Disturbing Mixed Signals from Senator Kerry’s Latin America Policy

By outflanking Bush on the right regarding Cuba, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, the Democratic candidate could witness a substantial bloc of voters defect to a possible resurgent Nader campaign

•  Sen. Kerry woos hard-line Cuban right; risks marring his reputation as an advocate of a more principled foreign policy.

•  The Democratic candidate could witness a substantial bloc of voters defect to a possible resurgent Nader campaign, which could cost him dearly in swing states, and even sway the election.

•  Outflanking Bush on the right regarding Cuba and Venezuela could dangerously ignite these issues, as occurred in the first Bush presidency when the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989.

•  Kerry’s Latin American script could have been written by Roger Noriega and Otto Reich.

•  The Democratic candidate: sterile on Cuba and Venezuela, good on Haiti.   

            In a series of foreign policy formulations in recent days, the presumptive Democratic party presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, has issued a number of statements on Latin American-related subjects which, if anything, appear to outflank on the right the Bush administration’s extremist regional policymakers, as he shamelessly panders to the anti-Castro paranoia of a group of aging but wealthy Cuban-American ideologues in South Florida, and rich Venezuelan expatriates in Coral Gables.  His two primary targets have been President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.  While commendably finding fault with Bush policy regarding Secretary of State Powell’s failure to protect the Aristide government in Haiti, Kerry’s rhetoric regarding Cuba and Venezuela is reminiscent of barren Cold War strictures which, for all purposes, places him in the same extremist ideological bracket as the administration’s two chief Latin American policy makers; the State Department’s Roger Noriega and the Bush White House’s Otto Reich.

Strong on Haiti

Regarding Haiti, Kerry has said, “This administration has been engaged in very manipulative and wrongful ways.  They have a theological and an ideological hatred for Aristide.  They always have.  They approached this so the [anti-Aristide] insurgents were empowered by this administration.”  He also has observed in reference to Haiti, “People will know I’m tough and I’m prepared to do what is necessary to defend the United States of America, and that includes the unilateral deployment of troops if necessary.”   Such declarations have raised hopes that a Kerry administration will take a more forceful stand in favor of Haitian democracy and commit the resources needed to stabilize the country’s battered institutions and uphold its constitution, which has been all but ignored by Powell. 

Kerry’s Cuba and Venezuela Policies Duplicate those of Noriega and Reich

Regarding Castro, Kerry called for the continuation and intensification of Washington’s near-universally acknowledged failed embargo policy towards Havana.  ”I’m pretty tough on Castro, because I think he’s running one of the last vestiges of a Stalinist secret police government in the world,” Kerry remarked in recent days.  When asked whether he endorsed lifting the embargo, he answered, “Not unilaterally, not now, no.”  In truth, any action would have to be unilateral, since the embargo is not honored by any other country in the world.  As for sending back Elían to his father in Cuba several years ago, Kerry observed, “I don’t agree with that.  I didn’t like the way they did it.”  Regarding the virulently anti-Castro Helms-Burton measure, Kerry said, “I voted for the Helms-Burton legislation to be tough on companies that deal with him [Castro].”

Having endeavored throughout the Democratic primaries to establish his credentials as an advocate of a more principled and professional method of international engagement, in contrast to the interventionist and unilateralist blunderings of the current administration when it came to the Iraq war, the senator is now in danger of tarnishing that reputation through his reckless endorsement of the White House’s long discredited Latin America policies that are now even opposed by conservative farm state Republican legislators and businessmen.  The positions staked out by Kerry are so far to the right that they even challenge Noriega and Reich for their extremism and irrationality.   By so flagrantly tacking to the prevailing political winds in South Florida, Kerry risks alienating voters from elsewhere in the country who want not a reprise of Bush and Powell’s tainted foreign policy, but a bold and visionary alternative.  Kerry’s statements could also potentially deal a heavy blow against Democratic efforts to mobilize some of the more disaffected members of its party base in a year where the drop out of even a handful of previously committed Democratic dissidents could prove deadly to his electoral prospects.

Kerry Panders to the Ideologues

            Kerry’s regrettable baiting of Bush on being soft on Castro and Chávez borders on the irresponsible and could have dangerous implications for peace in the region.  In 1989, when the first President Bush was confronting deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Manuel Noriega’s Panama, the president admirably attempted to contain the situation without having to resort to military force against the Panamanian dictatorship.  At the same time, Bush was being mercilessly attacked by Senate liberals, including Leahy, Dodd and Kennedy, for being too soft on Manual Noriega.  Since there appeared to be no defined constituency supporting a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Panama, and since there was no formidable bloc that opposed turning to a military resolution of the dispute – quite to the contrary – it can be argued that it was the U.S. Senate liberals who helped to bring on the conflict, because there were few political costs to initiating a conflict, while there were many not to.

The same could be said of Kerry’s provocative attacks against Cuba and Venezuela at a time when Roger Noriega has been warning Castro that “he’s playing with fire,” and both he and Reich, without producing any evidence whatsoever, are publicly denouncing Chávez and Castro for working to destabilize the rest of Latin America.  Kerry’s tilt to the right when it comes to Latin American policy may be attributable to confusion, given the clarity of his charges against the Bush administration’s controversial Haiti policy.  While this may account for his resorting to aimless babble concerning Venezuela, and pandering for donations and Florida’s votes when it comes to Castro, it doesn’t entirely explain the inevitably heavy domestic political costs he seems prepared to risk, given the fund raising harangues he is apparently prepared to make to Cuban-American audiences and his eagerness to submit to South Florida’s political calculus.

Superficial Posturing 

If his recent statements are any guide, it is obvious that the Kerry campaign has not given any serious consideration to the issues at stake in Washington’s relations with Cuba or Venezuela.  In fact, prior to the beginning of his presidential campaign, Kerry generally had called for a more moderate and principled Latin America policy from his seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a stance that he now appears ready to sacrifice for short-term political objectives.   Having stated in a newspaper interview in 2000 that the embargo was a product only of the “politics of Florida” and should be reconsidered, Kerry recently reversed himself and declared in favor of a tough line against Castro after meeting with prominent Cuban-American exile leaders in Miami six months ago.  This reversal only helps to confirm the Bush campaign’s damaging accusations that Kerry is a political dandy who is deft at flip-flopping when such an action is to his benefit.  Apparently, the politics of Florida are not as distasteful for the senator as they once were. 

Over the past week, he has sweetened his stance toward Cuban community leaders, perhaps driven by the desire not to repeat Gore’s Palm Beach County election debacle, as well as buoyed by polls stating that only 60% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade and Broward counties—historically a solid Republican constituency— plan to vote for Bush this November, reflecting the growing conviction among older Cubans that while Bush regularly bashes Castro, he does little to bring him down.  In Kerry’s estimation, the road to capturing the disaffected 40% lies in emulating candidate Clinton’s first presidential race against Bush I, when the latter galloped around his adversary’s rightwing flank by accusing Bush of being soft of Havana, and making denunciations of the Castro regime, and by extension, any government that has cordial relations with it.

Kerry Strikes out when it Comes to Evidence 

Embattled President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who, ironically enough, recently declared himself a strong supporter of Kerry, stands accused by the senator of undermining democracy in Venezuela and supporting “narco-terrorists” in neighboring Colombia.  Unless Kerry has information that is not being shared with Colombian specialists, no evidence exists to buttress this charge and his attack against the Venezuelan leader is totally specious and without merit.

It is quite clear, however, that the real issue here is not the state of democracy in Venezuela, a subject in which Kerry previously has not taken any sustained interest.  On the contrary, the most devastating accusation that the Kerry camp seeks to level against Chávez is that his “close relationship with Fidel Castro has raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic government.”   This formulation is pure rubbish.  Presumably, Kerry would not extend his theory by questioning the bona fides of President Lula de Silva of Brazil or Argentina’s Nestór Kirchner, both of whom have referred to both Castro and Chávez as their friend.  Chávez’s complex populist nationalism doesn’t permit this kind of trivialized analysis, which is both simplistic and represents a vulgarized comprehension of the present balance of forces existing in today’s Venezuela.

Nor does the spirit of Kerry’s rhetoric take into account the practical basis of Chávez’s relationship with Castro, with the latter providing subsidized oil deliveries to Cuba and the former providing thousands of badly needed doctors and technicians to Caracas.  Kerry’s attacks on Chávez are a transparent attempt to win the backing of the most conservative factions of Miami’s Cuban-American community as well as its large population of wealthy Venezuelan expatriates who own condos or other second homes in the area, by promising to crack down harder than even Bush has managed to do on the two pesky Latin American leaders.  If this is a preview of the Kerry administration’s hemispheric policy, there appears to be little reason for optimism that the choice of the Democratic contender over Bush will represent a significant change in direction in present U.S. policy, at least when it comes to Latin America.

The Nader Factor

Kerry’s self-serving hemispheric strategy could have very grave implications for his political fate.  When it comes to Latin American issues, there exists a very substantive, vocal and highly sophisticated political constituency in this county – in the hundred of thousands – regarding the region.  This bloc repeatedly has denounced Bush, Secretary of State Powell, Noriega and Reich for the extremist policies being directed against Cuba, Venezuela and other left-of-center governments and movements in the region.  The prospect of Ralph Nader attracting what normally would have been Kerry’s votes, particularly in a year when many Democrats had pledged to close their ears to Nader’s electoral blandishments, makes it clear that the cause for Democratic officials’ concern could be very real.  At this point, Nader’s gravitational pull had been faltering as normally Democratic voters, unlike four years ago, seem to be rallying to the presumed Democratic candidate’s ranks, motivated by the fear that a pro-Nader tide could mean four more years of Bush rule. 

The Nader Threat Could Be Formidable

Kerry could be making a mortal mistake by assuming that hundreds of thousands of former Nader voters, who at the present time are not in the mood to again “waste” their votes on the latter, will stick with the former at whatever price.  On the contrary, Senator Kerry’s calculation that embracing a reactionary policy towards Latin America will bring about a win-win situation for him politically could be dangerously misguided.  Ever since the Central American wars of the 1980s, there has been an increasingly vocal constituency within the Democratic Party— including labor, students, farm interests, multinational businesses and minorities—that has been calling for more enlightened policies towards the region.  This coalition has advocated the adoption of a Latin America policy that is less belligerent, more balanced, and reflective of greater sensitivity to the region’s yearning for authentic democratization as well as its other political and economic aspirations, including the addressing issues of social justice throughout the region.  If Kerry persists on his current move to the political right on hemispheric issues, he risks alienating this exceedingly important sector of his Democratic base, imperiling party cohesion and prospects for a high turnout that are essential if the Democrats are to hold any hope of defeating Bush and his huge campaign war chest in the upcoming election.  

Time for Kerry to Look Within

There is still time for Kerry to review his simplistic and unimaginative formulations on regional issues and abandon his mimicking of Roger Noriega and Otto Reich’s positions by beginning to articulate a clear alternative to the Bush administration’s disastrous Latin America policy.  This approach would be far more enlightening than his present one in which Kerry accused Bush of “sending mixed signals by supporting undemocratic processes in our own hemisphere.”  Kerry should also be denouncing the administration’s involvement in a coup attempt in Venezuela, its stubbornness in maintaining a Cuba policy that has not been reviewed since its inception almost five decades ago, and its persistent ignorance of social justice concerns.  Kerry also should be condemning the White House’s bankrupt trade policy, its attempt to arm-twist its hemispheric counterparts into supporting its Middle East misadventures, and the general direction of Bush’s high-handed regional policy, including its fundamental intolerance for differing points of view. 

Until his campaign begins to trumpet these criticisms and offer a clear agenda for change, Kerry’s Latin American policy will appear as nothing more than an echo of Bush’s—a position that could disaffect hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters living north of Miami-Dade County, as well as encourage the migration of tens of thousands of liberal Democrats back to Nader, at great cost to Kerry’s presidential prospects.

Drafted by Larry Birns, Director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Issued 26 March, 2004

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