Mixed Blessing

Mixed Blessing

Obama calls for direct dialogue and new trade deals with Latin America, but continued counterinsurgency in Columbia, tensions with Venezuela.


In Miami recently, Barack Obama called for new Latin American policies in his first major policy declaration towards the region. The speech was classic Obama: substantive, centrist, subtle and pragmatic, above all drawing a sharp difference between Obama’s support for “direct diplomacy” versus John McCain’s status quo policies towards Cuba and the region. As a measure of how far the anti-Castro Cubans have shifted towards the center, Obama’s speech was praised by his hosts, the Cuban American National Foundation.

As a measure of Obama’s own evolution to the center from the left, however, Obama committed himself to maintaining the economic embargo of Cuba which he questioned when he ran for the US Senate in 2004. Nevertheless, the speech will be well-received in progressive circles as a breakthrough from past policies aimed at isolation and undermining of the Cuban government.

Obama also cited Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and “good neighbor” policies several times, a course proposed by the Progressives for Obama network*:

What all of us strive for is freedom as FDR described it. Political freedom. Religious freedom. But also freedom from want, and freedom from fear. At our best, the United States has been a force for these four freedoms in the Americas. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that at times we’ve failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner….

We cannot ignore suffering to our south, nor stand for the globalization of the empty stomach. Responsibility rests with governments in the region, but we must do our part. I will substantially increase our aid to the Americas, and embrace the Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty by 2015….

We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom. It’s time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries.

Yet while there has been great economic progress, there is still back-breaking inequality. Despite a growing middle class, 100 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty. This feeds everything from drugs to migration to support for leaders that appeal to the poor without delivering on their promises….

That is why the United States must stand for growth in the Americas from the bottom up.

This rhetoric is sure to be welcomed as well, after many years of failed US efforts to impose corporate trade policies on Central and Latin America through NAFTA, CAFTA and the derailed FTAA. However, in the absence of government spending and regulatory measuresfrom Latin America, the US and wealthier nations–the Obama proposals imply a continuation of private sector economic development and modest proposals of micro-loans, education and job-training and small business development.

But while these are positive, if cautious, policy steps, the dangerous flaw in Obama’s speech was his apparent commitment to supporting the US counterinsurgency war In Columbia, secretive drug wars across the continent, and a veiled threat against Venezuela:

We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC. We’ll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right-wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia’s right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation and–if need be–strong sanctions. It must not stand.

It should be obvious to Obama that these are likely to become failed policies on a par with the long US embargo of Cuba. But consistent with his pledge to send more troops to Afghanistan and possibly attack jihadists in Pakistan (in violation of that country’s declared opposition), Obama proposes to continue US intervention in Colombia’s civil war even to the point of supporting cross-border raids into Venezuela or Ecuador, a policy that will inflame tensions across the region.

Towards Venezuela, Obama is burdened with the contradictions of the liberal national security hawks, admitting that Hugo Chávez was elected democratically but asserting that Chávez doesn’t “govern democratically.” Obama ignores Venezuela’s own successful “bottom up” efforts to alleviate poverty with public investments from its national oil company. He further ignores Venezuela’s own voter’s recent ballot box rejection of a sweeping Chávez initiative. Like many liberal hawks, Obama differs with the Bush Administration’s attacks on Chávez because they are ineffective: “Yet the Bush Administration’s blustery condemnations and clumsy attempts to undermine Chávez have only strengthened his hand.” Not a word about US complicity in the attempted coup against Chávez, nor the remarkable Venezuelan mass movement that resisted that coup.

In the extreme discomfort of American centrists, including the media, at accepting the democratically chosen government of Venezuela with all its various shortcomings, one can see a lingering imperial assumption beneath the rhetoric to the contrary. It can be said, of course, that Chávez, with his own blustering rhetoric, doesn’t make liberal centrist acceptance easier. But there is an understandable history here, not only the old history of conquest and the Monroe Doctrine but the immediate history of the 2002 attempted overthrow of Chávez with American complicity. If Barack Obama can ask us to better understand the black anger of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, surely he himself should be able to understand the volcanic rage that echos across Latin America in voices like those of Hugo Chávez and before him, Fidel Castro,.

According to sources in Caracas and Havana, Hugo Chávez himself may privately dismiss all this Venezuela-bashing as mere election-year posturing. “If it helps Obama get elected, okay, we’ll talk later,” in the paraphrase of one close observer. But Obama could sink himself in a US counterinsurgency quagmire in Columbia, which could spiral into greater tensions with Venezuela and Ecuador. There is a better alternative that Obama and his advisers ignore, the distinct possibility that the anti-government guerrilla movement in Columbia (FARC) may be gradually convinced to evolve into a political force, as the IRA did in Northern Ireland. The FARC emerged in a time of dictatorships across the continent, but in recent years many (former) revolutionary and guerrilla leaders have come to power democratically, from Nicaragua to Uruguay to Bolivia. The conditions for transforming the armed conflict in Colombia into a political one, while difficult, have never been more favorable, but not if an Obama Administration continues backing the Uribe government, riddled with its own death squads and drug traffickers, with American money, arms and Special Forces. (The recent extradiction of several Columbia drug traffickers to the United States was an effort to secure a trade deal, not to change the essential character of our client regime in Bogota.)

To make matters worse, Obama endorses the drug war paradigm that street gangs are the new enemy:

As President, I’ll make it clear that we’re coming after the guns, we’re coming after the money laundering, and we’re coming after the vehicles that enable this crime. And we’ll crack down on the demand for drugs in our own communities, and restore funding for drug task forces and the COPS program. We must win the fights on our own streets if we’re going to secure the region.

This formulation is upside down. Street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street are symptomatic of the overall crisis of poverty, discrimination and repression in which the United States has collaborated in Central and Latin America. These particular street gangs were created in places like Los Angeles among hundreds of thousands of child refugees of the US-sponsored Central American wars. They formed gangs for security and identity, they become involved in the drug trade because there were no legitimate job opportunities for undocumented exiles, and they became violent because they were born and raised in the trauma of war. Of course, it is legitimate both in terms of policy and politics for Obama to defend a law enforcement approach as part of the mix, but a war on gangs, like a war on drugs, is hopeless, counter-productive and immoral without a war on the greed that is devouring hundreds of millions of young people in Latin America. The funding to “win the fights on our own streets” would eclipse any budgets for jobs or education for inner-city youth. The irony should not forgotten either that the United States has been involved in corruption, dictatorships and the drug trade, from the casinos of Havana in the 1950s to the drug sales on the streets of LA that funded weapons for the contras in the 1980s.

Finally, Obama’s vision of the region as a more equal partnership will be tested by the ambitious energy development plan dropped into his speech, The rhetoric appears balanced, but in the context of existing power relationships the outcome could deepen Latin America’s role, once again, as a resource colony of the United States.

We’ll allow industrial emitters to offset a portion of this cost by investing in low carbon energy projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. And we’ll increase research and development across the Americas in clean coal technology, in the next generation of sustainable biofuels not taken from food crops, and in wind and solar energy. We’ll enlist the World Bank, the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Development Bank to support these invesments, and ensure that these projects enhance natural resources like land, wildlife, and rain forests. We’ll finally enforce environmental standards in our trade deals.

The best that can be said of this speech is that it’s a brave beginning, a break from Bush, and that the progressive changes sweeping Latin America hopefully may educate and move Obama towards a far greater partnership project than he now envisions. By contrast, FDR was bolder in his “good neighbor” policy. He rejected US military intervention, and supported Mexico’s nationalization of its oil resources against the lobbying pressure of the US oil multinationals. Obama’s position seems more reminiscent of the early John Kennedy, who trapped himself at the Bay of Pigs glamorized the Special Forces, and offered a moderate/centrist Alliance for Progress as America’s answer to the Cuban model in Latin America. Instead of reform, the mano duro policies of dictatorships and death squads swept the region with US support and training for repressive army and police forces. Now that Latin America, on its own, has swept those dictatorships away and is following its own democratic path, it is presumptuous of Obama to propose himself as the savior of Latin America from Hugo Chávez, guerrillas and drug lords, all of them symptomatic responses to US policies over many decades.


* NOTE. In its founding call, Progressives for Obama demanded a new Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America, as follows:

Nor can we impose NAFTA-style trade agreements on so many nations that seek only to control their own national resources and economic destinies. We cannot globalize corporate and financial power over democratic values and institutions. Since the Clinton Administration pushed through NAFTA against the Democratic majority in Congress, one Latin American nation after another has elected progressive governments that reject US trade deals and hegemony. We are isolated in Latin America by our Cold War and drug war crusades, by the $500 million counter-insurgency in Columbia, support for the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, and the ineffectual blockade of Cuba. We need to return to the Good Neighbor policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, which rejected Yankee military intervention and accepted Mexico’s right to nationalize its oil in the face of industry opposition. The pursuit of NAFTA-style trade policies inflames our immigration crisis as well, by uprooting countless campesinos who inevitably seek low-wage jobs north of the border in order to survive. We need balanced and democratically-approved trade agreements that focus on the needs of workers, consumers and the environment. The Banana Republic is a retail chain, not an American colony protected by the Monroe Doctrine.

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