Remember Obama’s Campaign Pledge to Meet With Chavez and Castro?
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama pressed
for quick passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, and since
then has followed up on the proposal. In doing so he has delighted
Republicans who had been accusing him of failing to prioritize the
issue. In his January speech, Obama made no reference to his unequivocal
concern over human rights violations which he had raised in his third
presidential debate with McCain.
Since 2008, little has improved to justify Obama’s reversal. Human
Rights Watch has reported a 41 percent increase in the number of victims
in 2010 over the previous year, including the murder of 44 trade
unionists. In the first six weeks of 2011, death squads assassinated
three more labor activists.
In an attempt to assure members of U.S. Congress that progress is
being made, on April 7 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Obama
announced from the White House the approval of an “Action Plan,” whereby
the Colombian government pledged to take stringent measures to curb
abuses. Many Colombian trade union leaders, however, refused to buy into
the arrangement and expressed skepticism about their government’s
resolve. Tarsicio Mora, president of the Unitary Workers Confederation
(CUT), objected by saying, “It just can’t be that respect for a basic
right established in the constitution, such as the right to life, has to
be required by a commercial transaction.”
Obama’s new stand has also failed to win over U.S. trade unionists.
In January, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen
argued against the agreement by pointing out that 15 million Colombians
representing 82 percent of the working population are not recognized as
workers and thus under the law “have no rights.”
Obama’s change–from opposition to the free trade agreement with
Colombia, to lukewarm endorsement of it, to vigorous support–is just
one example of his turnabout on Latin American policy. His modified
stand distances Washington from an important bloc of Latin American
governments and contributes to the decline of the U.S. leadership
position in the hemisphere.
Up until his early months in office, Obama appeared to be following
the path of liberal Democrats dating back to the 1930s. The liberal
tradition on foreign policy toward Latin America was in many ways
attractive. Key features included respect for the plurality of ideas –
shown by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s acceptance of Mexican nationalism and
its nationalization of oil in 1938; the Kennedy administration’s call to
“complete the revolution of the Americas” through taxing the wealthy
and land reform; and the suspension of aid by the Carter administration
to several Latin American governments to protest human rights violation
even though they were on the U.S. side in the Cold War.
During the presidential campaign, Obama not only stepped into this
liberal tradition but defied the Democratic Party mainstream with
positions different from those of his then-rival Hillary Clinton. Obama
boldly proposed to meet with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and other
Washington adversaries. At the same time he declared “I think our
foreign policy is all messed up” and promised a “new direction” in Latin
Under the Obama administration, the United States finds its
historically unrivaled position in the continent challenged on a number
of fronts. This July, a summit in Caracas will formally inaugurate the
Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to group the 32
nations south of the Rio Grande and serve as a parallel organization to
the traditionally U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).
Furthermore, in recent years of modest economic growth, Latin
American nations have broadened commercial ties with nations outside of
traditional spheres of U.S. influence, such as Russia, Iran and
especially China. In 2010, China’s direct non-financial investments
abroad increased 36 percent, most of which went to Asia and Latin
America, while the Asian powerhouse displaced Europe as Latin America’s
second largest trading partner (after the United States).
Obama, however, has failed to take bold moves to face the challenge.
During his largely uneventful five-day tour of Latin America in March he
did little to reverse the unfavorable trends. A statement of
condemnation, or at least recognition, of the United States’ long and
sorry record of intervention would have represented a good first step in
treating Latin American nations as “equal partners” – a pledge made by
the president that created great expectations.
Instead, when asked by a Chilean journalist about Washington’s role
in the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Obama evaded the question.
Furthermore, in Brazil, Obama failed to put forward concrete proposals
to deal with the issue consistently raised by the Brazilians, namely
U.S. agricultural subsidies and other practices that close the world’s
largest market for Latin American goods.
Capitulation to the Right on Honduras
Obama’s abandonment of the liberal tradition in his stance on Latin
America has been driven by the perceived need to placate rightist
critics. Events following the overthrow of Honduran president José
Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 put in evidence both the right’s clout and
Obama’s failure to check the loss of U.S. influence. The Obama
administration caved into pressure from Tea Partier Senator Jim DeMint
of South Carolina, who justified the coup on grounds that Zelaya —
along with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega — were “would-be tyrants and
In response to DeMint’s threat to block ratification by the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee of two key State Department appointments for
Latin America, the Obama administration did another about-face. In late
2009, it went from condemnation of the overthrow of Zelaya and support
for his return to power to endorsement of the elections sponsored by the
coup leaders. Council of the Americas Policy Director Christopher
Sabatini gave the South Carolina senator major credit for the change of
policy, adding “DeMint’s role has been disproportionate to his interest
in Latin America.”
The Obama administration had other options. It could have bypassed
the senate committee by attempting to muster 60 votes on the senate
floor, or else make the appointments when Congress was out of session,
as Bush had done with his selection of John Bolton as UN ambassador. But
either move would have meant giving up Obama’s much preferred style of
Since then the United States has been locked in an impasse over the
issue of the democratic credentials of the Honduran government. In spite
of Secretary of State Clinton’s active diplomacy, she has made little
headway in convincing a group of Latin American governments to accept
Honduras into the community of nations. The latest slap in the face to
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo occurred in January when he was the
only Latin American head of state to be excluded from the inauguration
of Brazil President Dilma Rousseff.
The current battleground is the Organization of American States,
which had suspended Honduras following the coup. A bloc of moderate
South American governments including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and
Paraguay have joined the more leftist ones of Venezuela, Bolivia and
Ecuador in opposing Honduras’s re-admission. The moderates have
conditioned their affirmative vote on allowing Zelaya to return to the
country, restoring his political rights and lifting charges against him.
The State Department has pressured Honduran political players behind
the scenes to meet these conditions, but the rightists in Honduras
(although not Lobo himself) insist on Zelaya’s prosecution on charges of
abuse of power. In attempting to break the impasse, the State
Department is working at cross purposes with Republican hardliners.
Florida Congressman David Rivera, for instance, stated in January: “The
United States should be encouraging Honduras to embrace their democratic
system, and not to absolve former President Manuel Zelaya of criminal
charges or allow him to return to Honduras.”
U.S. efforts on behalf of Lobo ignore the evidence that violation of
human rights has gone unabated under his rule (see “Campesinos Rising in
Honduras” in In These Times‘ March 2011 issue). In December,
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of abuses in 2010, including the
assassination of 18 journalists and human rights activists and called on
the government to “finalize the impunity.” To date, nobody has been
held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed since the coup.
Venezuelan rapprochement torpedoed
Another incident that demonstrated the ability of Republicans to set
the agenda in Washington, as well as the vacillations of the Obama
administration, was the appointment of Larry Palmer as ambassador to
Venezuela. In August 2010, the nomination of Palmer appeared to be a
routine matter until, upon the request of Republican Senator Richard
Lugar, he agreed to answer questions from members of the Foreign
Relations Committee in writing.
In his responses, Palmer affirmed that the morale of the Venezuelan
armed forces was “considerably low” and that the Chávez government had
“clear ties” with Colombian guerrillas. Palmer’s statements were then
posted on Lugar’s website even though the questioning was presumed to be
for internal use only.
Predictably, Chávez considered the remarks unacceptable and vetoed
the appointment, as most governments would have undoubtedly done. Mark
Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research commented that
Washington insiders considered the incident a “set up from the right.”
On January 1, Secretary of State Clinton had a brief amicable
encounter with Chávez at Rousseff’s inauguration in Brasilia. Two days
later, then-Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley announced that
given the importance of relations with Venezuela, Washington would “have
to renominate an ambassador candidate.” The hardliners reacted
immediately, including the Washington Post, which wrote
that the appointment of another ambassador would “hand the caudillo
[Chávez] a considerable propaganda victory.” The same day, Crowley
changed course again by making clear that the government would stand by
Palmer. Chávez blamed the latest reversal on pressure from Republicans.
Washington hardliners with a Cold War mindset place the blame for the
face-off entirely on the Venezuelan government. Jose R. Cardenas, a
State Department veteran known for his hard-line positions, stated “No
matter how hard the Obama Administration tries to ‘reset’ U.S. relations
with Latin America, Hugo Chávez is there to spoil the fun.” Yet
Chávez’s decision was predictable and consistent with his nationalist
stance all along. The Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes
maneuvering to attempt to convince Caracas that Palmer’s statement came
from a low-level State Department official was at best naïve.
A new stage in hemispheric relations
In spite of convergences, Obama’s style and policies on Latin America
are hardly indistinguishable from Republicans to his right. Obama’s
all-smile encounter with Chávez in 2009 and Clinton’s in January of this
year reinforced the president’s notion of engagement with enemies,
quite different from George W. Bush’s “you’re with me or against me”
approach. Furthermore, in January, Obama broke with hardliners by easing
restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.
Nevertheless, Obama stopped short of lifting the 50-year embargo, a
proposition which he himself had supported prior to running for
president and which Latin American governments unanimously endorse.
The new political environment in Latin America demands more than
moderate measures and a change in style. Latin America has never been so
united and independent of U.S. influence. In recent years, Latin
American governments, without input from Washington, have acted
collectively to help resolve major conflicts involving Bolivia’s
nationalization of Brazilian oil and gas interests, a coup attempt in
Ecuador and Colombia’s incursion on Ecuadorian territory.
CELAC, which will facilitate collective action on an ongoing basis,
is not solely the initiative of countries like Venezuela and Bolivia.
Even countries with centrist leadership such as Mexico, Chile and
Colombia have wholeheartedly endorsed the plan. Chile, along with
Venezuela, is currently drafting CELAC’s statutes and will host the
organization in 2012.
“With CELAC, the OAS will be put to the test,” Venezuelan ambassador
Jorge Valero told me. Whether or not it survives will depend on how much
it really defends Latin American interests.”
But the biggest challenge to U.S. influence in Latin America is
Brazil, an economic powerhouse. Over the recent past, the Brazilian
government has pursued bold independent positions on foreign policy
which it hopes will boost third-world support for its bid for a
permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Brazil went over the United
States’ head in attempting to broker an agreement with Iran on nuclear
energy and has criticized U.S. plans to install facilities at seven
military bases in Colombia. In December it recognized the Palestinian
state with its pre-1967 boundaries. Brazil’s increased political
influence and its economic expansion go hand in hand. At the same time
that President Lula defended the Palestinian cause on a trip to the West
Bank, he pointed to a four-fold increase in Brazilian trade with the
Middle East since 2002.
For U.S. hardliners, Lula strayed too far from acceptable diplomacy.
During his last stretch in office, in the words of the Wall Street
Journal, Lula pursued “an increasingly anti-American foreign
The time period following President Obama’s Latin American tour in
March is an ideal moment for the administration to rethink its strategy
for the continent. To check the loss of U.S. influence and prestige, the
Obama administration needs to distance itself from Republican
hardliners and reconnect with the best of the liberal tradition.
Washington, for instance, should refrain from championing the cause of
the Lobo government as long as it does little to break out of the banana
republic mold. Furthermore, executive measures designed to eventually
lift the trade embargo against Cuba would tear down one longstanding
wall separating the United States from the rest of the continent — and
Finally, Washington needs to cease equating the open-market economic
policies it advocates with democracy. This line of thinking privileges
nations like Colombia, Chile and Mexico as special allies simply because
they accept International Monetary Fund-approved formulas and free
trade with the United States. Such preferences divide the continent in
half and distance America from countries like Argentina and Brazil,
whose assertions of nationalism are not always to Washington’s liking.
The hardliners will rant and rave about any type of renovation of U.S.
foreign policy along these lines, but it may represent an important
first step in regaining the respect and good will of what used to be
called our backyard.
A shorter version of this story, titled “The New ‘Community’ in
America’s Backyard,” appeared in In These Times‘ May 2011 issue.
Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in
Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International
and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s. His latest book is Rethinking
Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon
(Lynne Rienner Publishers).
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