What Can Obama Do in Latin America?
And then there's Venezuela. Seventy-five years ago, Secretary of State Hull feared the Hearst papers would attack him "fwom coast to coast" if he renounced interventionism. Well, the more things change...
When Obama's State Department declared Venezuela's recent referendum to remove presidential term limits (and so allow Chávez to stand for re-election) an internal matter "consistent with democratic principles," it was attacked by the Houston Chronicle, which is owned-- you guessed it--by the Hearst Corporation. More criticism followed, sending administration officials "scrambling," according to the Wall Street Journal, "to assert that the Obama administration hasn't softened US policy toward Venezuela."
Since the ongoing demonization of Chávez carries absolutely no domestic costs and its easing plenty of potential debits, Obama might be forced to keep up some version of the Bush administration's hard line, perhaps providing the president cover to moderate rhetoric, if not policy, in real danger spots where far more is at stake--as in the Middle East.
...And Ends in Texas
Immigration is one area where Obama might have some room to maneuver, but he would have to overcome the Glenn-Beck wing of the Republican Party. Ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stop hunting undocumented Latin American workers (as the presidents of Mexico and Central America have demanded) and opening a real path to citizenship would go a long way toward improving relations with southern neighbors. It would also guarantee the loyalty of the Latino vote in 2012 and, by creating millions of new voters, perhaps even pull Texas closer to swing-state status.
Returning to the Scene of the Crime
Ultimately, however, Obama's vision will be limited by the smallness of the imaginations of the counselors he has surrounded himself with. There are neither Gruenings nor even Hulls in that crowd. He has kept on George W. Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Thomas Shannon and has picked Jeffrey Davidow to be his special advisor at the summit.
A career diplomat, Davidow's foreign service has been largely unremarkable, though his first posting was to Guatemala in the early 1970s when US-backed death squads were running wild, and was followed by an assignment as a junior political officer in Chile, where he observed the 1973 US-backed military coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende. Committed to the Clinton-era mantra of economic liberalization, these diplomats will never recommend the kind of game-changing ideas Gruening did.
Given that the global financial crisis will dominate this summit, Obama's appearance will be seen by some as a return to the scene of the crime. After all, it was in Chile that the now-discredited model of deregulated financial capitalism was first imposed. This occurred well before Presidents Reagan and Clinton adopted it in the United States.
As it then spread through most of the rest of Latin America, the results were absolutely disastrous. For two decades, economies stagnated, poverty deepened and inequality increased. To make matters worse, just as a new generation of leftists, taking measures to lessen poverty and reduce inequality, was recovering from that Washington-induced catastrophe, a reckless housing bubble burst in the United States, bringing down the global economy.
Latin Americans will want an accounting. As even Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close US ally, put it, "the whole world has financed the United States, and I believe that they have a reciprocal debt with the planet." Hugo Chávez couldn't have said it better.