin America's leading intellectuals and policy-makers, including former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, declared the US war on drugs a failure and recommended the legalization of marijuana. Obama is obviously sympathetic to this position, having instructed his Justice Department to back off "medical marijuana" prosecutions. But will he be able to de-escalate the war on drugs in Latin America? Not likely.

As a candidate, the president did say he wasn't opposed to all wars, just stupid ones--and this one is as stupid as they come. It hasn't lessened narcotics exports to the United States,but has spread violence through Central America into Mexico, while entrenching paramilitary power in Colombia. Plan Colombia, the centerpiece of that war, is a legacy of Bill Clinton's foreign policy, and much of the $6 billion so far spent to fight it has essentially been direct-deposited in the coffers of corporate sponsors of the Democratic Party like Connecticut's United Technologies and other Northeastern defense contractors.

Rather than dismantling Plan Colombia, plans are evidently afoot to have it go viral beyond the Americas. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently commented that "many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia," and suggested that it be franchised "specifically to Afghanistan." Washington Post White House correspondent Scott Wilson agrees, urging Obama to use Colombia as a "classroom for learning how to beat the Taliban." Buried deep in Wilson's recommendation was a revelation: US officials, he wrote, "privately" told him that death-squad terror was a necessary first step in Plan Colombia, serving as a "placeholder" until the US could train a "professional" army. The Bush administration kept "the money flowing to Colombia's army despite evidence of its complicity in paramilitary massacres."

The Path to Latin America Runs Through Brasilia...

Ultimately, imperial Washington's only real road may run through the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. After all, Obama approaches the region not as a leader of a confident superpower but of an autumnal hegemon. As such, his best option may lie in forming a partnership with Brazil--Latin America's largest, most diversified economy, with enormous, newly discovered offshore oil reserves and a fulsome set of political aspirations--to administer the hemisphere. The White House clearly recognizes this to be the case, which was why an administration official called Lula's recent one-on-one meeting in Washington with Obama a recognition of Brazil's "global ascendancy."

Just before the G-20 meeting convened in London, Lula blamed the global financial collapse on the "irrational behavior of people that are white" and "blue-eyed." Standing next to the blanching British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he continued: "I do not know any black or indigenous bankers so I can only say [it is wrong] that this part of mankind, which is victimized more than any other, should pay for the crisis."

If these words came out of Chávez's mouth, they would have been taken as but the latest indication of his irrational anti-Americanism, but the Obama administration needs Lula. In London, Obama could barely contain himself: "That's my man right here," he said, grabbing Lula's hand as Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner looked on. "Love this guy. He's the most popular politician on earth. It's because of his good looks." That certainly represented an improvement over George Bush, who asked Lula's Brazilian predecessor, "Do you have blacks, too?"

Yet Brazil's cooperation will come at a price, which Obama will have trouble meeting. This country's baroque and bloated farm subsidy and tariff program--which House and Senate members recently refused to let Obama cut--will prevent the president from bowing gracefully to Lula's central demand: that the US live up to its rhetoric about free trade and open its economy to Brazil's competitive agro-industry.

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