The Presidential Transition and Latin America Policy: Optimism for Change Dims as Reality Sets In

So much of the Bush legacy in the hemisphere has been shaped by the "you’re either with us or against us" worldview that emerged from the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Which is why so many people breathed a sigh of relief on November 5th when Barack Hussein Obama won the elections in the United States. But just how much change can we expect to come from the new Democratic Administration with respect to Latin America policy?

It seems like a totally different era, a moment frozen in the distant past.

September 10th, 2001. On that day, Colin Powell, President Bush’s first Secretary of State, was in Peru as part of a hemispheric trip to monitor the progress of U.S. counter-narcotics strategies in the Andean region. United States policy in South America was consistently making headlines, particularly the controversial multi-billion dollar military aid package known as Plan Colombia.

The next morning, Powell was supposed to go to southern Colombia to witness first hand how U.S. training, interdiction and other funding commitments were impacting "the war on drugs" in that part of the country. Bush wanted to make it appear as if things were going well in the region, so in traditional Karl Rovian fashion (ie, "Mission Accomplished"), he dispatched his most credible diplomat for a series of high-profile photo-ops in the jungles of Putumayo.

Needless to say, Powell’s plans were altered by the tragic events of the day. And as a result, Colombia and the rest of the hemisphere fell off the radar screen of the U.S. media. Which is why some shortsighted analysts talk of President Bush’s policies towards Latin America as one of "No-policy," as he pushed the entire region down the priority list of his diplomatic and national security agenda. He ignored his own backyard, goes the argument, letting it fall into the hands of unfriendly governments across the continent.

I don’t share this narrow version of recent history. While there is no doubt that the tragic failures in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the primary obsession of the Bush Administration over the past seven years, the Bush-Cheney team has not neglected Latin America, but instead placed it within its erroneous frame of Washington’s endless global war on terror.

For example, there’s the relentless anti-immigrant fixation with militarizing and constructing a massive wall on the border with Mexico to address the very complex problems of immigration. The government has repeatedly made the faulty argument that in order to deal with the "immigration problem," we first must secure our borders, one would assume from the potential incursion of all those Al Qaeda elements trickling into the U.S. from Mexico and Central America. Misinformed pundits like Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, and Bill O’Reilly consistently promoted this xenophobic propaganda, so much so that throughout the presidential campaign, every serious contender for the White House, Democrat and Republican, was forced to vociferously embrace the idea first, before dancing around the many other issues that come with any serious discussion about comprehensive immigration reform.

ImageAnother example of Bush’s failed, but deliberate policy in the region is the Administration’s unproven charges against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that he supports "terrorist" organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC. Throughout the Bush years, the U.S. media have gone along with this story line, regularly referring to Chavez as the one who constantly launches into anti-American tirades in his public appearances, while deliberately failing to point out the current Administration’s support of the 2002 failed coup attempt against the democratically-elected President. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and Dick Cheney have presented a litany of accusations of Venezuela’s destabilizing role in "meddling" in the internal affairs of its neighbor to the west, Colombia, clearly as a way to discredit Chavez’ efforts at regional integration, and the changes he is trying to implement in his own country.

Meanwhile, despite the inherent contradiction, it was not surprising when the "war on terror" frame was used by the White House to support Colombia’s illegal invasion of Ecuador in March 2008, when it attacked a guerilla encampment, killing 24 people, including the second in command of the FARC, Colombia’s largest and oldest guerilla organization. For the Bush National Security team, Colombia’s action – universally condemned by the entire hemisphere – was not unlike Israel’s carte blanche to terrorize Lebanon in 2006, supposedly in self-defense to pursue "Hezbollah terrorists." The public legitimization of the violation of another country’s sovereignty is not a "blind eye," but an active embrace and encouragement of unchecked militarism that by its nature destabilizes the entire region. It must also be pointed out that the Colombian attack on Ecuador was facilitated by direct U.S. involvement, specifically in the area of logistical training and intelligence.

ImageNothing represents Bush’s Latin America policy better than its unbending, indeed unconditional support of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, and in particular his counter-insurgency war euphemistically referred to as the "Democratic Security Strategy." Through the massive public relations machine of the Colombian government, we are constantly being reminded of the successes of this policy, the fruits of eight years of U.S. military assistance to the tune of almost five-billion dollars under Plan Colombia, initially approved in order to fight the illegal drug trade, as I mentioned above. That the counter-narcotics strategy has failed to make a dent on the cultivation of coca in the countryside, (or the flow of cocaine into the U.S. market) is irrelevant to a government that is only concerned about "combat deaths," and so-called battlefield victories over "terrorists." That hundreds if not thousands of these "combat deaths" might have been innocent civilians kidnapped from their homes and summarily executed by U.S. trained Colombian soldiers looking to get extended vacation time under an Uribe-established quota system that provides rewards for battlefield gains is equally irrelevant. The silence of the U.S. administration to this "False Positives" scandal has been deafening, although expected, given Uribe’s "special" relationship with W. Afterall, Uribe was the only South American leader to support President Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq.

Is this evidence of a negligent foreign policy emanating from the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon? Or is it a deliberate approach to addressing a broad range of complex developments in the region? So much of the Bush legacy in the hemisphere has been shaped by the "you’re either with us or against us" worldview that emerged from the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Perhaps we can describe it as criminally negligent.

As a result, President Bush has alienated hundreds of millions of people in the region, who over the last eight years, with the exceptions of Mexico and Colombia, have elected a wide range of governments that share one thing in common – a rejection of U.S. hegemonic control of Latin America and a widespread call for change in its security and development policies.

Which is why so many people breathed a sigh of relief on November 5th when Barack Hussein Obama won the elections in the United States.

But just how much change can we expect to come from the new Democratic Administration with respect to Latin America policy? I’m not holding my breath, especially as we watch the transition process unfolding today in the U.S., and all the former Clintonites, and even Bushites who are falling into key positions of the soon to be Obama team, something that is making conservatives mighty happy as they observe the cabinet selection process.

Already a lot of attention has been given to Obama’s opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, one of the primary policy objectives of both Bush and Uribe. Obama has expressed concerns over the human rights of Colombian trade union activists, over 400 of whom have been killed, mostly with complete impunity, during the six years of Uribe’s presidency. This position has been welcomed by critics of the FTA, including leaders of the trade union movement.

However, human rights activists in Colombia were taken aback by the naming of Eric Holder as Obama’s attorney general. In 2004, Holder helped negotiate an agreement with the Justice Department for Chiquita Brands International that involved the fruit company’s payment of $1.7-million in "protection money" to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC, in direct violation of U.S. laws prohibiting this kind of transaction to a terrorist organization. These right-wing paramilitaries with close links to the Colombian Army are responsible for the murders of over 4,000 people in the banana-growing region of Urabá, not to mention the thousands of others killed by their fighters throughout the country over the past 15 years. In the agreement brokered by Holder, Chiquita officials pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $25 million, to be processed over a 5-year period. However, not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for their actions. For many human rights activists and people struggling against impunity in Colombia, Holder’s nomination as Attorney General was an obvious contradiction.

The naming of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State may be an indication that if anything, Obama’s Latin America policy will return to the Clinton years, characterized by an accelerated push for free trade – remember NAFTA – and a stubborn acceptance of a militarized counter-drug strategy, one that has not shown any positive results in the last 16 years, including the last eight under Plan Colombia, initiated by her Democratic husband Bill Clinton. This should not bode well for those of us seeking fundamental change in the way the U.S. deals with the region.

Mrs. Clinton is seen as a hawk, and across the board, people expressed dismay that Obama would select her to such an important post, especially since during the campaign he described her foreign policy experience as being limited to "having tea with Ambassadors." As political science professor Stephen Zunes writes in Alternet, she has repeatedly shown a disrespect for human rights and international rule of law, especially in her positions vis a vis Iraq, Israel and the United Nations. How will she address the countless human rights concerns in places like Colombia and Mexico?

Clinton’s views are somewhat mixed vis a vis her take on Latin America policy. For example, when it comes to U.S. militarization and meddling, people in Puerto Rico may welcome the fact that her husband initiated the end of the Navy’s occupation and decades-long use of the small island of Vieques as a bombing range after years of vocal protest on the island. However, Hillary alienated many Puerto Ricans when, in 1999, she described as "terrorists" the 11 jailed independence activists granted limited clemency by her husband after serving over 19 years in prison. Most people have probably forgotten about this one episode, but it was clearly a case of political expediency as she tried to distance herself from her husband’s decision, while running for Senate in New York against a tough law-enforcement candidate like Rudolph Giuliani.

With regards to Colombia, she has pushed for the continuation of Plan Colombia, despite its evident failures to curtail the drug problem or improve human rights in Colombia, and has repeatedly voted in favor of the aid package as a Senator from New York. This is a reflection of a much broader problem confronting most U.S. politicians, who have a limited understanding of the underlying causes of Colombia’s internal conflict. However, she also has expressed concerns about the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, more or less along the same lines as her former opponent and new boss. Furthermore, during the campaign, she openly criticized Obama for stating he’d be willing to sit down with Raúl Castro of Cuba or Chavez, without any preconditions, calling it naïve on his part. Talking with her adversaries will be her primary role in the new Administration. Will she be forced to have a change of heart under Obama’s orders?

None of Obama’s other national security appointments really point to a change in direction for U.S. policy. There’s Robert Gates, the current Defense Secretary and supporter of the Iraq war; Gen. James L. Jones, the retired Marine commandant and supreme commander of NATO, who has been picked as national security adviser; and Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state, for ambassador to the UN. We still have to wait a bit before we know who will take up the key staff positions in the State Department’s Office of Inter-Hemispheric Affairs, and while we most likely won’t get people like Contra-War apologist Elliot Abrams or the extremist Neo-Con Otto Reich in that office, don’t be shocked if either of them make a comeback sometime in the next several years.

In justifying his appointments, Obama said he wanted "strong personalities and strong opinions" to allow for a "vigorous debate inside the White House," something that obviously did not occur in the Bush years. This is clearly a welcome concept in any space of deliberation about public policy. But the big concern is the scope of that debate. With Gates, Clinton and Jones spearheading that discussion, we’ll be stuck once again in very limited policy terrain, with little possibility of fresh ideas emerging in the process.

Back in January, during the earliest stages of the campaign, Obama told the Miami Herald that he would look for new ways to work with all the regimes in the hemisphere, and recognized that even "leftist regimes are looking to do the right thing for their people." He insisted on several occasions during the earlier debates that yes, he would be willing to talk to some of these leaders. This was a far cry from the typical reactionary discourse of most presidential candidates, and for many represented an open door, however slight, to some sort of progressive change in the White House. Some of that openness has whittled away in the subsequent months, as he moved from being a long-shot to his current position as President-elect. Indeed, hearing some of Obama’s words on Tuesday when he introduced his National Security team to the world was extremely reminiscent of the hawkish language of the last eight years, and sent shivers down my spine.

But for many progressives, at least those that I’ve been speaking with here in Colombia over the past month, since Obama’s electoral triumph, there remains some optimism that at least for now, Obama does have a willingness to consider a different approach to dealing with Latin America than his predecessors.

This will be most welcome, given the righteous and arrogant imposition of U.S. governments that have always believed that it has the (divine) right to dictate to all its neighbors how they should run their internal affairs, regardless of its impact on the people.

I hate to say it, but I’m not as hopeful.

Here are some good links for more detailed reports about changing US policy in the Americas:

The LAWG website has some new reports on Colombia, Cuba and U.S. Policy.

WOLA has some strong recommendations for new US policy towards the region.

Check out the Center for International Policy for constant updates.

NACLA’s commentary on Obama and the Americas.

The Transnational Institute previews Obama’s agenda for the 2009 Summit of the Americas.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of Communication at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, finishing a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.