New News is Old News South of the Border

Two years ago, when Barak Obama took office, one of the foreign policy changes he promised was a new way of doing business with Latin America. Well, if he’s going to keep that promise, he better make a new year’s resolution fast, because, so far, the new way looks a lot like a continuation of the old way.


US foreign policy in Latin America always means US foreign policy regarding Venezuela. And there are two recent US maneuvers that telegraph that nothing new is coming out of Washington with regard to Venezuela.


In response to the recent suggestion the other day by Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela that the nomination of Larry Palmer as the new US ambassador to Venezuela was close to approval, Venezuela this week summoned the US charge d’affaires to the foreign ministry and gave the official notice that the original acceptance of Palmer was withdrawn.


Chavez had at first accepted the appointment of Palmer when it was announced in June of 2010. But then, answering questions in his senate confirmation hearing, Palmer said four things no ambassador should say about the country he is going to. Palmer charged that there are “clear ties between the Venezuelan government and Columbian guerillas,” said that the US could take advantage of the Venezuelan military’s “morale and equipment problems,” expressed concern over what he alleged to be an increasing Cuban influence in the Venezuelan military, and committed himself to “safeguard American economic interests and investments”. In response, Hugo Chavez refused to accept him as ambassador to Venezuela and asked Obama to name a new one.


Despite the impossibility of Chavez accepting Palmer, the US has refused to withdraw him. When the State Department hinted that approval was near, Chavez officially barred him. US State Department spokesman David Crowley threatened that “there will be consequences” to Venezuela’s willingness to protest Obama’s nomination. He warned that Venezuela’s actions would hurt her already strained relations with the US and added that “frequently in these kind of cases, when there’s action on one side, there’s action on the other side”.


Hugo Chavez responded to Crowley’s thinly veiled threat by saying that “If the US government is going to expel our ambassador there, then do it. If the US government is going to break off diplomatic relations—then do it . . .  . It’s not my fault. It’s theirs for naming an ambassador who immediately goes to the press to rant against the country where he is going as ambassador.”


The refusal to rationally change course and the insistence on sending a hostile ambassador who is not welcome in the host country is not evidence of a new way of doing business with Venezuela.


But the threatening message is being sent out not only by appointments abroad, but by appointments at home. Amongst the changes sweeping the House after the midterm elections are the appointments of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and of Connie Mack as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere. Both these Florida Republicans are more than extreme in their hostility to Venezuela and other Latin American governments seen as allied to her.


At a recent congressional event called “Dangers in the Andes”, Ros-Lehtinen openly called for Hugo Chavez’ removal from power, while Mack said the “US should confront Hugo Chavez directly”. In 2002, Ros-Lehtinen called retired air force Colonel Pedro Soto, one of the first officers to call for the coup against the democratically elected Hugo Chavez that same year, a “great patriot”. Three days after the Honduran coup, Ros-Lehtinen sent a letter to President Obama supporting the coup and defending it as justified. In March 2008, Ros-Lehtinen and Mack teamed up to introduce a House Resolution calling for the US “to add Venezuela to the list of states which sponsor terror . . .”. Mack would later introduce a similar resolution a second time. And, like Ros-Lehtinen, he urged Clinton not to accept the elected Zelaya’s return to power in Honduras and criticized the US’s official condemnation of the coup.


Appointments like these, like the nomination of Palmer, are clear indications that Washington is continuing on its path of provocation and hostility toward Venezuela and Latin America, not the promised new way of doing business.


And these two newly powerful Florida Republicans are not the only ones helping Honduras’ coup regime. And helping Latin American coups is, once again, American business as usual, not a new way.


After the coup, the Obama White House never fully suspended most of America’s aid to Honduras, American ambassadors were never withdrawn and the US never officially called it a coup. The Obama administration then threw its support behind the coup leaders by insisting on recognizing them as the winners of an election that the Organization of American States (OAS), the Latin American Mercosur trade block and the twenty-three Latin American and Caribbean nation strong Rio Group have refused to recognize. So illegitimate was the election that the UN refused to even bother monitoring it. After recognizing the coup leaders as the government of Honduras, the US then came to their support again by attempting to coerce the OAS to recognize the elections as free and fair and readmit the coup government into the OAS over the objections of  Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and many other of Honduras’ neighbours. So the Obama White House, continuing in the old way of doing business with Latin America, backed a coup by recognizing its choice of government and advocating for that government’s acceptance back into the international community.


And, if there was ever any doubt that Washington’s support was not deliberate cooperation with a coup, the recent Wikileak releases have suffocated that barely breathing hope. The White House and the State Department both knew it was a coup. And there was no doubt. By July 24, 2009, less than a month after the coup, the White House, Clinton and many others were in receipt of a cable sent from the US embassy in Honduras. In an almost comic lack of subtlety that was clearly never meant to be public, the cable is titled “Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup”. In it, the embassy says “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . .”  Their conclusions could not be clearer or blunter. Unlike public, official American statements, this private statement explicitly calls it a “coup” and says that “[t]here is no doubt”. And just in case there were any objections, the embassy cable adds that “. . . none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution”. Despite this certain knowledge on the part of White House and the State Department, the US continued to lie, feign a lack of certainty and provide cover for the coup.


And things remain the same in Haiti too. Long a victim of American foreign policy, Haiti remains a victim of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The recent Haitian elections were paid for by the United States. They cost 14 million dollars. That seems like benevolent foreign policy. But it’s not: it’s a waste of leverage at the very least. The Haitian Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) banned fourteen parties from running in the election. Among the banned parties is Fanmi Lavalas, the party of Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was twice removed in US sponsored coups. Aristide’s party is the largest, most popular party in Haiti, and it has won every election it has been allowed to participate in. The CEP, who banned it, was handpicked by the ruling party in a process that is not recognized by Haiti’s constitution.


How can the US provide the financing for a fair democratic election that excludes the party that the people want to elect? How can the US promote democracy—as promised by the new way of doing business—by so blatantly financing the subversion of democracy? America paid for the election: Why didn’t she insist all eligible parties be allowed to run or refuse to pay for it? That’s what forty-five members of congress asked Clinton when they wrote in a letter


We call on you to make a clear statement that elections must include all eligible political parties and ready access to voting for all Haitians, including the displaced. The United States government should also state unequivocally that it will not provide funding for elections that do not meet these minimum, basic democratic requirements. 


Obama’s Whitehouse continued the old foreign policy by making sure that the Haitian people could not reinstall the government that the old US foreign policy worked so hard to uninstall.


After permitting the undemocratic elections, The States recognized the election process even though twelve of eighteen Presidential candidates, including every prominent candidate except outgoing President Rene Préval’s choice, Jude Célestin, have called for the election to be annulled due to fraud. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has now said that the irregularities are “more serious than initially thought”. Organization of American State (OAS) observers, in a brazen illustration of why Latin American countries set up the Rio Group—which excludes the US—as an alternative to the OAS, have said that there were a number of serious irregularities, but that they do not necessarily invalidate the election. What?!


These events in Venezuela, Honduras and Haiti, along with similarly incriminating Wikileaks cables from Bolivia, provide clear evidence that Obama is not charting a new course in Latin America. And the recent appointments in the House and in the Venezuelan embassy give no indication that any change of course is coming. So, if Obama is to keep his two year old promise, a new year’s resolution better be on the way.

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