Obama and Latin America: What He Really Promises

Barack Obama seems to be oblivious to the sea change in Latin America, portraying the advance of the left as a threat which came about through the incompetence of the Bush administration, who allowed a "dangerous demagogue" like Hugo Chavez to rise to power.

U.S. hegemony in Latin America has been maintained historically through military and paramilitary force, economic coercion, and since the mid-1980s through the additional strategy of manipulating civil society through a complex of programs implemented under the banner of "democracy promotion." Democracy promotion is the topic of William Robinson’s 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press).

Although the motor behind imperialism is first and foremost capitalist accumulation, public opinion requires that the government justify such violent and undemocratic actions as overthrowing and assassinating presidents and propping up dictatorships with liberal rationales; since WWII this cover has always been the defense of "freedom" from communism. However, since the USSR disappeared as an ideological enemy, the Clinton administration justified its considerable military support to Colombia as fighting the war on drugs; Clinton also escalated corporate globalization under the guise of democracy promotion. When the Bush administration decided to carry out military coups against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide, it needed a more convincing justification, so it presented the narrative that both presidents had been overthrown by popular uprisings—a story that was planted in the media by the same "democracy promotion" networks that were orchestrating the coups on the ground.

With the 1998 victory of Chavez, however, U.S. hegemony had met its match, and he is now a major leader in the region. His radical political, economic and social initiatives set off a powder keg of discontent over Washington’s neoliberal economic impositions, which exploded in one leftist electoral victory after another. Bourgeois democracy, which since independence restricted electoral choice to ruling class parties, is no longer capable of maintaining the traditional power structures of exclusion and is being replaced through constitutional changes in a number of countries with popular participatory democracy. Other signs of declining U.S. influence are countries withdrawing from the IMF and forming a South American trade bloc (MERCOSUR) and a South American union (UNASUR). The traditional instruments of U.S. hegemony such as the Organization of American States are becoming irrelevant. But if bourgeois democracy is on the ropes, it isn’t because the United States has "neglected" the region. On the contrary, the "democracy promotion" machinery—and intelligence and military agencies—have never ceased working to defeat authentic popular forces.

Barack Obama seems to be oblivious to the sea change in Latin America, portraying the advance of the left as a threat which came about through the incompetence of the Bush administration, who allowed a "dangerous demagogue" like Hugo Chavez to rise to power. Here is what Obama said in his May 23 speech to the Cuban American National Foundation:

"No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua."

It should be noted that Obama dismissed socialism as a "tried and failed ideology" and a "stale vision" to a group of aging thugs and cutthroats who cling to the dream of restoring Cuba to its prerevolutionary past of white supremacy and gangster capitalism. The reference to Chavez stepping into the vacuum presupposes that the United States is the natural leader of the region and that only an illegitimate "strongman" would have the impertinence to dare to usurp this position.

If Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua are the bad guys, the good guys are represented by the Uribe government in Colombia, easily the biggest human rights violator in the hemisphere and the most corrupt (and for some reason embraced by the Clinton administration). Obama defended Colombia’s illegal March 1 attack on a guerrilla camp in neighboring Ecuador, where 25 people (including four Mexican students) were pulverized by aircraft artillery as they slept. His official statement: "The Colombian people have suffered for more than four decades at the hands of a brutal terrorist insurgency, and the Colombian government has every right to defend itself." This is almost exactly what he said about Israel during its last invasion and bombing of Lebanon.

But maybe Obama has some sympathy for Haiti, the first independent nation in the Caribbean, born out of a slave rebellion, and the poorest. Haiti’s first democratic president, Aristide, was deposed in a U.S.-Canadian-French coup in 2004 and is still not allowed by the United States to return to his own country. Yet Obama sided with the coup plotters, recycling their slander that Aristide had lost the support of his people and was illegitimately clinging to power: "The Haitian people have suffered too long under governments that cared more about their own power than their peoples’ progress and prosperity."

The theme of Obama’s speech before the CANF was "Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas." He said the word, leadership, six times, in defiance of the strong majority sentiment in Latin America, expressed in numerous elections and statements by leaders and civil society, that they don’t want the United States to lead them any more. How Obama could have missed this message is testimony to how far inside of Washington he has gone, and how far Washington is from reality.

On Nov. 13, Andres Oppenheimer wrote in the Miami Herald about Obama’s Latin America team—a group of centrists from the Clinton administration. One campaign advisor since February 2008 was Frank Sanchez, a Tampa corporate lawyer who served under Clinton promoting democracy and free trade. Not much is known about Sanchez, a "Hispanic," who announced Obama’s appearance at the CANF luncheon. Obama’s other top advisor is Dan Restrepo, a lawyer who served on the staff of the House International Relations Committee from 1993 to 1996. He is currently director of The Americas Project at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank.

Other people mentioned—Robert S. Gelbard, Jeffrey Davidow, Arturo Valenzuela and Vicki Huddleston—are foreign service functionaries who promote the policies they are told to promote. None of these individuals, Sanchez and Restrepo included, appears to offer any fresh perspectives. They have not expressed support for Latin American sovereignty, development for human needs, and certainly not for socialism.

President Obama has a decision to make: either he will be on the side of the people and ecological sustainability, or on the side of transnational capital. He cannot steer a neutral course because he will be in charge of two enormous bureaucracies–the State Department and the National Security Agency–which have as their mission the removal of all obstacles to the accumulation of corporate profits. If he decides to switch sides, it will be in defiance not only of powerful economic and military interests, but of the team of advisors he has so far relied on. He will have to let them all go and bring in an entirely new group of people. The chance of that happening is next-to-none.