Obama and Latin America

Obama and Latin America

At the Summit of the Americas, Obama went far toward repairing the damage done by two decades of disastrous economic policy.


At the Summit of the Americas–held in Trinidad and Tobago April 17-19 and attended by the leaders of every nation in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba–Barack Obama went far toward repairing the damage caused by more than two decades of disastrous economic policy and seven years of neoconservative interventionism. America’s adventures have included support for a failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002, orchestration of a successful one against Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and what appeared to be tacit approval for an attempt to oust Bolivian president Evo Morales last year.

In Trinidad Obama seemed not so much the good neighbor as the good student. He graciously accepted Chávez’s gift of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and took notes during Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s lengthy speech recounting Washington’s aggression against his country (of which, as president during Ronald Reagan’s Contra war, Ortega had firsthand knowledge). Obama responded to demands that he speak out against a recently thwarted plot to assassinate Evo Morales by unequivocally condemning “any efforts at violent overthrows of democratically elected governments, wherever it happens in the hemisphere.” And when asked at his closing press conference what he had learned at the summit, Obama said that he’d heard many complaints about a “too rigid application of a free-market doctrine” imposed by “what is termed the ‘Washington Consensus.'”

There is no other region, save perhaps Europe, that offers Obama a better chance to practice the kind of cooperative diplomacy he has defined as the goal of his administration. Except for civil war in Colombia and drug violence in Mexico, Latin America is at peace; nuclear weapons are not a concern; most countries are led by democratically elected presidents committed to a progressive hemispheric agenda that would downplay terrorism and put top priority on alleviating poverty, inequality, crime and environmental problems. Yet having diversified their ties with China, Europe and the Middle East over the past decade, Latin American governments now expect to deal with the United States as equals. They are willing to help Washington manage its decline and ease its transition into a multipolar world, but they are no longer likely to submit to its dictates.

If Obama wants Latin America’s help, he must do more than listen. At the summit, he said Washington would consider ending its five-decade economic embargo of Cuba (in the run-up to the meeting, the White House lifted a ban on Cuban-Americans traveling and sending money to the island) when Cuban officials send “some signals that they’re serious about pursuing change.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham put it more bluntly: “Put up or shut up.”

Latin Americans could say the same to us; so far, Obama’s good words have not been matched by many good deeds.

In contrast to the diplomatic quagmires in the Middle East and elsewhere, it would be relatively easy to modernize diplomacy in the Americas. Immigration reform and gun control would be good places to start. Mexico’s drug-related homicides have increased–last year there were more than 5,000, and 90 percent of the weapons that could be traced came from the United States. Obama could also resurrect the Jubilee Act, which cancels billions in debt from the world’s poorest countries, many of them in Latin America. As a senator, Obama was a main sponsor of the bill, which passed the House but died in the Senate.

Yet as with Cuba, on every one of these issues, powerful domestic interests–the Cuban lobby, Wall Street, the National Rifle Association, the hard-right core of the GOP–limit his ability to move beyond rhetoric. Recently asked if the White House would support a renewal of the expired Clinton-era assault rifle ban, for which Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, has been pleading, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs demurred, saying, “There’s a lot on our plate.”

Latin Americans have also been asking Washington to reconsider its “war on drugs,” which was recently condemned in a damning report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, comprising the region’s leading intellectuals and politicians. One of the commission members, former president of Brazil Fernando Cardoso, said that the “war on drugs” has had a “disastrous impact on people’s lives and the very fabric of society.” Another member of the commission, César Gaviria, former president of Colombia, calls the keystone of that war, Plan Colombia–which has so far cost the United States nearly $7 billion–a “total failure.” A UN report suggests that cocaine production in Colombia has doubled since 1996, with Plan Colombia merely pushing the transshipment business into Central America and Mexico, leading to skyrocketing violence in those regions. Yet Plan Colombia is not only being extended into Mexico; moves are evidently afoot to have it go viral beyond the Americas. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said 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.”

On economic policy, concessions Obama made in Trinidad suggest more of the same. He directed US trade representative Ron Kirk to meet with the presidents of Panama and Colombia to jump-start talks on free-trade agreements, which Obama opposed during his campaign. Kirk announced shortly after the summit that NAFTA will not be renegotiated to strengthen labor and environmental provisions, as Obama had pledged.

But Obama deserves praise for refusing to participate in the demonization of Chávez. Love or hate him, Chávez is considered a legitimate leader by all Latin American countries and is a close ally of many. A majority of Venezuelans, in respected opinion polls, have consistently ranked the quality of their democracy as among the best in Latin America. The US press caricature of the Venezuelan president, in other words, says less about Chávez than about the US propensity to vilify its critics, especially if they’re from the Third World. In Trinidad Obama seemed aware of how this demonization perverts domestic and foreign policy and intent on overcoming that through dialogue with Chávez. Asked at a closing press conference to respond to criticisms that shaking hands with the Venezuelan president puts the United States “in danger,” Obama felt compelled to remind reporters that Venezuela’s “defense budget is probably one-600th of the United States'”–a welcome return to reality-based diplomacy.

This provoked a predictable backlash from the right–Iran/Contra hand Otto Reich called the president’s “hobnobbing” with Chávez “embarrassing”–and it remains to be seen if Obama will hold his ground. Yet at the end of the summit he ventured the outlines of an encouraging “Obama doctrine.” When a US president declares a doctrine, it usually entails what proportion of death squads, troops and missiles he will deploy. So it was a relief to hear one defined in terms of a willingness to engage with countries whose interests and ideas might diverge from Washington’s.

“We’re only one nation,” the president said, and the “problems that we confront, whether it’s drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can’t be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.”

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