U.S. Policy Towards Venezuela and Colombia Will Change Little Under Obama

Recent comments by President-elect Barack Obama, Secretary of State appointee Hilary Clinton and leading congressional Democrats suggest that the incoming U.S. administration will not significantly differ from the Bush administration in its approach towards Venezuela and Colombia.

Recent comments by President-elect Barack Obama, Secretary of State
appointee Hilary Clinton and leading congressional Democrats suggest
that the incoming U.S. administration will not significantly differ
from the Bush administration in its approach towards Venezuela and
Colombia. In an interview with the U.S. Spanish-language television
network Univision, Obama fired an unprovoked opening salvo across the
bow of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez that will likely ensure a
continuation of the verbal sparring that has marked relations between
the Bush administration and the Venezuelan government. Not
surprisingly, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton echoed her future
boss’s view of Chávez in her confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, the new
House majority leader, Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer, lauded the
achievements of Colombia’s President Uribe and, along with leading
Democrat Charles Rangel, endorsed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade

In his interview with Univision, Obama
alleged that Chávez had “been a force that has interrupted progress in
the region.” Given that neoliberalism is the dominant trend in the
region that Chávez’s policies have challenged and thwarted, one can
only assume that the spread of free market capitalism is what Obama
meant by “progress.” Obama professed his support for free trade during
the final presidential debate, despite the fact that the neoliberal
model has been rejected by tens of millions of Latin Americans who
remain mired in poverty while multinational corporations and the
region’s elites become richer. In the Univision interview, the
president-elect also went on to suggest that “Venezuela is exporting
terrorist activities” by supporting the Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Obama’s remarks closely
mirror the positions held by the Bush administration over the past
eight years regarding the Venezuelan leader, thereby suggesting that
the ideological battle between Washington and Chávez’s socialist
government is likely to continue. The president-elect’s comments were
particularly troubling given that they were unprovoked. In fact, Chávez
has repeatedly verbalized his hopes that ties between the two countries
would improve once Obama moved into the White House.

response to Obama’s comments, Chávez suggested that it now looks like
relations between the two nations are unlikely to improve and declared,
“I hope I am wrong, but I believe Obama brings the same stench” as
President George W. Bush. The Venezuelan leader stated that there is
still time for Obama to change his views and pointed out that “No one
should say that I threw the first stone at Obama. He threw it at me.”

the views of her future boss, Secretary of State appointee Hilary
Clinton suggested in her confirmation hearings last week that U.S.
neglect of Latin America has created a vacuum that has been filled by
Chávez, “who has tried to use this opportunity to advance outmoded and
anti-American ideologies.” Clinton then labelled Chávez as “a
democratically elected leader who does not govern democratically.” The
latter remark constituted a virtual verbatim plagiarizing of the Bush
administration’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who accused Chávez
during her own confirmation hearings four years ago of being a
“democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way.”

as troubling as the views of Venezuela held by Obama and Clinton, are
those held by leading congressional Democrats regarding Venezuela’s
neighbour and ideological opposite, Colombia. Last week, Charles
Rangel, a Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Ways and
Means Committee, outlined the committee’s priorities for 2009 and, in
reference to the stalled free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama
and South Korea, declared that “the president-elect wants to work with
Republicans and Democrats to get those trade agreements moving.”

the pro-neoliberal views of both Obama and the Democratic Party, Rangel
implied that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was
fundamentally—or ideologically—sound. He said it wasn’t that the pact
signed between the Bush administration and the government of Colombia’s
President Alvaro Uribe was “a bad trade agreement,” but rather “whether
the administration was prepared to insist on the protection of labour
leaders in Colombia.” In other words, once a few human rights
safeguards to protect Colombian workers have been inserted into the
pact, then the Obama administration will gladly further promote
neoliberalism in Colombia—as well as in Panama, South Korea and
throughout the world. This pro-neoliberal view was echoed by Clinton
during her confirmation hearings when she also acknowledged that
safeguards needed to be established to protect Colombian workers, but
ultimately, “with regard to the trade agreement, it is essential that
trade spread the benefits of globalization.”

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with Colombia’s leading weekly newsmagazine Semana,
the new House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, suggested the principal
reason that the last Congress failed to pass the U.S.-Colombia Free
Trade Agreement was the Bush administration’s failure to adequately
consult with Congress. And, when asked about the human rights situation
in Colombia, Hoyer declared, “The reduction in violence is clearly a
positive step, and I continue to believe that a U.S.-Colombia Free
Trade Agreement would be beneficial to both nations.” Despite
increasing evidence of the Colombian government’s ties to right-wing
death squads, its involvement in extrajudical executions and record
numbers of Colombians being forcibly displaced by violence, Hoyer
concluded the interview by stating, “President Uribe has been a great
partner and a real ally to the United States, and I look forward to
continuing to work with him on the issues that are important to both
our nations.”

Given the recent statements by the
president-elect, the secretary of state appointee and leading
congressional democrats, it is difficult to believe that U.S. policies
towards Venezuela and Colombia under an Obama presidency will differ
significantly from those of the Bush administration. Obama’s and
Clinton’s ideological attacks on Venezuela’s Chávez suggest that the
new administration in Washington is not likely to recognize the merit
of anti-neoliberal policies that have dramatically improved the
socio-economic reality for a majority of Venezuelans. Similarly, the
fact that leading congressional Democrats such as Rangel and
Hoyer—along with Obama and Clinton—support the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade
Agreement indicates that Washington will persist in its promotion of
neoliberalism in a country that continues to suffer gross violations of
human rights perpetrated by the state. Sadly, the Obama years promise
more of the same with regard to U.S. foreign policy towards both
Venezuela and Colombia.