After the Handshake

Latin America has welcomed the election of Barack Obama. But how far do the US president’s policies point to a real change in US/Latin American relations? And even if Obama personally wants such a change, does he have the power to deliver?

When Hugo Chávez thrust a book into the hands of a quizzical Barack
Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in mid-April, two things
happened. The book, Open Veins of Latin America, a classic for Latin
America’s left, became an instant best-seller on Amazon. More
importantly, commentators began to talk about a new era of US/Latin
American relations. Not only had Obama shaken the hand of Venezuela’s
left-wing president, a man US TV networks insist on calling a dictator
even though he is elected, but Obama also spoke of ‘a new beginning
with Cuba’, raising hopes that the 50-year cold war between the US and
the Caribbean communist state might at last thaw.

Obama has set a
new tone in the relationship between the US and Latin America, a
relationship that not only reached a historic low under George Bush,
but that for two centuries has been marred by repeated US military
intervention, support for dictators (of the unelected, military
variety), death-squads and CIA destabilisation campaigns – which may
sound like the fodder of conspiracy-obsessed bloggers, but is in fact
verified by declassified US documents and congressional reports.

Change: from rhetoric to reality

American governments have cautiously welcomed Obama’s election, hoping
it will mark the end of the constant US interference in their nations’
affairs and an end to the blanket imposition of the free market dogma
that has failed so dramatically in the region. Obama won applause from
Latin American leaders at the recent summit when he pledged to seek ‘an
equal partnership’, adding that ‘there is no senior partner and junior
partner in our relations’.

A new tone was also evident in his
approach to Mexico, which is wracked by drugs-related violence. Both
Obama and Hillary Clinton have acknowledged that demand for drugs in
the west is fuelling the trade, a point frequently made by Latin
Americans who dislike the US’s high-handed and frequently militarised
approach to the ‘drugs war’. Obama has also tentatively welcomed Cuba’s
offer of talks and has removed curbs on Cuban-Americans’ travel and
remittances to the island. This move actually has very little political
cost for Obama because the restrictions, which were introduced by Bush,
were unpopular even with right-wing Cuban Americans. Their removal does
not change the substance of the trade embargo, which is still in place
49 years after it was imposed by the Eisenhower government.
Nevertheless, Obama’s actions have symbolic importance and may lead to
a fuller rapprochement with Cuban president Raúl Castro, who is clearly
making overtures towards the White House.

This more nuanced
approach is in marked contrast to the Bush years, when relations with
Latin America reached a nadir. Latin America pulsed with revolt against
free market economics, and governments widely considered left-wing were
elected across the region – in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador,
Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the
White House was governed by hard-line right-wing ideologues who not
only continued to promote the neoliberal economics that had so clearly
failed in Latin America, but after 9/11 also began to paint the region
as a haven for terrorists, drugs gangs and criminals.

The Bush
administration revived memories of the cold war when it supported a
short-lived coup against President Chávez in 2002 and meddled in the
elections of Nicaragua and Bolivia, trying (unsuccessfully) to prevent
left-wing presidents taking power. Bush’s neocons also worked with
allies of the old military regime in Haiti to oust an elected president
and quietly, while all eyes were on the Middle East, stepped up
involvement in the counter-insurgency war in Colombia.

It comes
as no surprise then, that Latin Americans have welcomed the election of
Obama. But how far do Obama’s policies so far and his rhetoric for the
region point to a real change in US/Latin America relations? And even
if Obama personally wanted such a change, does he really have the power
to deliver?

US foreign policy: who’s the boss?

Since 1823,
when US president James Monroe warned European powers to keep out of
the hemisphere, the US has regarded Latin America as its ‘sphere of
influence’ and a source of commodities, markets and cheap labour.
Historically there has been remarkable continuity in US policy towards
the region regardless of whether there have been Democrats or
Republicans in the White House. All US administrations have favoured
stable, pro-capitalist regimes – democracies if possible, dictatorships
if necessary.

The US also wants the use of military bases,
airstrips, ports and radar systems throughout the hemisphere, so that
it can maintain its status as a global superpower and hegemony over its
own ‘backyard’. This is particularly important today when the US no
longer has the Panama Canal Zone (it left in 1999) and has to lease
military bases from friendly governments. The left-wing president of
Ecuador, Rafael Correa, for example, plans to expel the US from the
base in Manta, northern Ecuador, when the lease expires this year. If
Obama wants to change some of the US’s most damaging policies in Latin
America he will come up against entrenched corporate interests, a
powerful state machinery and centuries of cultural assumptions.

the case of Colombia. 70 per cent of all US military aid in Latin
America is devoted to Colombia, which is home to a still-significant
left-wing guerrilla force, the FARC. US forces are heavily involved in
the counter-insurgency war, providing air cover and supply lines, as
well as radar, satellite and other intelligence assistance. The United
States also continues to fund and promote the aerial spraying of
herbicides on farms growing coca, which is the basis of cocaine after
chemical processing. These herbicides kill food crops as well as coca;
they have killed animals, caused human illnesses and may be doing long
term damage to the Colombian environment.

Obama’s Colombia
policy may change in minor ways. Some congressional Democrats have
raised concerns about herbicide use and Obama himself signed letters
condemning human rights abuses when he was a senator. Conditions may be
imposed on military aid. But the basic war thrust of the policy is
unlikely to change because it is being driven by the Pentagon. The
commander of the US southern command, General Charles E Wilhelm,
identified Colombia as the most ‘threatened nation’ in the region in
2000, because of the strength of the FARC guerrillas. The US poured
billions into Plan Colombia, nominally a counter-drugs programme, but
one with a clear counter-insurgency aim. Now that the FARC has been
weakened, driven out of the cities and pushed back into isolated rural
backwaters, the Pentagon wants to go on to ‘finish the job’. The US
military establishment is pushing the Colombian elite to hold out for
total victory, regardless of how elusive that may be and how much
bloodshed it causes.

All US presidents have traditionally
deferred to the military on issues of national security – and under
George Bush the Pentagon became even more influential, usurping the
role of the State Department in shaping foreign policy. So far, Obama
has said he will continue the war against the FARC, but if he wanted to
pursue a different course in Colombia, and use the guerrillas’ weakness
as an opportunity to press for peace, he could feel the weight of the
US military and intelligence establishment bear down on him.

the Pentagon and intelligence community are pushing for a hawkish
policy towards Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Not only do they regard oil as
an issue of national security (Venezuela is the US’s fourth largest oil
supplier), they are alarmed by Chávez’s ‘destabilising’ influence both
in the Americas and the wider third world – in particular, his
relationship with Iran and China. A pamphlet published by the US Army
War College, entitled Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivarian Socialism and
Asymmetric Warfare, warns that ‘Chávez and Venezuela are developing the
conceptual and physical capability to challenge the status quo in Latin
America and to generate a “Super Insurgency” intended to bring about
fundamental political and economic change in the region’. It goes on to
caution that ‘inaction [against Chávez] could destroy the democracy,
free market economies, and prosperity that has been achieved’. Obama
may have shaken Chávez’s hand at the recent summit, but in the short
time he has been in office he has also described him as a ‘demagogue’
and accused him of ‘impeding progress in the region’ and ‘exporting
terrorist activities’. The policy of trying to isolate Venezuela within
the region and divide Chávez from the more moderate left-wing
administrations (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina) is likely to

Free trade and the future

A key question is
whether the US will continue to promote free trade. US corporations
were behind the aggressive push for free trade in the Americas over the
past decade because they needed to compete with cheap Chinese imports.
Free trade allowed them to produce cheap goods in Mexican and central
American maquiladoras (assembly plants), which they could then send
back to the US duty free, allowing them to compete with Asian imports
in the US domestic market. A related aggressive corporate search for
new markets in services – banking, telecoms, water, electricity – was
behind the wave of privatisations and deregulation in Latin America in
the 1990s.
The right of corporations to
influence policy is accepted unquestioningly by all US administrations.
Business representatives shape policy both as paid lobbyists and, more
effectively, as specialist advisers. Corporations have played a direct
role in designing the framework and rules for free trade in the past
two decades. Much of the bargaining for World Trade Organisation (WTO)
treaties, for example, takes place in closed, private meetings, which
are by invitation only. Business groups are invited to informal talks
and take part as technical advisers. After the WTO meeting in Seattle,
the African delegation and a group of Latin American and Caribbean
countries issued a statement complaining of ‘being marginalised and
generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples and
their future’.

The largest free trade area in the Americas is
covered by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which
comprises the US, Mexico and Canada. Introduced in 1994, NAFTA has
benefited large corporations and landowners in the US and Mexico at the
expense of smallholders, small businesses and workers. Manufacturing
wages have fallen on both sides of the border and thousands have lost
jobs and land. During his election campaign, Obama promised to
renegotiate NAFTA, but this would bring him into conflict with some of
the largest corporations in the US, as well as the pro-business
conservative Mexican government, so it remains to be seen whether he
will keep his promise.
NAFTA illustrates that
the economic models pursued by the US affect all other areas of policy,
including migration, security and even drugs. NAFTA allows for free
movement of goods and capital, but it does not permit the free movement
of people. So when Mexican unemployed migrants cross the border into
the US, they are deported back, leaving some to feel they have little
choice but to take the dollars of the drugs gangs. Although Obama’s
more conciliatory tone in the drugs debate is welcome, his
administration will have to face the complex reality that, in Mexico
and Colombia, drugs violence is rooted in socio-economic inequalities,
and economic policies that increase landlessness and unemployment
simply provide more manpower for the armed groups.

Obama’s real intentions for Latin America, he will be forced to
confront the fact that the so-called ‘pink tide’ of governments across
the region are bullishly espousing their independence and most
economies have diversified so that they are less dependent on the US.
Most of the region’s countries have rejected neoliberal dogma and are
trying alternative models. Although they will be severely tested by the
current economic crisis, the new wave of progressive governments is
demanding respect from whoever is in the White House.

Livingstone is the author of 'America’s Backyard: the United States and
Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror' (Zed
Books, 2009). Click
here for more information about the book and how to buy it.