latin protester

A University student wears a mask with the face of President Obama during a protest against his visit at El Salvador del Mundo square in San Salvador, on March 22, 2011. Obama was on the last leg of a three-nation tour of Latin America. (Photo by Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

Losing Latin America

America’s ‘backyard’ has never been so united and independent of U.S. influence.

BY Steve Ellner

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President Obama's abandonment of the liberal tradition in his stance on Latin America has been driven by the perceived need to placate rightist critics.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama pressed for quick passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, and since then has followed up on the proposal. In doing so he has delighted Republicans who had been accusing him of failing to prioritize the issue. In his January speech, Obama made no reference to his unequivocal concern over human rights violations which he had raised in his third presidential debate with McCain.

Since 2008, little has improved to justify Obama’s reversal. Human Rights Watch has reported a 41 percent increase in the number of victims in 2010 over the previous year, including the murder of 44 trade unionists. In the first six weeks of 2011, death squads assassinated three more labor activists.

In an attempt to assure members of U.S. Congress that progress is being made, on April 7 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Obama announced from the White House the approval of an “Action Plan,” whereby the Colombian government pledged to take stringent measures to curb abuses. Many Colombian trade union leaders, however, refused to buy into the arrangement and expressed skepticism about their government’s resolve. Tarsicio Mora, president of the Unitary Workers Confederation (CUT), objected by saying, “It just can’t be that respect for a basic right established in the constitution, such as the right to life, has to be required by a commercial transaction.”

Obama’s new stand has also failed to win over U.S. trade unionists. In January, Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen argued against the agreement by pointing out that 15 million Colombians representing 82 percent of the working population are not recognized as workers and thus under the law “have no rights.”

Obama’s change–from opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia, to lukewarm endorsement of it, to vigorous support–is just one example of his turnabout on Latin American policy. His modified stand distances Washington from an important bloc of Latin American governments and contributes to the decline of the U.S. leadership position in the hemisphere.

Up until his early months in office, Obama appeared to be following the path of liberal Democrats dating back to the 1930s. The liberal tradition on foreign policy toward Latin America was in many ways attractive. Key features included respect for the plurality of ideas – shown by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s acceptance of Mexican nationalism and its nationalization of oil in 1938; the Kennedy administration’s call to “complete the revolution of the Americas” through taxing the wealthy and land reform; and the suspension of aid by the Carter administration to several Latin American governments to protest human rights violation even though they were on the U.S. side in the Cold War.

During the presidential campaign, Obama not only stepped into this liberal tradition but defied the Democratic Party mainstream with positions different from those of his then-rival Hillary Clinton. Obama boldly proposed to meet with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and other Washington adversaries. At the same time he declared “I think our foreign policy is all messed up” and promised a “new direction” in Latin American relations.

Under the Obama administration, the United States finds its historically unrivaled position in the continent challenged on a number of fronts. This July, a summit in Caracas will formally inaugurate the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) to group the 32 nations south of the Rio Grande and serve as a parallel organization to the traditionally U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Furthermore, in recent years of modest economic growth, Latin American nations have broadened commercial ties with nations outside of traditional spheres of U.S. influence, such as Russia, Iran and especially China. In 2010, China’s direct non-financial investments abroad increased 36 percent, most of which went to Asia and Latin America, while the Asian powerhouse displaced Europe as Latin America’s second largest trading partner (after the United States).

Obama, however, has failed to take bold moves to face the challenge. During his largely uneventful five-day tour of Latin America in March he did little to reverse the unfavorable trends. A statement of condemnation, or at least recognition, of the United States’ long and sorry record of intervention would have represented a good first step in treating Latin American nations as “equal partners” – a pledge made by the president that created great expectations.

Instead, when asked by a Chilean journalist about Washington’s role in the overthrow of Salvador Allende, Obama evaded the question. Furthermore, in Brazil, Obama failed to put forward concrete proposals to deal with the issue consistently raised by the Brazilians, namely U.S. agricultural subsidies and other practices that close the world’s largest market for Latin American goods.

Capitulation to the Right on Honduras

Obama’s abandonment of the liberal tradition in his stance on Latin America has been driven by the perceived need to placate rightist critics. Events following the overthrow of Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009 put in evidence both the right’s clout and Obama’s failure to check the loss of U.S. influence. The Obama administration caved into pressure from Tea Partier Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who justified the coup on grounds that Zelaya – along with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega – were “would-be tyrants and dictators.”

In response to DeMint’s threat to block ratification by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of two key State Department appointments for Latin America, the Obama administration did another about-face. In late 2009, it went from condemnation of the overthrow of Zelaya and support for his return to power to endorsement of the elections sponsored by the coup leaders. Council of the Americas Policy Director Christopher Sabatini gave the South Carolina senator major credit for the change of policy, adding “DeMint’s role has been disproportionate to his interest in Latin America.”

The Obama administration had other options. It could have bypassed the senate committee by attempting to muster 60 votes on the senate floor, or else make the appointments when Congress was out of session, as Bush had done with his selection of John Bolton as UN ambassador. But either move would have meant giving up Obama’s much preferred style of “consensus politics.”

Since then the United States has been locked in an impasse over the issue of the democratic credentials of the Honduran government. In spite of Secretary of State Clinton’s active diplomacy, she has made little headway in convincing a group of Latin American governments to accept Honduras into the community of nations. The latest slap in the face to Honduran President Porfirio Lobo occurred in January when he was the only Latin American head of state to be excluded from the inauguration of Brazil President Dilma Rousseff.

The current battleground is the Organization of American States, which had suspended Honduras following the coup. A bloc of moderate South American governments including Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have joined the more leftist ones of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in opposing Honduras’s re-admission. The moderates have conditioned their affirmative vote on allowing Zelaya to return to the country, restoring his political rights and lifting charges against him.

The State Department has pressured Honduran political players behind the scenes to meet these conditions, but the rightists in Honduras (although not Lobo himself) insist on Zelaya’s prosecution on charges of abuse of power. In attempting to break the impasse, the State Department is working at cross purposes with Republican hardliners. Florida Congressman David Rivera, for instance, stated in January: “The United States should be encouraging Honduras to embrace their democratic system, and not to absolve former President Manuel Zelaya of criminal charges or allow him to return to Honduras.”

U.S. efforts on behalf of Lobo ignore the evidence that violation of human rights has gone unabated under his rule (see “Campesinos Rising in Honduras” in In These Times’ March 2011 issue). In December, Human Rights Watch documented dozens of abuses in 2010, including the assassination of 18 journalists and human rights activists and called on the government to “finalize the impunity.” To date, nobody has been held criminally responsible for the atrocities committed since the coup.

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Steve Ellner, who began teaching at the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela in 1977, is currently an adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University's. His latest book is Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chavez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner Publishers).

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