Should Obama, If Elected, Make a Clean Break With Bush’s Latin America Policy?

This op-ed was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on August 12, 2008 and published in the Kansas City Star and other newspapers.

In the last decade political change has swept across most of Latin America. Much of the region – including the majority of South America – is now run by left governments. These governments have also become much more independent of the United States – in their foreign policy they are more independent than Europe is. Washington’s dream of a hemispheric "Free Trade Area of the Americas" is now dead and buried. The attempt to replace this with bilateral "free trade" agreements is losing steam every day.

Much of this is a result of the democratic choices of the Latin American electorate.  In country after country – Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela – voters rejected the "Washington Consensus" economic policies after more than two decades of unprecedented economic failure. Similarly, by popular demand, the government of Ecuador has announced that the Washington’s most prominent military base in the region will close when its lease expires in 2009.

The Administration’s reaction to this new Latin American reality has been characterized by denial and hostility. It supported military coups in Venezuela (2002) and Haiti (2004). It has funded opposition groups in countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela, provoking further friction. The United States has clearly been a destabilizing force in the region, undermining democracy.

The Bush Administration has tried to divide the left-of-center democracies into "good left" (Brazil and Chile) versus "bad left" (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and sometimes Argentina). The goal has been to isolate the "bad left," especially Venezuela. But this is a fantasy-based foreign policy.

Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, for example, of the "good left" has consistently defended Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez against Washington’s attacks, and joined with Venezuela in its major initiatives such as the Bank of the South. Brazil has also recently stepped up its commitment to Cuba, a country with which Lula’s Worker’s Party has long had ties – more deeply rooted historically, in fact, than Chavez of Venezuela. Cuba is another example of failed U.S. policy toward Latin America. Washington has maintained an economic embargo and other hostilities against Cuba for nearly half a century. This has succeeded only in winning condemnation from the rest of the world, expressed in many overwhelming votes in the United Nations, and sowing more distrust in Latin America.

The "divide and conquer," Cold War strategy in Latin America has only succeeded in further reducing Washington’s standing in the region, which is now lower than it has ever been.

Obama would have a chance to make a fresh start. But would he? So far there has been little indication that he would.

He has adopted some of the same hostile rhetoric toward Venezuela, pledged to maintain the embargo on Cuba, and even showed support for Colombia’s March 1 raid into Ecuador. This was a violation of sovereignty and a dangerous regionalization of Colombia’s conflict – supported by the Bush Administration — that was publicly rejected by nearly every government in the hemisphere.

Against these statements, Obama’s expressed willingness to possibly meet with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro do not offer much cause for optimism, and indeed there is not much hope for change among Latin American diplomats here in Washington.

Of course, Latin American governments are sophisticated enough to know that U.S. presidential campaign rhetoric is oriented to right-wing Cuban Americans in South Florida. Indeed, if there were 800,000 American voters who believed that Elvis Presley were still alive, and they were concentrated in one swing state with 27 electoral votes, we might expect to hear some campaign speeches accommodating these eccentric views.

So maybe Obama is just kidding when he adopts the Bush Administration’s rhetoric and policy stances on Latin America. For now, at least, that is the best hope we can hold on to. 

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (