Obama’s Mixed Blessing for Latin America

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."

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

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

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

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

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


* 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."

About Tom Hayden

Tom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd), The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in Iraq (2007) and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008).

Source: The Nation