Obama on Latin America

U.S. policy toward Latin America has been notoriously absent from figuring in recent presidential debates or stump speeches, as both candidates seek to win over last-minute voters by reiterating their campaign platforms on domestic and foreign policy topics of high public concern.

As Election Day draws
near, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama repeatedly
have focused their attention on such key foreign policy issues as the
Iraq War and the global financial crisis. U.S. policy toward
Latin America, on the other hand, has been notoriously absent from
figuring in recent presidential debates or stump speeches, as both
candidates seek to win over last-minute voters by reiterating their
campaign platforms on domestic and foreign policy topics of high public
concern. An exception to this was Obama’s brief reference to the
Colombian government’s seeming indifference to the killing of labor
leaders in that country with impunity, mentioned in the last
presidential debate.

Nonetheless, Barack Obama has developed his policy agenda on
U.S.-Latin American relations throughout the course of his presidential
campaign. Beginning with an appearance at the Cuban-American National
Foundation in May 2008, he set forth the proposal that the U.S. should
foster a new era of hemispheric relations based upon mutual
understanding and respect for national sovereignty. Similarly, the
Senate voting record of vice presidential candidate Joe Biden reveals
his position on regional matters, which over the years has seldom
strayed from a standard approach to regional issues. This
is not to suggest that there was a golden age sometime in the past when
pundits came forth with erudite perceptions on how to advance
enlightened U.S. regional policies fostering constructive engagement
and a quest for equality and social justice.

The Obama Platform on Latin America

America is not only a member of the hemispheric chorus, but a player as
well. Barack Obama’s first serious effort at exhibiting a position on
U.S. policy toward Latin America occurred in May 2008. Following an
appearance at the Cuban-American National Foundation, a conservative
Miami exile group, Obama released his 13-page “A New Partnership for
the Americas” plan, which outlines three major regional policy issues
that his administration would tackle if elected to office: (1)
political freedom/democracy, (2) freedom from fear/security, and (3)
freedom from want/opportunity.

Obama’s aim to foster political freedom within the hemisphere relies
on the necessity of governments to address the needs of their people
“in a democratic and sustainable way.” Obama has stated that he will
promote the expansion and reform of democratic institutions, and has
stressed that the U.S. must work with democratic-left governments
(including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez). U.S.-Latin American relations
under the Bush administration have languished as a result of “a
misguided foreign policy with a myopic focus in Iraq…its policy in the
Americas has been negligent to our friends,” Obama says. The U.S. must
now re-establish a relationship with Latin America based on its
willingness to promote democratic development, and abandon the
tradition of supporting only those regimes which directly advance the
U.S.’s narrowly defined national interests. In addition, according to
the candidate, the U.S. must refrain from tying personal relationships
to foreign policy initiatives, as epitomized by President Bush’s close
ties with his ideological soul-mate, Colombia’s President Uribe.
According to Obama, the strengthening of democracy will at its core
address the protection of human rights, as well as support the
rejection of de facto coups and autocratic practices. The U.S. will
foster democratic institutions by strengthening democracy at home –
habeas corpus will be restored, Guantanamo Bay will be closed, and
torture and indefinite detention will end. Within Latin America, strong
civil societies, accountable police forces, and organizational
transparency will be promoted. Nonetheless, critics on the left of
Obama’s Latin America program contend that his proposals neglect to
effectively engage some of the most challenging new developments
emerging in the hemisphere, despite the fact that Obama has attempted
to break with prevailing U.S. policy toward the region in several
fundamental ways.

Obama views Cuba as a case in point for the strengthening of
democratic institutions in the Americas. He will work to free up the
sending of remittances from family members in the U.S. to relatives on
the island and the right to travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. He
believes that the “empower[ment] of the Cuban people” should be
prioritized in order to reduce their dependence upon the regime. Yet,
Obama does not support a clear end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which
he believes should remain in place to act as leverage in encouraging
positive democratic change on the island. This same sense of caution
reflects his thinking on Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela for which he has used
somewhat harsh language to distance his campaign from Chavez’s fierce
populism. With respect to U.S.-Cuba relations, critics of Obama’s Latin
America platform cite that the Democratic candidate is lagging well
behind the leading edge of revisionist thinking on the issue now taking
place in this country.

According to Obama, U.S.-Latin American security policy should focus on
the issues of transnational gangs, violence, drugs, and organized
crime. Gang activity has proliferated throughout the Central American
countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and into Mexico, and
its impact has spilled over into U.S. civil society. The Democratic
presidential candidate says he will step up U.S. security efforts in
Central America to stem the flow of gang-related crime and
narcotrafficking, as well as formulate regional strategic cooperation
on personal security issues. The professionalizing of the police and
judicial branches of these countries should be emphasized, corruption
targeted for abatement, and a hemispheric pact on security issues
signed. In breaking with more traditional views of U.S.-Latin American
policy, which tend to view drug and arms trafficking, illegal
immigration, and gang activity as agenda items which must be addressed
by the U.S.’s southern neighbors, Obama realizes the need to create a
“comprehensive strategy on regional crime that addresses the U.S.’s
contribution to the problem.”

In dealing with security measures, Obama highlights the crucial
roles of Mexico and Colombia in promoting regional cooperation. Mexico
plays a central role in the production and shipment of drugs such as
marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines; Obama supports the
continuation and expansion of the newly implemented Merida Initiative
in order to roll back rampant violence, corruption, and drug and arms
trafficking throughout the region. He believes that security
cooperation should extend beyond U.S.-Central American relations to
include further security measures developed in the rest of Latin
America. He has committed himself to combat the Mexican drug cartels,
and establish relations with other Latin American countries to decrease
both the supply and demand for drugs. Additionally, he supports the
continuance of U.S. aid to Colombia to fight narcotrafficking and
strengthen civilian institutions. He also has defended Colombia’s
recent incursion into a FARC guerrilla camp based in Ecuador, stating
that Colombia has a “right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven
across its borders.” Commentators argue that Obama has ignored the
human rights violations countenanced by the Uribe government as well as
its highly qualified and quasi-democratic regime, which include
scandals involving both his own political party and right-wing death
squads that still operate in the country.

Barack Obama’s stance on economic development in the Western
Hemisphere centers on an increase in U.S. foreign aid, vocational
training, micro-finance, and community development-which is little
better than a conservative development plan. He will attempt to achieve
the Millennium Development Goals, will work to decrease the prevalence
of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and increase global education.
He will cancel the debts of Paraguay, Guyana, St. Lucia, Bolivia,
Haiti, and Honduras, as well as those of other countries around the
world which have been designated as “heavily-indebted poor countries.”
Obama will seek to reform the IMF and World Bank, and establish fair
trade that promotes labor and environmental standards. In addition, the
WTO will be encouraged to enforce mutually advantageous trade
agreements. Obama opposed CAFTA and a U.S.-Colombia FTA, and will seek
to amend the provisions of NAFTA to increase its benefits for American

The Democratic candidate believes that the U.S. immigration system
must be reformed by creating tighter border security and ensuring a
just path to citizenship which “reaffirm[s] our heritage as a nation of
immigrants.” He seeks to work with Latin America on addressing climate
change and energy security, taking particular note of expanding the
partnership with Brazil to share technology, develop markets for
biofuels, and create greener methods of energy consumption. Other
important measures that the Obama administration must deal with include
the preservation of the Amazon rainforest and the fight against
deforestation through economic incentives.

What about Joe Biden?

Several of Barack Obama’s proposals consistently agree with those
long entertained by Joe Biden. Like Obama, Biden disagrees with the
detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He believes that the rules
of NAFTA must be reformed, and has opposed the FTA with Central
America. Biden asserts that free trade agreements must include
provisions for labor rights and environmental standards, echoing
Obama’s arguments for fair trade. Washington Post staffer Marcela
Sanchez’s recent article reports Biden’s concern over the rampant
inequality faced throughout Latin American society, an issue also
addressed by Obama in his “A New Partnership for the Americas” plan.
According to Sanchez, Biden maintains that he “has fought to address
the root cause of the…instability that has plagued the region,
particularly in recent years: social inequality.”

On immigration reform, Obama and Biden seek to increase border
security as well as enact provisions to absorb undocumented workers and
their families presently living in the U.S. Similarly, both voted to
create a 700-mile long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border under the
Secure Fence Act of 2006. Biden and Obama agree that the U.S. should
ease up on restrictions limiting remittances and travel to Cuba for
Cuban-Americans, as well as promote the development of small business
on the island, without actually lifting the embargo. Both Biden and
Obama are supporters of continued aid to Colombia, under the terms of
Plan Colombia.

Analysis of the Democratic Platform: A Brighter Future for U.S.- Latin American Relations?
Public reactions to the Latin American component of the Democratic
platform have been mixed. On one side, supporters of Obama have
asserted that his stance on Latin America represents a fundamental
break with the rigidity of past U.S. policies toward the region, a move
which will cause the U.S. to view Latin America less as a junior
partner with only localized military security issues and more as a
sovereign highly pluralized neighbor that insists on autonomy. The
Democrats emphasize that in the age of globalization, the U.S. cannot
afford to nurture failed policies that treat Latin America solely as a
strategic playing field for parochial U.S. regional interests narrowly
defined. In the words of The Huffington Post’s Laura Carlsen, “U.S.
relations with Latin America can no longer be seen as a regional
foreign policy box.” President Bush has abandoned Latin America to
concentrate on the promotion of U.S. national interests in the Middle
East. An example of this is the lack of sufficient quality time
allocated to allow for the full flowing of substantive development in
relations between the U.S. and Latin America, which has created a power
vacuum that has been filled by strong, often intensely ideological
figures such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both
populist politicians who have sought greater innovation and
experimentation for Latin America as a function of the region’s
reaction to George Bush’s unpopular presidency. To Obama’s Latin
Americanist supporters, now is the time to communicate to the
hemisphere that the U.S. must foster greater and more freely given
political, economic, and security cooperation in a policy based on
equality, respect, and mutuality.

Obama’s “A New Partnership for the Americas” plan reflects Franklin
D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered in the wake of World
War II and meant to provide a world vision based on political and
religious freedom, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Roosevelt’s presidency was responsible for the formulation of the Good
Neighbor Policy; by constructing his Latin American platform upon FDR’s
legacy in the region, Obama has shown a willingness to foster a more
cooperative and perhaps a more creative era for hemispheric relations.
The Good Neighbor Policy grappled with issues of national sovereignty
and development, renounced military intervention, and gave Latin
America ample space to establish its own reforms free of heavy-handed
U.S. interference accompanied by brazen diktats. Supporters of Obama’s
pledge toward Latin America foresee that Obama’s initiatives and spirit
could begin to reverse the U.S.’s reputation as the “colossus of the
north,” ushering in an updated version of the Good Neighbor Policy that
could carry U.S.-Latin American relations to a new level of
sustainability and hemispheric autonomy, if he decided to do so.

Others are not so sure that an Obama administration would be willing
or able to form a comprehensive, functional strategy with respect to
U.S.-Latin American relations that will not be held hostage by some of
the extremist ideologies found to be at work in Miami and exile centers
in the U.S. and elsewhere. Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate
due to his foreign policy expertise. Despite the fact that Biden has
played a key role in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he only
has traveled to Latin America on four occasions. As for Obama, he never
has even been to Latin America. Biden states that NAFTA should be
renegotiated and opposed FTAs with Chile, Peru, and Central America on
the grounds that they failed to incorporate proper environmental and
labor standards. Nevertheless, his critics fairly or unfairly argue
that Biden is just pandering to the sectarian interests of U.S. labor
unions. While Biden was campaigning for his presidential bid in 2006,
he called Mexico an “erstwhile democracy” and a “corrupt system” that
can be blamed for fostering illegal immigration and wielding a chaotic
role in narcotrafficking. Biden’s statement, while containing more than
a grain of truth, largely ignores the fact that the U.S. contributes to
the illegal immigration and drug trafficking phenomena through the
exploitation of grossly underpaid migrant workers needed for “cheap
labor” enterprises in the U.S. and the insatiable domestic demand for
illegal narcotics.

Obama supports the extension of the Merida Initiative to create a
more comprehensive regional security bloc within the Western
Hemisphere. The Merida Initiative was proposed by President Bush as the
keystone of his U.S.-Central America security plan, and is focused on
the provision of military and police aid to Mexico (with much smaller
amounts to Central American countries) to fight organized crime and
drug cartels. It is a complete truism that the military and legal
structures in Mexico and Central America have suffered from a history
of corruption and human rights abuses, and critics of current U.S.
policy argue that increasing military aid to the region only increases
the capacity of local authorities to abuse power of an already deeply
flawed law enforcement system. The Merida Initiative is in many ways
similar to Plan Colombia, which provides military and police aid to
fight narcotrafficking and organized crime there.
In Colombia, human rights and labor violations have been committed by
the military and paramilitary groups on a massive scale; the vast
majority of the aid granted to Colombia by the U.S. is utilized for
military purposes, and only a small fraction of Plan Colombia’s funds
are allocated to the protection of human rights. Biden has voiced his
support of Plan Colombia, and Obama seeks to continue the Andean
Counterdrug Initiative, stating that “we need to continue efforts to
support Colombia in a way that also advances our interests and is true
to our values.”

It remains unclear, however, whether Senator Biden is even aware of
the vast corruption of the Uribe presidency, the continued human rights
violations that the present regime sanctions, and the autocratic
tendencies chronically exhibited by Uribe, who is hardly a democratic
figure. This is why last night’s reference to Colombia by Obama was so
important. In 2007, he also had sent a letter to Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice stating that the U.S. must balance its military aid to
Colombia with social and economic reforms. Nevertheless, four recent
letters (two to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one to
then-Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, and one to President Uribe
himself) regarding human rights abuses in Colombia lacked his

Obama has stated that he will open dialogue with democratic-left
regimes to instill the notion throughout the Western Hemisphere that
the U.S. will operate without an ideological litmus test, nor will it
only engage with Latin America only when Washington considers U.S.
national interests at play. Critics argue that Obama’s policy proposals
toward Latin America are at times muddled – at the same time that Obama
supports unqualified dialogue with leftist hemispheric governments, he
defends Colombia’s raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador to track down
members of FARC. Such an act on Bogota’s behalf has been viewed by a
number of Latin American left-leaning regimes as well as some OAS
members as a violation of international law and Ecuadorian national
sovereignty. But Obama has insisted that Bogota has a right to go
beyond its national borders to weed out terrorists who seek refuge in
order to attack Colombia. Likewise, Obama promotes an extension of the
Merida Initiative, but fails to mention that Colombia and Mexico–new
prime recipients of U.S funds, are the two principal conservative
governments in Latin America and are the only ones likely to be
interested in such an initiative. While Obama may support discourse
with democratic-left regimes, it is unclear whether he will be able to
reach consensus in negotiating policy initiatives with Latin America’s
more left-leaning governments, through a willingness to make meaningful
concessions. Obama presents an invitation to create a new partnership
with Latin America, but cites Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico as examples
of countries with which the U.S. will forge new economic, political,
and security ties. There is barely enough here for regional leaders to
even take note of. Obama may not be so quick to partner with such
candidates as Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia in
strengthening U.S.-Latin American relations, whatever his new open door
policy may seem to be.

Final Conclusions
While the complete nature of Obama’s Latin American platform remains to
be seen, there is no doubt that Obama’s stance on hemispheric affairs
will differ from that of the Bush White House, but not so much from
Clinton’s regional policy which was barely discernable from Reagan-era
area policy. At the same time, the Democratic nominee does not appear
to be particularly sure-footed on regional affairs, and could
disappoint avid U.S. Latin Americanists now associated with the
Democratic Party. Drawing on the ideologies of FDR’s “Four Freedoms,”
Obama could represent a break with the failed policies of the past.
Obama has underscored the idea that the U.S. should be prepared to
enter into dialogue with every nation in the region, be it friend or
foe. Through it all, he has maintained his posture that the U.S. should
speak to regional leaders without preconditions, despite outspoken
criticism from right-leaning U.S.-based Cuban and Venezuelan exile
groups. Yet, at other times he appears to hedge on this position.

Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate raises many
questions as to the ultimate pertinacity of Obama’s policy initiatives
toward the region. Professor Greg Weeks, an innovative analyst based at
the University of North Carolina has characterized Biden as “Mr. Status
Quo” with respect to U.S. policy toward Latin America, and as such he
may present a challenge to the implementation of the liberal reforms
Obama has promised as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. At
the same time, Biden and Obama have agreed on a variety of key issues
with respect to the area. As Biden’s foreign policy experience lies
primarily within the realm of Middle Eastern affairs, he may prove
responsive to approaching Washington’s dealings with Latin America in a
new and more imaginative approach.

Yet, it must also be remembered that U.S. authorities traditionally
have sought to promote this country’s own national interests as
projected onto Latin America, and not necessarily those of intrinsic
interest to Latin America. In this respect, take the issue of Honduran
President Zelaya’s extremely bold statement of a long overdue position
on drug legislation after having met up with the U.S. philanthropist
George Soros. Though Obama asserts that he will encourage a new era of
U.S.-Latin American cooperation built on respect for sovereign
governments, nevertheless, he will be forced to contend with competing
influences in Washington which favor the maintenance of the U.S.’s
current stance within the region, particularly in dealing with Cuba and
Venezuela, and a prejudice in favor of orthodox development strategies.

Obama’s choice of Greg Craig as a foreign policy adviser may prove
to be a valuable asset to his administration’s policy potential in
formulating a more rational and innovative approach toward Latin
America. Craig has voiced support for a multilateral approach toward
dealing with the region, as well as stressed the need to encourage free
elections and the recognition of democratic governments. Craig also has
sought to promote fair trade standards that consider the heavy social
costs of free market economics, and he favors hemispheric ties over
bilateral agreements. He would have the Obama government concentrate on
education, health care, poverty, and other social justice issues as
major U.S. policy concerns within Latin America, instead of focusing
mainly on traditional concerns such as trade opportunities, narrowly
defined security interests, and northward drug flows. According to COHA
Research Associates Michael Katz and Chris Sweeney, Craig can provide
the vision that “Washington needs in order to mend the divide between
the U.S. and the new left in Latin America” (see COHA’s “Obama Adviser
Greg Craig: A Man of Merit,” August 19, 2008).

Dan Restrepo, an Obama senior adviser on Western Hemispheric
affairs, has argued that the U.S. must work toward a “partnership with
countries throughout the Americas so that democracy, opportunity, and
security” are broadcast everywhere in the region. Like adviser Greg
Craig, he asserts that the U.S. must encourage fair trade agreements
throughout the region. Like Obama, he opposes the ratification of a
U.S.-Colombia FTA, citing human rights abuses and violence committed
against labor leaders as factors which must be considered in the
negotiation of free trade deals. Greater opportunity for Latin America
should come through “bottom-up” strategies of economic and social

If Obama is elected, the strengths and weaknesses of his policies
toward Latin America will rely upon his ability to remain committed to
a broad-range approach to the region in spite of conflicting interest
groups and pressures. Whether he will move to the conservative or
liberal side of his platform depends on his capability to work against
tendencies resisting change among Washington policymakers. The policy
position of the extreme right will remain clustered around Senator
McCain’s Latin American adviser, the aptly designated Otto Reich;
simultaneously, Obama will be forced to deal with moderate Clinton
Democrats who favor free trade policies and a relatively hard line
approach towards Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela.

Obama’s promises to induce reform with respect to the U.S.’s stance
on Latin America provide hope for regional cooperation, and offer a
chance to turn the tide on the U.S.’s hitherto flawed position in its
relationship with the countries south of its border. Historically,
presidential candidates often make promises just to get into office,
and then fail to honor them. Given that Latin American issues are
rarely critical to U.S. presidential campaigns, Obama’s proposals may
prove to be empty, or they may in fact offer the possibility of a real
change in hemispheric relations. Colombia offers an excellent
opportunity for Obama to distinguish between President Uribe’s faux
democracy and the real thing. In this instance it becomes symbolic of
what could prove to be a real distinction behind Obama’s regional

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns