Change? Not In America’s Backyard!

As progressives in the United States are riding a wave of excitement about Democratic hopeful Barack Obama and his promise of change, the people of Latin America have much less to be excited about. In fact, given some of his recent comments, Latin America might expect an even more aggressive policy from Barack Obama than what they saw under the Bush administration.


Latin America has long been regarded as America’s "backyard" by both US policymakers, and critics of US imperialism. Nationalist and revolutionary movements in Latin America have long expressed their desire to break away from being the "backyard" of the United States, and achieve their own independent economic development.


But US policymakers, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Truman Doctrine, have long seen Latin America as a strategic region with vast natural resources and lucrative markets which must remain inside the US sphere of influence, regardless of the desires of its people.


Barack Obama apparently feels the same. A few weeks ago he said as much, even using the infamous "backyard" label.


"We’ve been so obsessed with Iraq and so obsessed with the Middle East, we’ve been neglecting Latin America even in our own back yard," he said at a campaign speech in Alexandria, Virginia. [1]


And he’s right. The Bush administration’s focus on the Middle East has given Latin America some breathing room from the usual US subversion and intervention so common throughout Latin America’s history. In the meantime, leftist leaders have come to power across the region like never before in a series of democratic revolutions dubbed the "Pink Tide."


Many on the left have seen these developments as an enormous flowering of popular democracy and mass participation, and a clear break from the elitist democracies of the past. The masses have been relatively free to choose leftist and nationalist leaders in democratic elections, without them being toppled by US intervention, with some exceptions. [2]


But Barack Obama does not see it that way. In fact, he apparently views these developments as a problem that has been neglected by the Bush administration, as he warned recently:


"China has been sending diplomats and economic development specialists and building roads all throughout Latin America. They are securing trade agreements and contracts. And we ignore Latin America at our own peril." [3]


In other words, US neglect of its "backyard" has allowed Latin America to have more freedom to trade with other countries, such as China; a certain threat to the interests of US corporations. Indeed, Latin America’s leftward sweep could prove threatening to US economic interests as the nations of the region seek to take control of their natural resources, diversify their economies, and break away from their dependence on US imports.


It is, of course, the right of any sovereign nation to do these things if it so desires, and Latin American leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa would argue that they are absolutely essential for the region’s development.


But Barack Obama views this as a problem; a result of US neglect of the region, and apparently hopes to roll back these democratic changes in Latin America. During a recent debate appearance in Austin, Texas he implied that US neglect of the region has allowed leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to have too much freedom.


"We’ve been diverted from focusing on Latin America… Is it any surprise, then, that you’ve seen people like Hugo Chavez and countries like China move into the void, because we’ve been neglectful of that," he said. [4]


And Venezuela’s Chavez appears to be a particular problem for Obama; one that has led him to include Venezuela on a list of "rogue states," along with Cuba, Iran and Syria, and to express his opposition to the Venezuelan president in a recent speech:


"I don’t actually agree with Chavez’s polices and how he’s dealing with his people," he said. [5]


It apparently doesn’t matter that the Venezuelan people do agree with Chavez’s policies, and have repeatedly shown their widespread support of him in open democratic elections. And Obama evidently sees Venezuela as a "rogue state" not because it is a security threat, but because "[Chavez] has been using oil revenue to stir up trouble against the United States," as he said recently. [6]


Indeed, many Latin American nations have recently gotten the "crazy" idea that they can use their own natural resources the way they want, and do not need to respect the interests of the United States. Venezuela’s Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales are among those who have nationalized their natural resources, and have begun to use the revenue the way they see fit.


Chavez especially has used Venezuela’s oil revenue to finance joint projects with other countries and to increase regional trade among Latin American nations. The policies have the goal of diversifying Venezuela’s economy, and severing the region’s dependence on the United States. [7]


If this is what Obama refers to as "stirring up trouble," he is correct that these policies are not in the interests of US corporations that seek to maintain control of the markets and resources of Latin American countries. But shouldn’t the people of Latin America get to decide how the revenues from their resources are used?  Or is this a decision that should come from Washington?


All of this makes one wonder how Barack Obama might act towards Latin America if he were to be elected president next November. The senator has already said that he would be willing to meet with any of the United States’ adversaries, including Cuba’s Raul Castro, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but he has said nothing about whether or not he will continue the long-standing US policies to subvert leftist governments in the region.


In fact, if the comments of his senior foreign policy advisor Samantha Power are any indication, it’s not a hopeful picture. Power, a strong supporter of the 1999 US bombing of Serbia, referred to Chavez’s domestic policies as "very problematic" in a recent interview, and implied that Obama would be looking for a change in Venezuelan policies.


"If…Chavez continues to deviate from what Obama thinks are international norms that should be adhered to domestically, then that’s a problem," said Power. [8]


Power went on to say that the Obama administration would focus on "what Chavez does badly from the standpoint of the Venezuelan people."  This begs the obvious question: isn’t it the job of the Venezuelan people to decide that?


Nonetheless, as much as Obama touts "change" in the United States, he apparently does not support progressive changes in America’s "backyard". For more than a century, US subversion and intervention in the region has been constant, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, overthrowing or neutralizing any and all threats to US dominance. So, despite the fact that he’s the most progressive of the presidential candidates, it seems very unlikely that Obama will be accepting of Latin America’s efforts to break free.


To the contrary, it seems that Obama’s biggest concern is the United States’ waning influence in the region. Unlike the Bush administration, which mostly stayed occupied with the Middle East, Barack Obama seems poised to turn Washington’s gaze back to its "backyard" to the south.


He has called for the creation of a new "alliance for progress," alluding to the original John F. Kennedy policy to thwart social revolution in Latin America and safeguard US interests and dominance. And despite his occasional criticisms of NAFTA (recently revealed as merely "political positioning"), Obama has also suggested that there will be little change in Washington’s push for free trade, a doctrine that has been widely rejected by most Latin American nations.


All of this could have serious consequences for Latin America’s growing leftist movements, and could mean an increase in overt and covert actions to undermine their governments, including an increase in the Bush administration’s current funding and support for US-aligned right-wing groups and other counterrevolutionary forces.


Obama has also laid out plans to expand the US military, which seems to imply that he would not be averse to using military action. Obama’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Samantha Power certainly isn’t, as she expressed in a recent interview:


"There are national security and humanitarian challenges out there that are going to require American attention, and sometimes that’s going to require military attention," she said. [9]


If there is one thing the Latin American nations could expect from a Barack Obama presidency, it is increased attention from Washington. If history is any indicator, this won’t be favorable for the region’s recent wave of democratic revolutions.


1.       During a campaign speech in Alexandria, VA, February 10th, 2008:

2.       Former President of Haiti Jean Bertrand Aristide and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are two notable exceptions.  The former was overthrown by the US military in 2004 and the latter was temporarily overthrown by a US-supported coup in 2002.

3.       During a campaign speech in Alexandria, VA, February 10th, 2008:

4.       From the CNN Democratic Debate in Austin, Texas on February 21, 2008:

5.       Alexandria, VA, Feb. 10th, 2008:

6.       Ibid.

7.       See Steve Elner’s article, "Using Oil Diplomacy to Sever Venezuela’s Dependence," October 3rd, 2007,

8.       During an interview on DemocracyNow! on February 22nd, 2008:

9.       Ibid.

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