Obama in Latin America: Got Hope?

Adam Sgrenci

January 20, 2009

Since his election in early November, the support for Barack Obama has rallied much anticipation with regards to a new kind of politics. On his inauguration day, we demand he stand by his word. In Latin America, US foreign policy has failed miserably. Predatory free trade agreements, a militarized policy apparatus, and the restriction of outspoken leftist leaders to the fringes of our policy-making has stirred the ire of anti-Americanism like never before.

Students, researchers, activists and civic leaders of US-Latin American foreign policy, can only speculate on what is to come as they try to forget the past. Bush’s promise to establish a more participatory relationship with Latin America was never kept. After his inauguration in 2001, he spoke enthusiastically about a  ‘Century of the Americas’ – to ‘build a western hemisphere of freedom and prosperity, a hemisphere bound together by shared ideas and free trade from the Arctic to the Andes to Cape Horn.’  But after 9/11, Bush overlooked Latin America almost entirely as he embarked upon the War on Terror in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

It may take a few months for Obama’s Latin American team to be appointed, but there has been much discussion concerning Washington’s next policy move in the region.   

Most importantly, Latin America must become more significant to foreign policy makers. According to Jose Delgado, foreign policy analyst for ardent immigration rights supporter Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D – CA), the time to pay attention to Latin America is long overdue.  Regarding Obama, “We’re anxious as everyone else is that change will come about.  If you see what my boss has done, some of her stats and votes…we expect a lot in terms of our relationship with Latin America. It’s been neglected for far too long.”  

Cuba: A Good First Step

Obama has inherited military commitments in the Middle East. Along with the recent intensification of the crisis in Palestine and Israel, he will be forced to address his first foreign policy decisions in that region of the world. So far, the new administration has made only one statement regarding Latin America.  Obama has declared he plans to remove restrictions for Cuban Americans’ travel and remittances.   This is very significant for US-Latin American affairs because it means the possibilities for improving a US image abroad are becoming ever more palatable.

US-Cuba relations have been tense for as long as most of us can remember. Change may be possible in the US, but in Cuba, change is inevitable. Though having just celebrated 50 years of a revolution which has provided the Cuban people with world renowned education and healthcare, it is impossible to neglect the effects of the economic embargo imposed by the US against Cuba since 1962.    Fidel remains “El Commadante” but the new leadership under Raul and many others has already provided new outlets for Cuban critics to address their complaints with the revolution thus far.  A more amicable relationship between the two states – one which recognizes the autonomy of each – would be a brilliant first step for Obama. There is currently a lot of pressure on Obama to do so from religious groups, students and professors, US tourists, US-Cuban families and US businesses. According to leading researcher on US – Latin American Policy in Cuba, Wayne Smith of the D.C.-based Center for International Policy, “moving toward a more sensible approach toward Cuba will be one of the quickest and easiest ways of signaling change and encouraging support for our broader foreign policy agenda - especially in Latin America.”  

Yet, removing restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances must be accompanied by other changes.  Among these are annulling the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, ending restrictions on academic and educational travel, ending restrictions on Cuban payment for US agricultural goods and pardoning the Cuban Five for the release of Cuban political prisoners.

The Second Step: Uprooting the Bush (and Clinton) Legacies

The Bush Legacy in Latin America has left a wake of militarization in all areas of diplomacy: humanitarian aid, economic development and security.  In effect, the whole region has been handed over to the Pentagon which views it like any other battlefield.  The narrow and hierarchal structure places an integration of military and law enforcement forces at its pinnacle.  No one is really sure that Obama has the will to change this. Although, it has been said that the State Department will be hiring “more diplomats” and aid workers.

Security must remain an important issue for Obama: to ensure an efficient and safe US border, in order to break up organized crime, and in an effort to address the needs of apolitical street organizations. The violence created by all of these has placed many Latin Americans in danger. However, the current policy reduces the US’s role to hard power doing little to eliminate violence.  The recent agreement signed by the governments of the US and Mexico known as the Merida Initiative, is a case in point. This plan aims to fight violence with more violence. Instead of using US taxpayer money to fund corrupt Mexican law enforcement with bigger guns and faster vehicles, it is necessary to address security issues on a more socio-economic level. The Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) Maureen Meyer urges Obama to end the policy of militarization in Mexico and Central America. By reducing the US demand for drugs and reforming the gun laws which facilitate arms trafficking into Mexico, senseless violence could be reduced more effectively. “The United States government needs to follow through with its voiced commitment to demand reduction by providing more funding, not less, to evidence-based treatment and prevention programs. Mexico cannot address the weaknesses of its police and judicial systems through additional helicopters and equipment.   More needs to be done to strengthen the rule of law and the accountability of Mexico’s security forces.”  In this case, the challenge for Obama will be transferring the power over foreign policy from the Pentagon (in the form USSOUTHCOM) back to the State Department. He then needs to give a more multilateral policy objective to the USAID, which seeks US-aligned political groups abroad willing to be co-opted by Washington.

If the militarization of foreign policy can be addressed, Obama’s Latin American Policy team will be in a better position to reform the free trade relationship in the hemisphere. The current realities of free trade benefits have narrowly favored large US corporations and Latin American elites leaving Latin Americas masses without much purchasing power. The privatization of natural resources and other state-run industries has resulted in massive public demonstrations and organized resistance movements led by local community members. Many have lost their lives in clashes against corporate-backed militias and US-backed militaries. Workers from Mexico to Argentina have been forced to labor in a system that lacks a vocabulary for both their rights as workers and as human beings. Farmers have been forced off of their land with little option but to be corralled into newly developed commercial centers, relocate to cities, or take the risk of navigating through the gauntlet of dangers on the way to the US. By reforming the predatory impact of free trade, Obama has the power to deeply change the lives of 569 million people living in Latin America.

Some analysts however argue it isn’t likely. Director of the D.C.-based research institute, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Larry Birns’s warning is quite explicit, “Let us not be surprised if this is a revival of Clintonian Policy, which is a center-right policy.”   After all, some of Obama’s appointed officials are former Clinton associates. Bill Richardson, though he  has since withdrawn his post, and Rahm Emmanuel are two key survivors from Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful battle to obtain the ratification of the FTAA and the bilateral trade deals with Colombia and Panama. Then Governor of New Mexico and Obama’s original pick for Secretary of Commerce, Richardson, had been appointed as the US ambassador to the UN under Clinton for his help in pushing NAFTA through Congress.

Emmanuel, another NAFTA “cheerleader” for Clinton, will be the new White House Chief of Staff.  According to COHA’s Andrea Moretti, “The appointments of Emanuel and Richardson, along with Obama’s choice of Timothy Geithner as U.S Treasure Secretary and Lawrence Summers as head of the National Economic Council are seen as solid indicators that Obama will likely ignore protectionist pressure from Democrats in Congress and move away from his campaign pledge to investigate renegotiating the U.S.-Canada-Mexico deal.”  Former Dallas, Texas mayor, Ron Kirk, has been appointed as the United States Trade Representative, and NAFTA critics are concerned. His support for free trade, and more specifically, a NAFTA super-highway, stifles those hopes of any free trade reform. Without such reform, the deepest rifts between rich and poor Latin Americans will only grow deeper.

Some Hope

The state leaders throughout Latin American have anticipated this.  Accordingly, their advice and requests for Obama cut right to the point. While many welcome the new president, they are cautious about his foreign policy. Presidents “Lula” of Brazil and “Evo” of Bolivia have both called for an end to the embargo on Cuba. Evo added a demand for the withdrawal of US troops from the region, one that follows on the heels of kicking out the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) last November. Calderon urged his new US counterpart to take action on legalizing the status of Mexican immigrants, while Kirchner urged that Barack take more of a multilateral approach to financial crises than Bush. Chavez looks forward to sitting down with him to discuss the “evils of the world – hunger, AIDS, poverty, and malnutrition.”  Correa is hopeful that Obama’s foreign policy will be more humane and reasonable than the last than what has been seen in the past but does not expect any radical changes.

Likewise, Latin American scholars show little fascination with the promise of change in Washington. According to Joao Peschanski, a reporter for Brasil de Fato, the Brazilian newspaper launched by the MST, “the difference between Bush and Obama is tactical, not strategic.”  Peschanski echoes insights similar to those of many leftist government leaders. Perhaps, the way in which diplomacy is practiced will change, but the overall relationship with the US reaping the benefits of bilateral agreements will not.  Professor of Critical Sociology at the University of Panama, Marco Gandasegui, Jr. believes that with Obama we have been given the lesser of two evils. “Obama will distance himself from neoconservatives but he will seek the advice and recommendations of moderate neoliberals.” Perhaps this difference is significant enough – to instigate the kind of change that will improve the quality of life in Latin America.

And so begins the post-Bush era of US foreign policy. Still too early to tell, the next hundred days should reveal a great deal about the kind of change Washington is able to endure. Obama’s approach to Latin America Policy has begun with a promise to Cuba and some hope for the rest of the hemisphere. Three major issues remain and will continue to test the new Administration over the next four years: the militarization of policy, free trade reforms and the opening of a debate with leftist leaders and community groups.  If these aren’t addressed we can be sure that US influence in the region may regress for some time to come.