US-Latin American relations fell to record lows during the George Bush years, and there have been hopes – both north and south of the border – that President Barack Obama will bring a fresh approach. So far, however, most signals are pointing to continuity rather than change.
Obama started off with an unprovoked verbal assault on Venezuela. In an interview broadcast by the Spanish-language television station Univision on the Sunday before his inauguration, he accused Hugo Chávez of having "impeded progress in the region" and "exporting terrorist activities".
remarks were unusually hostile and threatening even by the previous
administration's standards. They are also untrue and diametrically
opposed to the way the rest of the region sees Venezuela. The charge
that Venezuela is "exporting terrorism" would not pass the laugh test
among almost any government in Latin America.
Insulza, the Chilean president of the Organisation of American States,
was speaking for almost all the countries in the hemisphere when he
told the US Congress last year that "there is no evidence" and that no
member country, including the US, had offered "any such proof" that
Venezuela supported terrorist groups.
Nor do the other Latin
American democracies see Venezuela as an obstacle to progress in the
region. On the contrary, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, along with
several other presidents in South America, has repeatedly defended
Chávez and his role in the region. Just a few days after Obama
denounced Venezuela, Lula was in Venezuela's southern state of Zulia,
where he emphasised his strategic partnership with Chávez and their
common efforts at regional economic integration.
statement was no accident. Whoever fed him these lines very likely
intended to send a message to the Venezuelan electorate before last
Sunday's referendum that Venezuela won't have decent relations with the
US so long as Chávez is their elected president. (Voters decided to remove term limits for elected officials, paving the way for Chávez to run again in 2013.)
is definitely at least a faction of the Obama administration that wants
to continue the Bush policies. James Steinberg, number two to Hillary
Clinton in the state department, took a gratuitous swipe at Bolivia and
Venezuela during his confirmation process, saying that the US should
provide a "counterweight to governments like those currently in power
in Venezuela and Bolivia which pursue policies which do not serve the
interests of their people or the region."
Another sign of
continuity is that Obama has not yet replaced Bush's top state
department official for the western hemisphere, Thomas Shannon.
The US media plays the role of enabler in this situation. Thus the Associated Press ignores the attacks
from Washington and portrays Chávez's response as nothing more than an
electoral ploy on his part. In fact, Chávez had been
uncharacteristically restrained. He did not respond to attacks
throughout the long US presidential campaign, even when Hillary Clinton
and Joe Biden called him a "dictator" or Obama described him as
"despotic" – labels that no serious political scientist anywhere would
accept for a democratically elected president of a country where the
opposition dominates the media. He wrote it off as the influence of
South Florida on US presidential elections.
But there are few if
any presidents in the world that would take repeated verbal abuse from
another government without responding. Obama's advisers know that no
matter what this administration does to Venezuela, the press will
portray Chávez as the aggressor. So it's an easy, if cynical, political
calculation for them to poison relations from the outset. What they
have not yet realised is that by doing so they are alienating the
majority of the region.
There is still hope for change in US foreign policy
toward Latin America, which has become thoroughly discredited on
everything from the war on drugs to the Cuba embargo to trade policy.
But as during the Bush years, we will need relentless pressure from the
south. Last September the Union of South American Nations strongly
backed Bolivia's government against opposition violence and
destabilisation. This was very successful in countering Washington's
tacit support for the more extremist elements of Bolivia's opposition.
It showed the Bush administration that the region was not going to
tolerate any attempts to legitimise an extra-legal opposition in
Bolivia or to grant it special rights outside of the democratic
Several presidents, including Lula, have
called upon Obama to lift the embargo on Cuba, as they congratulated
him on his victory. Lula also asked Obama to meet with Chávez.
Hopefully these governments will continue to assert – repeatedly,
publicly and with one voice – that Washington's problems with Cuba,
Bolivia and Venezuela are Washington's problems, and not the result of
anything that those governments have done. When the Obama team is
convinced that a "divide and conquer" approach to the region will fail
just as miserably for this administration as it did for the previous
one, then we may see the beginnings of a new policy toward Latin