Obama and Latin America

Far from embodying any dramatic changes, President Obama’s foreign policy has thus far tended toward continuity or worse in most major areas. The administration has escalated the US wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the advice of knowledgeable observers of the region and against the wishes of the vast majority of the Afghan and Pakistani populations. Despite bowing to overwhelming Iraqi pressure by agreeing to withdraw at least some US forces from Iraq, Obama has pushed hard for continued war funding and has sought to consolidate US control over Iraq “without being seen to do so,” as publicly conceded by one high-level official. With regard to Palestine, Obama has refused to endorse the decades-old international consensus and the 2002 Arab League peace proposal calling for a two-state solution on the pre-1967 borders. And he has increased total military spending by four percent over Bush-era levels rather than redirecting those funds to meet human needs [1]. As with domestic issues, Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric has sounded more compassionate and far less arrogant than his predecessor’s, like when Obama has insisted on an immediate end to illegal Israeli settlements and talked about reconciliation with the Muslim world. Yet even such small steps have usually been confined to the realm of rhetoric; there is absolutely no indication, for example, that Obama has even considered cutting the $2.8 billion in annual US military aid to Israel to force it to comply with international law.

To what extent has this pattern applied to Obama’s approach to Latin America? Acutely conscious of the long US history of imperialist intervention in the region and thoroughly disgusted with the US-promoted neoliberal economic policies of recent decades, most Latin Americans have long been anxious to see a new US policy in the region, one that respects international law and national sovereignty while helping to promote sustainable and egalitarian economic development. Any assessment of the new administration must acknowledge, of course, that Obama himself does not singlehandedly determine policy, and that corporate, financial, military, and other elite interests constitute powerful obstacles to substantial change. Yet the President himself and the people he appoints nonetheless deserve a large portion of the praise or blame for the direction of US policy. With this partial caveat in mind, the following evaluates the extent to which Obama administration policy in Latin America has thus far adhered to the ideals of democracy, human rights, and international law.


Obama and the Leftward Turn

The most significant challenge that Latin America has presented to Washington in the last decade has been its much-discussed leftward turn. With just three major exceptions (Colombia, Peru, and Mexico, with possible 2006 election fraud in the last), nearly every country on the continent has elected a left-of-center president promising to abandon economic neoliberalism and to forge strong regional alliances that will increase Latin American economic and political independence. Although the corporate press usually implicates Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez as the key culprit behind this shift, recent elections and policy changes have in fact reflected the growth of grassroots social movements and the thorough disillusionment of the region’s people with the policies promoted by US leaders and Latin American elites.

Recent Latin American efforts to build intra-regional trade alliances, to institute measures of limited economic protectionism, and to limit the power of foreign capital predictably met with overt hostility from the Bush administration. The Obama administration has once shown signs of change in this regard: in March, after right-wing members of the US Congress had publicly threatened to cut off remittances to El Salvador and deport Salvadoran immigrants if the left-leaning FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes won the presidential election, the administration yielded to pressure from Salvadoran and US activists by issuing an official statement of neutrality—a welcome change from Washington’s blatant intervention in support of the far-right ARENA party in the 2004 elections. But unfortunately, a more comprehensive review of Obama’s approach to the region suggests that despite this example and despite the often more tolerant, conciliatory tone of administration rhetoric, the basic US policy and strategy have thus far undergone few substantial modifications. The key test of Obama administration goodwill in Latin America—the extent to which it supports the right of Latin Americans to elect presidents who favor economic policies of redistribution and national control over key resources, and supports those presidents once in office—has so far yielded, on the whole, rather discouraging results.

The administration’s approach to its predecessor’s arch-enemy in the region, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, has involved a bizarre mix of conciliatory gestures and rhetoric, on the one hand, and occasional statements that have outdone even the Bush administration in their hostility toward Chávez, on the other. In the first category, Obama has restored the US ambassador to Venezuela, whom Chávez had expelled last September to protest US support for right-wing separatist groups in Bolivia. And in a small move that triggered an absurd amount of commentary in the mainstream press, Obama greeted and shook hands with Chávez at last April’s Summit of the Americas. At the same time, much administration rhetoric has continued to vilify Chávez and to blame him for the continent-wide revulsion against Washington’s neoliberal policies. In a January interview broadcast on Spanish-language television, Obama labeled Chávez “a force that has interrupted progress in the region” and, with no evidence whatsoever, accused Chávez of “exporting terrorist activities”—a charge that, as analyst Mark Weisbrot notes, “would not pass the laugh test among almost any government in Latin America.” At other moments Obama has called Chávez “despotic,” while Hillary Clinton and Vice President Biden have each called him a “dictator” [2].

Obama’s hostility toward Bolivia has extended beyond rhetoric into concrete policy actions, with potentially dire effects for tens of thousands of Bolivian workers. On June 30 Obama declared that Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, no longer deserved US trade preferences. President Bush had rescinded those preferences last fall, but Obama had widely been expected to reinstate them; instead, he permanently eliminated them. The public rationale of both presidents has been that Bolivia has failed to reduce cocaine and coca leaf production, a major stipulation of the original agreement. Leaving aside the question of whether Washington has the right to prohibit Andean nations from growing the coca leaves which are central to Andean highland culture, the statistics on coca production suggest that the Bush-Obama policy of revoking Bolivia’s trade preferences has political motives. While Bolivian coca production increased by only 5 percent in 2007, Colombian coca production increased by 27 percent. The 2008 figures released in June do show a significant decline in Colombian coca and cocaine production, but Colombia remains the leading producer of both products [3]. Yet while the Obama administration punishes Bolivians by ending much-needed trade preferences, it has rewarded the Colombian government with over half a billion dollars in aid for next year (see below).

With regard to Cuba policy, Obama has done nothing that US business elites and the Cuban-American mafia in Florida would find offensive. He has maintained the 47-year-old embargo—which has been roundly condemned in the international community for decades—in nearly every point [4]. While the press has showered much attention on the ending of travel restrictions on Cuban Americans, with many hailing this change as a progressive move, Obama explained during his campaign why he did so. In May 2008 he appeared before a cheering audience of the Cuban American National Foundation, a group long known to have planned and promoted terrorist operations in Cuba, and told the group that the US needs “a new strategy” for converting Cuba to a subservient, neoliberal economy, since the old strategy (five decades of terrorism, economic strangulation, and attempts at isolation) hasn’t worked. “There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans,” he said, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adding that they would also serve as “ambassadors…for a free market economy.” At the same time, Obama has said plainly, “I will maintain the embargo” [5]. Obama’s approach to Cuba, far from constituting any substantial progressive change from the Bush era, is rightly viewed as a more intelligent use of US coercion to obtain the desired results. There are signs that Raúl Castro is more open to certain capitalist policy shifts than Fidel was—Raúl has, for example, publicly defined “equality” as the “equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income”—suggesting that perhaps Obama’s approach may prove a more effective imperial strategy for influencing developments on the island [6].



Obama’s most publicized test on Latin America, however, has come from an unexpected source. On June 28 the Honduran military overthrew and kidnapped the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya in the first Latin American coup in five years. Since his 2005 election Zelaya had surprised his right-wing supporters by promoting a minimum-wage increase and a number of other mildly reformist measures, and on the day he was deposed had planned to poll Hondurans as to whether they would like to convene an assembly to re-write the Constitution [7]. In a nearly unprecedented show of hemispheric unity, Latin American governments—including even US allies—immediately denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s reinstatement. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed Latin America’s lead by calling for a restoration of “Constitutional order.” The US reaction to the coup at first glance seemed to signal a refreshing change from the Bush administration, which supported the last two coups (Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004) against democratically-elected Latin American governments.  

Upon closer inspection, though, the Obama response appears more equivocal. At least some in the administration (though perhaps not Obama himself) knew about the coup plot beforehand and did nothing to prevent it. Once the military had seized power, the administration refused to officially label it a “coup,” which would have legally required it to cut off all military aid to the new regime. On July 8 Obama did end direct US military aid, totaling $16.5 million, though as of this writing has left the rest of the aid package ($180 million) intact. Meanwhile, Honduran soldiers continue to receive training at the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, GA (which Obama has also left open for business) and US military personnel continue operating without any change inside Honduras itself. The US ambassador, who lent tacit cooperation to the coup once it was in motion, remains in Honduras. The administration has tried to justify the maintenance of these links using the rationale that “engagement” enables the US to exert positive leverage over a regime’s behavior—reasoning that sounds suspiciously similar to one excuse given in the 1970s and 1980s for aiding Latin America’s many terrorist states in their wars against their own people. But even this rationale does not accord with the actions of Obama, who has issued no condemnation of the violent repression and press censorship that the illegitimate Honduran government has unleashed since seizing power [8].

Obama administration officials have at least once