Now that John McCain has presumably wrapped up the Republican
nomination, it's natural to wonder what kind of foreign policy he might
pursue towards the rest of the world if he were elected President. For
example, how would the "maverick" McCain deal with Latin America?
recent years, the region has taken a decidedly leftist turn; new
leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and
Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have openly challenged U.S. diplomatic and
political influence. McCain's record suggests that he would pursue a
very hawkish and antagonistic policy in the hemisphere. It's even
possible that the Arizona Republican, who has suggested that the United
States might be in Iraq for hundreds of years and might "bomb, bomb,
bomb, Iran," could ratchet up military tensions in Latin America and
escalate conflict with countries like Venezuela.
The International Republican Institute (IRI)
McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since
1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality
the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far
right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger
operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself
with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World.
On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda
including party building, media training, the organization of
leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening
of civil society. In reality, however, the IRI is more concerned with
crushing incipient left movements in Latin America.
One of the least known Washington institutions, IRI receives taxpayer
money via the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for
International Development (U.S. A.I.D.). The organization is active in
around sixty countries and has a budget of $74 million. On the board of
IRI, McCain has been joined by a who's who of Republican bigwigs such
as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former National Security Adviser
Brent Scowcroft, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane
IRI's Latin American Activities
In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti's two heavily
conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic
Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the
island's major business, church and professional figures, was at the
vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian
President's forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI funneled
taxpayer money to hard-line anti-Castro forces allied to the Republican
In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups
that were militantly opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year
Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce
anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television and radio
ads. Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders
went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before
the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to
fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a
major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to
the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering
campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez's recall.
McCain and Cuba
McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI's Cuba work and praises the
anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba "a national
security threat," adding that "as president, I will not passively await
the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship … The Cuban people
have waited long enough." McCain wants to increase funding for the U.S.
government's anti-Castro radio and TV stations, seeks the release of
all Cuban political prisoners, supports internationally monitored
elections on the island, and wants to keep the U.S. trade embargo in
place. What kind of future does McCain envision for Cuba? No doubt, one
in which the Miami anti-Castro exiles rule the island. McCain's most
influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from
Florida, including Senator Mel Martínez and far right Congress members
Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.
For McCain, It's Never Ending Free Trade and Militarization
On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes
while working to isolate those governments which are rising up to
challenge American hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been
a big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia's status as a
human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the
government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the "narco-trafficking and
McCain has taken a personal interest in the Andean region. He has
traveled to Ecuador and Colombia so as to drum up more support for the
counter insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of dollars a
year. McCain's foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn off the
money flow to Uribe. "You don't build strong alliances by turning your
back on friends," he has said.
McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by
encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support
American style free trade. "We need to build on the passage of the
Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the
region,'' he has said. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements
with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing
forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas."
Chávez has been one of the greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of
McCain's free trade agenda, however. In recent years, the Venezuelan
has pushed his own barter trade scheme, the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas, which promotes economic solidarity and reciprocity
between Latin American nations. Concerned about growing ties between
Cuba and Venezuela, McCain said "He [Chávez] aspires to be this
generation's [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to
look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a
Fighting the Information War in Latin America
Speaking in Miami's Little Havana, McCain said that "everyone should
understand the connections" between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez.
"They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from
each other. It's very disturbing." McCain said Chávez breathed "new
oxygen" into Castro's regime, and that the U.S. government should do
more to quell dictatorships throughout Latin America. Perhaps not
surprisingly given his historic involvement in IRI, McCain's campaign
Web site even featured an online petition calling for support in his
quest to "stop the dictators of Latin America." The petition called for
the ouster of Chávez "in the name of democracy and freedom throughout
Though the petition was later taken down, McCain has staked out hawkish
territory on Venezuela and would surely escalate tensions with the
South American nation. Most troubling is the Senator's strong push for
renewed U.S. propaganda in the region. McCain has criticized the
Venezuelan government's decision to not renew Radio Caracas
Television's license, and has called for reestablishing an agency like
the United States Information Agency (the USIA oversaw a variety of
agencies including the Voice of America radio network before it was
merged into the State Department in 1998).
"Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and the American
message amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas,''
McCain has said. "We need to re-create an independent agency with the
sole purpose of getting America's message to the world. Thiswould aid
our efforts to communicate accurately with the people of Latin America."
If McCain was ever able to push through his aggressive media
initiatives, he would antagonize many nations in the region which
resent the pervasiveness of U.S. dominated media. Already, Venezuela,
Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay have formed a joint satellite news station
called Telesur (in my upcoming book scheduled for release in six weeks,
I devote an entire chapter to the issue of media politics in South
From Bolton to Big Stick
To make matters worse, the Chair of IRI has sought to promote
neo-conservative figures from the Bush regime such as John Bolton.
During the latter's confirmation hearings in the Senate, McCain urged
his Democratic colleagues to approve the diplomat's nomination quickly.
Bolton has been a hawk not only on Iran but also Venezuela. McCain, who
refers to Chávez as a "wacko," said it was important to confirm Bolton.
With Bolton at the United Nations, the U.S. would be able to talk back
to "two-bit dictators" like the Venezuelan leader.
Like Bolton, McCain apparently shares his colleague's disdain for the
United Nations and wants to create a so-called League of Democracies.
As envisioned by the Arizona legislator, the new body would take the
place of the United Nations on such issues as conflict resolution,
disease treatment and prevention, environmental crises, and access to
free markets. Interestingly, McCain's inspiration for the League is
Teddy Roosevelt, who had a vision of "like-minded nations working
together for peace and liberty."
Roosevelt, however, was no dove: he wielded a Big Stick and practiced
gunboat diplomacy in Latin America. It's a policy which John McCain
would probably like to revive if he is elected President in November.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the
Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South
America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).