US Strategy in Latin America Was Wrong

The Obama administration admits its approach must change, as Latin American countries unite against the US.

Three years ago I wrote an article
arguing that the political changes sweeping across Latin America were
epoch-making and probably irreversible, and that they would
fundamentally alter the relationship between the region and the United States.
Some of the most important economic causes of the region's shift to the
left – including the unprecedented long-term growth failure since 1980
– were unrecognised then and remain mostly unacknowledged to this day.

At the time, Washington's stated strategy was to isolate Venezuela
from its neighbours. This was before the election of additional left
governments in Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Paraguay and El
Salvador. I argued that this strategy was based on a fundamental
misunderstanding of what was happening in the region, and that it would
only succeed in isolating the United States from its southern

All this has come to pass, but more interestingly, for the first time we have an acknowledgement of this failure from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. At a press conference last Friday, she said in response to a question about Venezuela:

we look around the world, actually, we see a number of countries and
leaders – Chávez is one of them but not the only one – who, over the
last eight years, has become more and more negative and oppositional to
the United States. … The prior administration tried to isolate them,
tried to support opposition to them, tried to … turn them into
international pariahs. It didn't work.

This is a
remarkable confession, and it didn't get a fraction of the attention it
deserved. Clinton did not name the countries, but in Latin America,
Bolivia would have to be included as a country where Washington has
incurred resentment by supporting opposition movements against
President Evo Morales. And of course there is the 47-year failure of
the embargo against Cuba:

facing an almost united front against the United States regarding Cuba.
Every country, even those with whom we are closest, is just saying
you've got to change."

She didn't mention that they are also
saying that Washington must change its policy toward Venezuela.
President Lula da Silva of Brazil, who has consistently defended Hugo Chávez, has told Barack Obama as much and reportedly counselled him at the Summit of the Americas not to listen to his advisers – most of whom have appeared to seek continued hostility toward Venezuela and possibly Bolivia.

is remarkable that pressure for a reality-based view of the world has
had to come from the south, and says a lot about the state of civil
society in the US. How is it that nobody from our leading foreign
policy institutions could have figured this out years ago? On Cuba,
there has been dissent – partly because there are powerful business
interests that want access to the island, and partly because 47 years
of failure is a long time even for slow learners.

But on Venezuela, the primary focus of US foreign policy
in the hemisphere for the past seven years, there has been an
overwhelming consensus of fantasy and hype. Chávez is the only
democratically elected leader in the world, facing a media that is still overwhelmingly controlled by his political opposition,
to be successfully maligned as a "dictator". And a threat to the US –
what exactly has he done to the US, anyway, other than provide a $100m
annual subsidy to poor people here for heating oil?

The sad
reality is that while the US has at least some civil society
organisations that can present an independent view to the public on
domestic issues, on foreign policy issues we are much more like Russia.
The vast majority of expert opinion on foreign policy that is allowed
access to major media in the US consists of government officials,
former government officials or people who or are otherwise influenced
by the government. This is one reason why it was so easy to invade Iraq
and so difficult to get out of there or out of Afghanistan – in spite
of the American public's long-standing lack of enthusiasm for sending
combat troops overseas.

Hillary Clinton also took note that
Russia, Iran and China are gaining economic and political influence in
Latin America, and recognised that we are operating in "a multi-polar
world." This is also obvious – China has recently invested billions in
Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador, and agreed to a $10bn currency
swap arrangement with Argentina. This week China also passed the US as
the number one recipient of Brazilian exports. But Clinton's
recognition of a "multi-polar world" is unusual and probably
unprecedented for a US secretary of state.

The signals from Washington remain mixed. The state department last week took another gratuitous swipe at Venezuela, listing the country as a "terrorist safe haven",
among other unsubstantiated allegations. (A few days later, Venezuela
deported five Colombian guerillas to their home country). Obama's top
economic adviser Larry Summers recently made a point of saying that Argentina would not qualify for the IMF's flexible credit line, from which Mexico had just received a $47bn commitment.

is the IMF's principal overseer. Mexico and Brazil also each have
access to a $30bn currency swap arrangement with the US Federal
Reserve. These are large commitments, and a reminder that Washington is
still using its clout in a time of crisis to play political favourites,
rather than contributing to regional balance of payments support.

Clinton's unprecedented reality-based remarks are an indication that
she and Obama may have taken home some important lessons from their
conversations with other presidents at the Summit of the Americas on 22
April. Such new thinking would be long overdue.