Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama Can Do Better on Latin America

Photo: Bolivia's Morales,
Venezuela's Chavez

Obama vs McCain
On Latin America:
Good Start, Many Flaws

Obama's speech is a call for direct dialogue and new trade deals with Latin America, but continued counterinsurgency in Columbia, tensions with Venezuela

By Tom Hayden

Barack Obama called last week for new Latin American policies in his first major policy declaration towards the region.

The speech was classic Obama, substantive, centrist, subtle, and pragmatic, above all drawing a sharp difference between Obama's support for "direct diplomacy" versus John McCain's status quo policies towards Cuba and the region.

As a measure of how far the anti-Castro Cubans have shifted towards the center, Obama's speech was praised by his Miami hosts, the Cuban American National Foundation.

As a measure of Obama's own evolution to the center from the left, however, Obama committed himself to maintaining the economic embargo of Cuba which he questioned when he ran for the US Senate in 2004.

Nevertheless, the speech will be well-received in progressive circles as a breakthrough from past policies aimed at isolation and undermining of the Cuban government. Obama also cited Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and "good neighbor" policies several times, a course proposed recently by the Progressives for Obama network*:

"What all of us strive for is freedom as FDR described it. Political freedom. Religious freedom. But also freedom from want, and freedom from fear. At our best, the United States has been a force for these four freedoms in the Americas. But if we're honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that at times we've failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner... "We cannot ignore suffering to our south, nor stand for the globalization of the empty stomach. Responsibility rests with governments in the region, but we must do our part. I will substantially increase our aid to the Americas, and embrace the Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty by 2015...

"We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom. It's time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries. "Yet while there has been great economic progress, there is still back-breaking inequality. Despite a growing middle class, 100 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and 40 percent of Latin Americans live in poverty. This feeds everything from drugs, to migration, to support for leaders that appeal to the poor without delivering on their promises...That is why the United States must stand for growth in the Americas from the bottom up."

This rhetoric is sure to be welcomed as well, after many years of failed US efforts to impose corporate trade policies on Central and Latin America through NAFTA, CAFTA and the derailed FTAA. However, in the absence of government spending and regulatory measures - from Latin America, the US and wealthier nations - the Obama proposals imply a continuation of private sector economic development and modest gestures like micro-loans, education and job-training, and small business development.

But while these are positive, if cautious, policy steps, the dangerous flaw in Obama's speech was his apparent commitment to supporting the US counterinsurgency war In Columbia, secretive drug wars across the continent, and a veiled threat against Venezuela:

"We will fully support Colombia's fight against the FARC. We'll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation, and - if need be - strong sanctions. It must not stand."

It should be obvious to Obama that these approaches may likely fail like the US embargo of Cuba. The US is in retreat in Latin America, its trade proposals derailed and its last military base being closed in Ecuador. But like his pledges to send more troops to Afghanistan and even attack jihadists in Pakistan [in violation of that country's declared opposition], Obama proposes to continue US military intervention in Colombia's civil war even to the point of supporting cross-border raids into Venezuela or Ecuador.

Towards Venezuela, Obama is burdened with the contradictions of the liberal national security hawks, admitting that Hugo Chavez was elected democratically but asserting that Chavez doesn't "govern democratically." Obama ignores Venezuela's own successful "bottom up" efforts to alleviate poverty with public investments from its national oil company. He further ignores Venezuela's own voters' recent ballot box rejection of a sweeping Chavez initiative. Like many liberal hawks, Obama differs with the Bush Administration's attacks on Chavez because they are ineffective:

"Yet the Bush Administration's blustery condemnations and clumsy attempts to undermine Chavez have only strengthened his hand."

Not a word about US complicity in the attempted coup against Chavez, nor the remarkable Venezuelan mass movement that resisted that coup. In the extreme discomfort of American centrists, including the media, at accepting the democratically-chosen government of Venezuela with all its various shortcomings, one can see a lingering imperial assumption beneath all rhetoric to the contrary. It can be said, of course, that Chavez, with his own blustering rhetoric, doesn't make liberal centrist acceptance easier. But there is an understandable history here, not only the old history of Conquest and Monroe Doctrine, but the immediate history of the 2002 attempted overthrow of Chavez with American complicity.

If Barack Obama can ask us to better understand the black anger of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, surely he himself should be able to understand the volcanic rage which echoes in voices like those of Hugo Chavez and, before him, Fidel Castro, across Latin America. According to sources in Caracas and Havana, Hugo Chavez himself may privately dismiss all this Venezuela-bashing as mere US election year posturing. "If it helps Obama get elected, okay, we'll talk later", in the paraphrase of one close observer. But Obama could sink himself in a US counterinsurgency quagmire in Columbia, which could spiral into greater tensions with Venezuela and Ecuador. He seems to believe Colombia is America's democratic gift to Latin America, when most in the region view it as the client state serving as an outpost of Yanqui military intervention.

There is a better alternative that Obama and his advisers ignore, the distinct possibility that the anti-government guerrilla movement in Columbia [FARC] is being gradually convinced to evolve into a political force, as the IRA did in Northern Ireland. The FARC was born in a time of civil wars and military juntas across the continent, but in recent years many [former] revolutionary and guerilla leaders have swept to power democratically, from Nicaragua to Uruguay to Bolivia. The conditions for transforming the armed conflict in Colombia into a political one, while difficult, have never been more favorable. A negotiated political outcome is in the interests of Columbia, Venezuela, Cuba and neighboring countries.

But that prospect will be dimmed if if an Obama administration continues promoting a one-sided victory a Uribe government riddled with its own death squads and drug traffickers, protected with American money, American arms and US Special Forces. [The recent extradiction of several Columbia drug traffickers to the US was an effort to secure a trade deal, not to change the essential character of the regime in Bogota]. To make matters worse, Obama endorses the drug war paradigm that street gangs are the new enemy:

"As President, I'll make it clear that we're coming after the guns, we're coming after the money laundering, and we're coming after the vehicles that enable this crime. And we'll crack down on the demand for drugs in our own communities, and restore funding for drug task forces and the COPS program. We must win the fights on our own streets if we're going to secure the region."
This formulation is upside down. Street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street are symptomatic of the overall crisis of poverty, discrimination and repression in which the US has collaborated in Central and Latin America. These particular street gangs were created in places like Los Angeles among hundreds of thousands of child refugees of the US-sponsored Central American wars. They formed gangs for security and identity, they become involved in the drug trade because there were no legitimate job opportunities for undocumented exiles, and they became violent because they were born and raised in the trauma of war.

Of course, it is legitimate both in terms of policy and politics for Obama to defend a law enforcement approach as part of the mix, but a war on gangs, like a war on drugs, is hopeless, counter-productive and immoral without a war on the greed that is devouring hundreds of millions of young people in Latin America. The funding to "win the fights on our own streets" would eclipse any budgets for jobs or education for inner city youth. The irony should not forgotten either that the US has been involved in corruption, dictatorships and the drug trade, from the casinos of Havana in the 1950s to cocaine sales on the streets of LA that funded weapons for the Contras in the 1980s.

Finally, Obama's vision of the region as a more equal partnership will be tested by the ambitious energy development plan dropped into his speech, The rhetoric appears balanced, but in the context of existing power relationships the outcome could deepen Latin America's role, once again, as a resource colony of the United States.

"We'll allow industrial emitters to offset a portion of this cost by investing in low carbon energy projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. And we'll increase research and development across the Americas in clean coal technology, in the next generation of sustainable biofuels not taken from food crops, and in wind and solar energy. We'll enlist the World Bank, the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Development Bank to support these investments, and ensure that these projects enhance natural resources like land, wildlife, and rain forests. We'll finally enforce environmental standards in our trade deals."

The best that can be said of this speech is that it's a brave beginning, a break from Bush, and that the progressive changes sweeping Latin America hopefully may educate and move Obama towards a far greater partnership project than he now envisions. Obama, it should be emphasized, has never been to Latin America, and his book, Audacity of Hope, passes over the region in its chapter on "The World Beyond Our Borders", even though it was written at a time of democratic upheaval across the continent.

The lack of a powerful progressive Latin American lobby in the US, combined with his lack of engagement there, means Obama will be surrounded by advisers who believe the US is the hegemon. By comparison, FDR was bolder than Obama in his "good neighbor" policy. He rejected US military interventions, and supported Mexico's nationalization of its oil resources against the lobbying pressure of the US multinationals. Obama's position is reminiscent of the early John Kennedy, who trapped himself at the Bay of Pigs, glamorized the Special Forces, and offered a centrist Alliance for Progress as America's answer to the Cuban model in Latin America. Instead of yielding reform, the mano duro policies of dictatorships and death squads swept the region with US support and training for repressive army and police forces.

Now that Latin America, on its own, has swept those dictatorships away and is following its own democratic path, it is presumptuous of Obama to propose himself as the protector of Latin America from Hugo Chavez, guerrillas and drug lords, all of them symptomatic responses to US policies over many decades.

[* NOTE. In its founding call, Progressives for Obama demanded a new Good Neighbor policy towards Latin America, as follows: "Nor can we impose NAFTA-style trade agreements on so many nations that seek only to control their own national resources and economic destinies. We cannot globalize corporate and financial power over democratic values and institutions. Since the Clinton Administration pushed through NAFTA against the Democratic majority in Congress, one Latin American nation after another has elected progressive governments that reject US trade deals and hegemony. We are isolated in Latin America by our Cold War and drug war crusades, by the $500 million counter-insurgency in Columbia, support for the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, and the ineffectual blockade of Cuba. We need to return to the Good Neighbor policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, which rejected Yankee military intervention and accepted Mexico's right to nationalize its oil in the face of industry opposition. The pursuit of NAFTA-style trade policies inflames our immigration crisis as well, by uprooting countless campesinos who inevitably seek low-wage jobs north of the border in order to survive. We need balanced and democratically-approved trade agreements that focus on the needs of workers, consumers and the environment. The Banana Republic is a retail chain, not an American colony protected by the Monroe Doctrine."]


BigAssBelle said...

i was disappointed to hear Obama's anti-chavez stance. i keep alive a tiny little hope that Obama's taking a more conservative path because he must. given the level of brainwashing of the american public, it's doubtful any true liberal could win an election here, even though left-leaning policies are of greater benefit to the average citizen. crazy times.

Bill Baar said...

World is well on the way towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals and the economic growth from free trade in Asia is a big reason.

Listen to Tim Garton Ash's interview a few years ago on WBEZ in The Future of U.S.-European Relations.

Ash said the the best thing Europe and the US could do to alleviate world poverty would be to drop our Agricultural subsidies and open our markets to the the impoverished world.

Too invoke FDR's Four Freedoms about Cuba without mentioning the stories of political priosoners there is very sad. Getting internet to Cuba took real struggle by Cyber Radicals.

Please read David Osler's Cuba and socialist democracy for a more sober analysis of the place,

Perhaps the clearest reason for socialists not to go starry-eyed over the place is the massive social weight of the Cuban armed forces, so typical for Latin America. That is probably the real significance of Fidel’s Castro decision to hand over power to kid brother Raul. Power stays with the guys that dress up in olive green.

Carl Davidson said...

I wouldn't worry about Raul and those Cuban soldiers too much, Bill. After all, it's not like they not facing an external threat from 'Big Brother' to the North every day. Eliminate that, and I'm sure the Cubans will find better ways to spend their money.

Likewise with 'political prisoners.' Last time Fidel emptied his jails and sent them all to Miami, things didn't go to well, did they? Watch what you wish for.

Cuba's already on the path to reform on many critical matters, especially economic. Some social as well, as in the new campaign vs homophobia. I'd guess more will follow, without you and me wagging our fingers.

Best we launch a democracy campaign in our own country--how about allowing fusion, instant runoff, proportional representation and such for starters? But as I heard one wag put it on NPR, 'We can't allow that. It would undermine our two party system."


Bill Baar said...

Best we launch a democracy campaign in our own country--how about allowing fusion, instant runoff, proportional representation and such for starters?

Or count the votes from Florida and Michigan?

Considering Obama's success in the caucuses which are about the most unprogressive thing I can think off... no secret ballot, discriminates against those who work shifts... and then the notion of Super Delegates i.e. Party Bosses... I can't think of a goofier and undemocratic system then what the Democrats have engineered for themselves.

And it can't even result in an outcome...

...this whole count-the-votes frame is a loser for Democrats now given their current pickle.

Carl Davidson said...

You won't get much argument from me, I'm not even a Democrat.

But I also think it's unfair to change the rules, whatever they are, in the middle of the game, unless by mutual agreement.

Do you doubt for a moment, that if positions were reversed, and Hillary was ahead, that she wouldn't be singing a different tune on Florida and Michigan?

I'd prefer a national open primary on one day, with preferential balloting and instant runoff. That's the most rational and the most democratic in terms of the voters themselves--and also probably why we won't see it for a good long time.

Bill Baar said...


We pretty much agree on your last comment.

I think there is some advantage to staggering the primaries in regional groups. That gives some time for candidates and ideas to unfold.

Anonymous said...

Obama spoke to the Cuban American National Foundation to establish his imperialist bona fides. Lets not kid ourselves that this is some sort of fake-out. Chavez et al are a threat to US global hegemony and an Obama administration will treat them accordingly. Lets be absolutely clear that what Obama is about is the domestic and global relegitimation of the existing US corporate-dominated order. That doesn't mean there aren't reasons to support him anyway, but lets do it without these silly sorts of illusions.

Carol Gulyas said...

Carl, can you share exactly what you are doing to counter the whisper campaigns? Are you referring people to the Obama website "stop the smears" link? Or do you have text of a flyer that works best for the audience you are reaching in Western PA? I have had these kinds of questions myself from people in Indiana.

Carl Davidson said...

Hi Carol

It's and yes, I use it as well as

Actually, I read them regularly myself, so I'm up on the latest, then talk with people when they come up.

Then use the label form in Word and print up a bunch with the two links, and hand them out, telling people, 'Here, you don't have to take my word for it. You can check up on these sorts of things yourself.'

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