Harry Targ : Obama and Latin America Just More of the Same

Early promise: Barack Obama, shown addressing the Cuban American National Foundation on Cuba and Latin American policy at a Cuban Independence Day Celebration in Miami in 2008, loosened travel restriction for Cuban Americans. Photo from AP.

Promise unfulfilled:
A progressive response
to Obama’s Latin American policy

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / September 22, 2010

Hopes for change in United States relations with Latin America

Progressives were more hopeful about a change in United States foreign policy toward Latin American than any place else as Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009. Even though the nation’s attention was appropriately fixated on two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a deepening threat of war in the Middle East, they thought that the new administration could most easily begin to reshape the image of the United States role in the world in the Western Hemisphere.

Many scholar/activists urged the new administration to reverse the history of U.S. imperial rule in the Western Hemisphere by recognizing spreading populist politics in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

Also, most commentators on Latin America proclaimed that it was time to end the 50-year blockade of Cuba, advocating that the United States reestablish formal diplomatic relations with the Hemisphere’s first Socialist country, and endorsing the right of any nation to choose its own destiny. Particularly, this principle should be applied to United States relations with the new populist regimes and particularly Venezuela as it pursues what it calls “21st century socialism.

In addition, many observers assumed that the United States would use its influence and resources to reduce the bloody violence in the 50-year civil war in Colombia and in the process reverse war-like hostilities between Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. “The war on drugs,” the latest rallying cry for continuing U.S. military intervention in the region, would be reversed.

Progressives expected that United States material and diplomatic resources in the Hemisphere would shift from military transfers to multilateral economic assistance to facilitate continued economic development in the region. The United States, from this perspective, would respect those nations who chose to reject the neoliberal model of development based upon privatization of public institutions, reductions in government participation in local economies, and the promotion of exports at the expense of production for domestic needs.

In conjunction with declining advocacy of neoliberal policies, it was hoped that the United States in the new administration would move toward an immigration reform policy that recognizes the connections between harsh and austere economic policies forced on Latin American countries and the migration of people, desperately seeking work, to other countries.

In a January, 2010 document the Council on Hemisphere Affairs (COHA) summarized the condition of United States/Latin American relations when President Obama came into office:

Productive cooperation on a variety of shared regional concerns had been all but ignored by a Bush administration completely distracted by the Iraqi War, and in favor of an approach characterized by confrontation, diplomatic bullying, and the continued pursuit of policies detrimental to the abiding interests of both Latin America and the United States. Apparently recognizing this, Obama brought with him a promise to begin a “new chapter in the story of the Americas,” in which the U.S. leader would follow an inclusive and relevant approach to regional diplomacy, coupled with a pledge to begin matching rhetoric with deeds.” (COHA, January 2010)

Early positive policy initiatives

Some administration initiatives in 2009 indicated that the Obama administration would begin the process of transforming the history of relations with the region. First, the administration loosened restrictions on Cuban American travel to the island, including giving them more rights to transfer funds to their families on the island. This reversed the Bush administration’s policies which reduced rights of travel and monetary transfer of funds from U.S. citizens of Cuban heritage to their relatives.

Second, the word inside the beltway was that this initial policy change on Cuba would be followed in short order by the end of the United States blockade of Cuba.

Third, at a meeting of Hemisphere leaders, President Obama was photographed shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Neoconservatives used the image to prove that Obama was capitulating to Venezuelan Socialism, which was part of the new Cuban/Venezuelan cabal. Moderate observers of U.S. policy, on the other hand, perceived the photo op as an example of the maturing United States policy

Fourth, when military officers and economic elites in Honduras carried out a coup, ejecting one of their own who had begun to improve ties to the Venezuelan-led reform currents in the Hemisphere, the Obama administration, as virtually every regime in the Hemisphere, condemned the military coup. The United States made it clear that military coups, while part of the old political ways in the region, were no longer acceptable. The Organization of American States ejected the illegal regime from the regional grouping.

Colombia: Red carpet for U.S. military bases. Photo from MOIR.

United States Latin American policy:
The more things change the more they stay the same

Much of the Latin American foreign policy agenda progressives expected of the new administration has not been implemented. Despite growing pressure from the left and right, agricultural and tourist interests and spokespersons from major business groups, the blockade of Cuba has not been ended.

The Cuban Five, Cuban citizens tried and convicted illegally for working to uncover terrorist plots targeted against their country, remain in prison. Despite rumors of change, policies prohibiting hundreds of university and high school educational exchanges with Cuba are still in place.

Public statements from foreign policy spokespersons today directed against Cuba have the same Cold War character as those in the past. And the mainstream media continue to characterize the island nation as an archaic dictatorship surviving only because of Venezuelan oil money.

The United States, after the dramatic Obama/Chavez handshake, has continued to publicly condemn the influence of Venezuela in the region, and, by beefing up the Colombian military, has increased tensions between the two neighboring nations.

After an initial credible statement condemning the coup in Honduras, the United States worked to circumvent the ousted Honduran leader from reassuming office and supported a flawed election that the coup plotters orchestrated in November, 2009. Meanwhile violence inside Honduras, targeting anti-government activists and journalists, has risen significantly.

Beltway influentials close to the Honduran business class and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have worked to undermine the continued condemnation of the Honduran coup around the Hemisphere.

The United States has escalated its military presence in the region.

First, the United States and the government of Colombia have initiated a deal to create seven new military bases in Colombia. This clear tilt toward the latter has increased tensions between Colombia and her neighbors to the east and west, Venezuela and Ecuador. The “war on drugs” continues.

Second, with a curious shift in Costa Rican policy, that country has authorized a large U.S. naval presence in Central American coastal waters.

Finally, the pattern of United States economic and military assistance in the region reflects more continuity in U.S. policy than change. For example, COHA points out that between 2008 and 2010 there has been a substantial increase in military and police assistance to the region (from $1.13 billion in 2008 to $1.4 billion in 2010) and a modest decline in economic assistance (from $1.7 in 2008 to $1.64 billion in 2010).

With the establishment of seven new bases in Colombia and the presence of a U.S. naval fleet in the Caribbean, COHA argues, Latin American countries, fearful of declining regional security may be enticed or frightened to purchase more arms, setting off an arms race in the region.

For many years national defense budgets remained virtually unchanged in South America, but reports are surfacing about significant new arms purchases by Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Chile, and Colombia, among others in South America. Whether or not you call it an arms race, the increase is substantial. Led by arms purchases, South America’s defense spending increased by 30 percent from 2007 to 2008, reaching $50 billion.

A progressive agenda for United States foreign policy
in the Western Hemisphere

The vision of a progressive foreign policy agenda for Latin America is clear. The United States must move away from a five hundred year policy of colonialism and neocolonialism; by the Spanish, the Portuguese, the British, and most recently the United States.

The imperial program that emerged with the U.S. occupation of Cuba in the late 19th century to the support of the repressive Colombian regime and the successors to the military junta in Honduras today must be rejected.

Latin American nations must be allowed to choose their own agenda. In fact, experiments with democracy, populism, and 21st century Socialism are experiments from which the United States could learn.

Specifically a progressive Latin American policy should include:

  • an end to arms transfers
  • the elimination of U.S. bases and naval maneuvers in the region
  • withdrawal of support from the corrupt and violent government of Colombia
  • opening up serious dialogue with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and other regimes which have rejected the IMF neo-liberal policies
  • establishing full diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba
  • exonerating the Cuban Five
  • working with Hemisphere nations to develop comprehensive immigration reform that provides work and humane living conditions for migrant workers everywhere
  • establishing dialogue with Hemisphere economic and political institutions that have been created to protect the rights of national self-determination of participating countries

With the changing global role of the United States in the international system and the growing international connections being established between countries of the Global South, including Latin America, progressives must demand that United States foreign policy no longer stand against historical demands for progressive social change.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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1 Response to Harry Targ : Obama and Latin America Just More of the Same

  1. Philip Russell says:

    The one measure the United States could do to really change the perception Latin America has of us is to return the Guantanamo Base—a relic of gunboat diplomacy—to Cuba. That doesn’t just mean close the prison there, and it’s doesn’t mean use the base as a bargaining chip, it means return the base, no strings attached. If that happened, Latin Americans might just feel that things had indeed changed.
    Philip Russell
    Austin, Texas

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