are early signs of change in the Obama State Department. In response to
significant political victories by former Bush nemeses Hugo Chavez in
Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, State Department spokespersons
praised the democratic processes in these countries, indicating a more
open attitude toward the growing independence of Latin American nations.
Chavez won his referendum on lifting term limits for elected officials
on Feb. 15 by a solid 54% at last count, with a 70% turnout. State
Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid stated that, "For the most part
this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process."
week spokesperson Robert Wood established the administration's position
on the referendum by calling it "an internal matter." When asked for
his opinion on the Venezuelan vote, Duguid echoed that position saying
it "was a matter for the Venezuelan people."
similar response came out of the State Department following the Jan. 25
vote on Bolivia's new constitution. Approved by 61%, the vote
culminated a reform process that nearly tore apart the nation and left
several dead in its wake due to the violent opposition of anti-Evo
day after the vote, Wood congratulated the Bolivian people on the
referendum and stated, "We look forward to working with the Bolivian
Government in ways we can to further democracy …" When asked if he
believed the referendum furthers democracy, he replied, "A free, fair,
you know, democratic process certainly does contribute positively."
might seem like standard-issue statements from a government commenting
on matters pertaining to neighboring countries. But if the votes had
taken place under the Bush watch, the response would have been much
Bush administration kept a pouty silence following President Morales'
resounding victory in a recall referendum Aug. 10 as congratulations
poured in from other nations. It remained similarly mute after the
massacre of at least 25 peasants, supporters of the president, by
opposition forces. After the U.S. ambassador was expelled, Bush cut off
trade preferences to the country.
the case of Venezuela, the active hostility against the Chavez
government was well known and heavily broadcast by the mainstream
press. From not condemning the ultimately failed coup against Chavez in
2002 to frequent name-calling, the administration's relations with
Venezuela reflected a permanent enmity that tended to be expressed in
infantile, personal terms.
general, Latin America has welcomed President Obama with a combination
of relief-Bush had a dismal approval rating throughout-and signs of
good faith, suspending judgment as the new government defines its
polices toward the region. Hopes for constructive engagement with the
U.S. Government rekindled after the 2008 elections, especially within
the countries deemed the bad guys under the Bush division of the
response to the referendums will bolster optimism that the government
will move toward what Clinton, in her confirmation hearing, called a
foreign policy based on "principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology."
have been some other not-so-good signs though. Whether it's a lack of
consistency among high-level diplomats, or the inertia of Washington,
or indecision, members of the administration have also mimicked at
times a paternalistic tone toward Latin America that characterized U.S.
policy for far too long.
and her second in command, James Steinberg, have on occasion described
the continent as a "playing field" where a supposed lack of leadership
on the part of the United States recently must be corrected so as not
to cede ground to Hugo Chavez. The idea that maybe the continent's
diverse nations don't need tutelage from anyone is absent. This is
old-school thought-southern countries as geopolitical objects and not
subjects in their own right. It doesn't live up to the promise for a
"new face on U.S. diplomacy" that was promised for the region.
Obama faces a choice: to build good neighbor relations in the
hemisphere or to actively oppose the democratic changes toward greater
sovereignty, equality, and decolonization that are taking place. Obama
and the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela have declared a willingness to
sit down and talk to one another. It is important to insist on direct
diplomacy, based on mutual respect, so that the promised "change" leads
to an improvement in relations that have been allowed to deteriorate
for too long.