Would There Be Change in Obama’s Americas Policy?

Obama heads to Denver this month to become the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency. Opinion divides sharply on whether his platform for U.S. policy in Latin America is really a "Change We Can Believe In." Obama's approach, more than the policies themselves, gives us much to work with in turning disaster into a genuine good neighbor policy for the region.

The great debate on how much-or how little-Barack Obama would change our disastrous U.S. foreign policy usually focuses on the Middle East.
That makes sense. Nowhere has the price of the Bush national security
strategy been higher, as the violent deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 93,000 Iraqis attest.

But a smaller, no less passionate, debate exists over Latin America policy. Although the Western Hemisphere
isn't a headline-grabber these days, the debate raises matters that
deeply affect people south of our border and the millions of Americans
with family ties to the region. U.S. relations with Latin America
can no longer be seen as a regional foreign policy box. In an
increasingly integrated world, they have become part of fundamental U.S. debates on trade, employment, immigration, and transnational crime.

In this context, Obama heads to Denver this month to become the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency. Opinion divides sharply on whether his platform for U.S. policy in Latin America is really a "Change We Can Believe In."

campaign following the nomination will inevitably include some
pandering to the Latino vote, especially in swing states like Florida and New Mexico. This will muddy the picture of what can be expected if the candidate becomes the chief executive.

electoral posturing aside, the cards have been laid out for a first
reading on the hemispheric future. Obama's approach, more than the
policies themselves, gives us much to work with in turning disaster
into a genuine good neighbor policy for the region.

Obama's "Partnership for the Americas"

The first card was played at the gathering of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami on May 23.
With the primary race still raging, Obama sought to win over the
politically powerful group in the state that has previously sunk
democratic hopes. He offered the crowd a mix of tough talk and new

Shortly after the speech to the Cuban-Americans, the campaign released "A New Partnership for the Americas."
The 13-page document laid out the approach to regional foreign policy
under three main headings: political freedom/democracy, freedom from
fear (security), and freedom from want (poverty). These "freedoms"
harked back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Four Freedoms.

speech and the platform immediately provoked volleys of punditry and
emails. Chicano and progressive listservs buzzed and political blogs
argued over whether the positions were net positive, net negative, or
merely electoral blather.

can be said for all three evaluations. On first read, the position
paper feels a little green. Some ideas pop up as though they occurred
to someone at the moment rather than as a result of thought-out policy
proposals. To give a few examples: the proposal to extend Plan Mexico,
officially dubbed the Merida Initiative,
to all of Latin America shows no recognition that the mostly military
initiative embodies widely repudiated Bush policies and would be
vehemently rejected by other nations in the hemisphere. Also, the
emphasis on cap-and-trade markets as a panacea for environmental
threats falls short of a comprehensive program.

question, however, Obama's platform marks a major departure from
continuing Bush policy in the region. When John McCain tapped Otto Reich
as his Latin America adviser he signaled his intention to continue the
very worst of the past policy. This has made blood boil in Latin
American countries. Reich alienated Central Americans for his role in
the Iran-Contra affair. He infuriated the Venezuelans
by supporting the 2002 coup, and angered the Cubans by protecting
Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, convicted of anti-Cuba
terrorist attacks. Everywhere he's gone he's left a trail of human
rights violations and murky political manipulations a mile wide.

Obama's foreign policy team,
on the other hand, mixes crusty veterans with new thinkers and appears
to be in flux. This shows in the Latin America policy proposal, where,
for example, hardline support for Plan Colombia stands alongside
opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

But the paper demonstrates a new perspective on the region that holds out hope for real change.

political freedom section focuses on Cuban policy, calling to lift
travel restrictions and free up remittances, while "holding back" on
relaxation of the trade embargo as a negotiating tool in a post-Fidel
transition. Backtracking on his previous commitment to lift the embargo
is a lily-livered electoral move, but the text indicates it's a
question of timing rather than principle.

breaks with Bush policy include the section on "democracy begins at
home" that advocates ending torture, extraordinary rendition, and
indefinite detentions, restoring habeas corpus, and closing Guantanamo.
These concrete commitments not only change lives but send a clear
message to Latin American partners who have long held that U.S. foreign
policy in their region too often follows a double standard.

"freedom from want" section calls for increased U.S. aid for "bottom-up
development by concentrating on microfinance, vocational training, and
community development programs." It notes the need to develop
benchmarks and fight corruption, leading by example with "merit-based
and transparent" contracting decisions. Other objectives include
achieving the Millennium Development Goals; reducing the education
deficit, especially for girls and women; supporting 100% debt
cancellation for Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, and St.
Lucia; and reforms to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World

These proposals in particular go considerably beyond the standard fare for Democratic candidates. Debt cancellation and reforming international financial institutions
are demands that broad citizen movements have been pressing for years.
That these issues have been incorporated into Obama's Latin America
plan indicates he's listening to new voices and is ready to place the
kind of emphasis on social justice issues like poverty alleviation that
previously was reserved for corporate investment, trade liberalization,
and ideological-based regime change programs. Some of the proposals
have already been backed up by actions, like the Obama-sponsored Global Poverty Act to support achievement of the Millennium Goals.

regional economic integration, Obama's platform cracks the paradigm by
calling for "fair trade" (rather vaguely defined), amendment of NAFTA,
opposition to the U.S.-Colombia agreement, and a path to earned
citizenship for undocumented workers and their families. The commitment
to fair trade has been called into question by his support of the Peru
free trade agreement and statements of support for the Pelosi-Reid
platform of promoting free trade with shallow environmental and labor
conditions, but he has also called for in-depth evaluation of trade
policy and noted the relationship between trade policies and high
immigration under NAFTA.

the security section, which has been most heavily criticized for
mimicking Bush policies, introduces ideas considered heretic according
to Bush-McCain dogma. These include a far greater willingness to assume
shared responsibility, take on domestic challenges in drug control and
arms trafficking, and create measurable benchmarks, while emphasizing
many non-military alternatives. The inclusion of a "Northbound and
Southbound Strategy" recognizes U.S. responsibilities and failings in
its own territory and seems to break with the sanctimonious
declarations that place the onus for transnational security threats on
the South and have been used to justify U.S. intervention.

energy partnership proposal is one of the sections that needs work. It
promotes new markets for green technologies, and puts stock in
cap-and-trade mandates to offset emissions without mentioning the need
to demand clean industry in the United States or change consumption
patterns. It also relies on carbon sequestration incentives to
discourage deforestation, while ignoring the role that U.S.
corporations play and the possibility of international regulation. But
again, citizen discussions
find their way into the thinking on the issues. So, for instance, while
the paper promotes biofuels it does recognize the conflict between food
and fuel.

is not generally considered foreign policy, and it is to Obama's credit
that he includes it in the Latin America platform. His proposal to "tap
the power of remittances" commits to working with the Inter-American
Development Bank and others to "maximize the impact of remittances on
social and economic development across the hemisphere." It is not clear
what is meant here. The pressing needs of immigrant communities are to
lower the costs of financial services, and while some organizations
have had success in collective development projects funded through
collective remittances, with the crisis in food prices driving up the
cost of living it's likely that most remittances will continue to go
toward basic family needs in the country of origin.

More importantly, Obama reiterates his commitment to comprehensive immigration
reform as "a top priority in my first year as president." His proposal
includes a path to earned citizenship, fixing the dysfunctional
bureaucracy and the obligatory reference to border security. In a
recent questionnaire from The Sanctuary, a multi-issue Latino
organization, he complements the need for immigration reform with the
need to "encourage job creation and economic development and to
decrease the pressure to immigrate." He tempers any proposal for a
guest worker program saying it must have "strong worker protections and
not exclude people from ever becoming Americans." His Latin America
program does call for using immigrants in public diplomacy.

Missteps and Leaps of Faith

far the most controversial of Obama's Latin America positions concern
security policy. These have provoked the most outcry among progressive
Latinos, Latin Americans, and regional policy analysts.

issued his platform just weeks after the Colombian attack on a
guerrilla camp in Ecuador. Most nations on the continent, with the
exception of Colombia backed up by the United States, condemned the
incursion on the grounds that it violated international law and the
guerrillas were attacked not in self-defense but while asleep.

military incursion was the opportunity to show that international law
trumps ideological alliances and Obama did just the opposite. Not only
did he justify the Uribe government's attack, he vowed to:

"… continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program,
and update it to meet evolving challenges. 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."

enthusiastic endorsement of Alvaro Uribe's government in its war
against the FARC was clearly not for the benefit of the Colombian
government. Uribe has publicly maligned Obama
for his opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and
orchestrated the recent McCain visit to throw support for a Republican
administration in 2009. With no love lost between those two, the real
question is: who is Obama appeasing with the tough language and
one-sided policy outlined here?

other long section on security is dedicated to Mexico. The Obama Latin
America plan supports Plan Mexico and proposes "a new security
initiative with our Latin American neighbors-one that extends beyond
Central America."

and Colombia are the only large nations ruled by far-right governments
in Latin America. Support for the military/police models embodied in
Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia, and the temptation to equate regional
cooperation with U.S. military involvement, clearly contradicts the FDR
principles invoked in the rest of the document. Perhaps the "new
security initiative" referred to would modify and not merely extend
Plan Mexico. But if that's the case, the Obama team should develop a
critique of the Bush plan.

And if, like the Bush administration, an Obama administration plans to drive a wedge through the heart of Latin America by rewarding ideological allies and punishing perceived enemies, then we have a real problem.

doesn't seem to be the case though. In Obama's later statements in
response to the Sanctuary questionnaire, he tempered his more gung-ho
positions. On Plan Colombia, he notes:

support Plan Colombia. However, it is important to take a hard look at
whether our assistance to Colombia reflects the right mix of combating
drug trafficking and supporting legitimate agriculture efforts."

on Plan Mexico, Obama leaves himself some wriggle room by asserting the
importance of "properly targeted" U.S. assistance to defeat Mexico's
"drug gangs."

adds: "We need to carefully examine the administration's recent request
for Plan Mexico, particularly given the secrecy that has surrounded the
formulation of the proposed package." Congress already appropriated
$465 million to Plan Mexico and a request for another $400 million is
in the hopper for FY2009, so to make this statement more than rhetoric
a critical examination of this extension of Bush security policies into
Mexico and Central America would have to take place immediately.

tough talk on crime and violence is balanced by non-military solutions
and a commitment to engagement with Venezuela, Cuba, and the rest of
the region. The anti-Chavez rhetoric, rightly criticized by many
as divisive and inaccurate, is not so disturbing in context. Both sides
tend to get blustery in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, yet no one
seems to be getting out the sticks and stones yet. While progressive
political analysts raged against Obama's uninformed stabs at Hugo
Chavez, few recalled that Obama was among the first and only
politicians to announce his willingness to meet with Chavez, and he has
reiterated, not retracted, that offer.

the Obama document commits some important sins of omission that one can
only hope will be rectified in the future. The candidate has issued
only loud silences on matters that could define a new regional policy
built on the principles he has championed most vociferously. One is
closing down the School of the Americas, the military training school
in Fort Benning, Georgia now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Activists pushed Congress within a
handful of votes of closing the doors on the institution that has
trained some of the worst human rights violators in the hemisphere.

Citing many of these points, author Greg Grandin
concludes that "the Obama Doctrine" will not represent a clean break
from the Monroe Doctrine of U.S. hegemony in the region. Tom Hayden
more optimistically calls it a "mixed blessing" and a "brave beginning," while critics excoriated the speech and platform as more of the same.

This is where the leap of faith comes in.

factors high in the debate over Obama's Latin America platform. Nobody
really believes that campaign rhetoric is the same as applied policy,
so the discussion hinges on whether the candidate will move toward the
progressive or conservative side of his platform after election. Like
biblical prophets, everyone's watching for signs.

side believes his "instincts are good" for building a more humane
foreign policy, and the more conservative positions are electoral
posturing. Among progressive non-believers there are three positions. Obama skeptics believe that his progressive positions are the posturing and once in office the status quo will win out. Electoral skeptics argue
that the two-party electoral system in the United States will never
produce real change-their beef is not so much with Obama as with anyone
who comes out of the political system and claims to change it. And the system-izers believe
that the international system trumps the power of any president-even of
the world's most powerful capitalist nation-to make fundamental changes
even if he or she wanted to. These are generalizations, of course, and
all have a grain of truth. But they serve to characterize important if
latent debates surrounding the Obama candidacy.

Three Reasons to Make the Leap

2004 I wrote that the main expectation of Latin American governments
and societies closely watching the U.S. elections was to keep things from getting worse.
A good neighbor policy seemed too much to ask, and John Kerry failed to
make even a rhetorical break with "democracy promotion" programs, or
military intervention under the thinly disguised wars on terrorism and
drugs. In other areas, the Democratic candidate got the discourse right
but the policy proposals repeated the tired formulas of the past.

So why feel any differently now?

first reason is that Obama's policy toward the region-beyond the
specific policies-reflects a significant change in perspective. The
best way to illustrate this is the following phrase from his Miami

time for a new alliance of the Americas. After eight years of the
failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future.
After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that
advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up. So my
policy toward the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that
what's good for the people of the Americas is good for the United

good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States" is
nothing short of a total inversion of U.S. history in the region. And
Latin America today shows that the formulation is not based on altruism
but a careful reading of reality. Most threats to human security,
economic well-being, and democratic freedom have arisen precisely
because a succession of governments and the policies of the U.S.
government and international financial institutions have made it
impossible to do "what's good for the people." The result is that Latin
America suffers the greatest inequality of any region in the world, and
poverty engulfs over half the population.

perspective also seems to recognize that Latin America has come of age
and validates in principle the reform experiments in the region that
the Bush administration has vilified.

also no accident that Obama's Latin America program takes off from the
Rooseveltian model. Lately the candidate, Progressives for Obama, think tanks, and citizen groups have been picking up the language of FDR to adopt the principles of the Good Neighbor policy of the 1930s, and also to demonstrate to the U.S. public that significant change in our foreign policy is possible.

Latin America-the staging area for the original good neighbor
policy-the analogy is especially relevant. Today many popular movements
and new left-leaning governments espouse social programs much closer to
FDR's New Deal than to the "Washington Consensus." The Bush
administration perceived that as a threat rather than recognizing the
growing rumblings in Latin America as a call to re-examine the current
economic integration model and adopt greater flexibility.

is the other reason Latin America policy is important today. Free of
widespread conflict, ruled by democracies, and in the midst of major
redefinitions of policy for the public good, Latin America is the
testing ground for change in a globalized world. And that's exactly
what many nations there have been doing over the past years.

there are reasons to suspect that Obama, the human being, does have
good instincts. His background, his organizing experience, and his
previous stances in political life set him off from most politicians,
and his position in the African-American community gives him greater
sensitivity to the historically excluded.

rhetoric with deeds," the phrase used in the Latin America paper, will
be a big challenge. Obama will have to make good on the promise to seek
"what's good for Main Street, not Wall Street" by insisting that
corporations obey international law and sacrifice some of the
mega-profits they've made off natural resources in Latin American
countries. If that means telling Chevron it's on its own in its legal
battle with the Ecuadorean government over the destruction of thousands of acres of Amazon jungle, or Chiquita that it's not okay to pay paramilitaries for protection in Colombia, so be it.

in all aspects of foreign policy reform, the critical factor in
defining a new regional policy is the ability to break the inertia in
Washington that has limited vision and action for change. The Obama
team will have to take with a grain of salt the policy recommendations
of, say, the Council on Foreign relations, which in a recent report
fell back on tired calls for more free trade and echoed Condoleezza
Rice by deeming Latin American measures to redistribute national wealth
a sign of "resurgent resource nationalism." He must be willing to stick to policy promises even when interest lobbies put the pressure on, or pollsters and politicos warn they might not be mainstream.

most important reason to take change seriously is that the Obama
campaign is bigger than the candidate. This is its saving grace.
Through the media, the public has been taught to be skeptical of real
change. The incipient movement to buck that socialization is the
grandest achievement of the Obama campaign so far. Relations of mutual
respect in the hemisphere don't depend just on presidential elections;
they depend on a reactivation of civil society in the Americas at a
critical moment for the region.

the debate over change in foreign policy, it's not a matter of sitting
back to wait to see who's right: those who believed it could be done or
those who said it couldn't. We can't allow either extreme: the
optimistic scenario that Obama, once ordained, will single-handedly
usher in a new era in U.S.-Latin America relations; or the pessimistic
scenario that, frozen by the inertia of the system, he will preside
over the same old practices. Neither allows for an active role of the
citizenry in shaping a new foreign policy.

the Obama campaign continues to build a grassroots base, incorporating
parts of the population that had been distanced from democratic
participation-especially youth-we have the raw material for making
change. This change ultimately won't depend so much on policy
prescriptions as a new collective self-image that, as Roosevelt said,
respects itself in order to respect the rights of others.

Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org) is director of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico City. This piece was part of a talk at the Lessons from NAFTA Conference. Check out the Americas Mexico blog at www.americasmexico.blogspot.com.