Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Obama could do better on Latin America

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

Progressives for Obama - May 26, 2008

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

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

"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

"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 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

"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."]


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