Warning Signs: Mexico and Colombia
Obama's visit to Mexico was a message that U.S. military
allies on the right will remain just that, even with renewed
good relations in the rest of the hemisphere. Pluralism is
fine, but the basis of the relationship with the Mexican and
Colombian right-wing governments poses a threat to the
expressed strategy of non-intervention. Under Plan Colombia
and Plan Mérida, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies
have established a level of intervention and influence in
sovereign affairs that contradicts the promise of "equal
partners" Obama presented at the summit.
These two nations also receive the lion's share of U.S. aid,
most of it military. In addition, the U.S. government has
traditionally overlooked grave human rights violations in
these countries in order to preserve special alliances, while
severely punishing perceived violations in countries less
ideologically aligned. To be consistent with the "new era"
announced at the summit, aid and alliances must be based on
transparent and equitable criteria.
During the summit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met
with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe to discuss the proposed
free-trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations. Obama has
objected to the agreement based on Colombia's record of
assassination of union leaders. Conceding to an FTA with
Colombia would violate both the commitment to human rights in
the hemisphere and to "bottom-up development," supported by
thousands of indigenous and poor Colombians who oppose the
The Obama administration has a chance to build solid and
truly beneficial relations with both countries. But the
foundation of the relationships would need to shift to be
consistent with the values the president expressed at the
summit. This depends on both the Obama administration's next
moves, and the mobilization of U.S. and Colombian civil
Rhetoric or Reality
There are many skeptics among U.S. progressives, who argue
that all this is empty rhetoric. But here, perhaps, we have
something to learn from the right. When President George W.
Bush announced his new national security doctrine, who among
the hawks and neocons complained that it was mere posturing
and that Bush would never really carry out the plan to
project the United States as a global hegemon, defending the
use of unilateral action, first-strikes, and torture? Very
few, as they would have been shooting themselves in the foot.
Instead, by providing Bush with meticulously thought-out
documents and organizing public opinion, they converted a
president who entered the office saying the United States
would play a more modest role on the international scene into
an unabashed champion of planetary empire.
Progressive forces are far from the compact group of powerful
interests and economic elites that created the disastrous
Bush era. And it goes without saying that no principled
person would advocate employing the lies and manipulation of
tragedy that went into selling the Bush Doctrine.
But with an immensely popular president, backed up by
mobilized new sectors of the population throughout the
country willing to work for change, it's sensible to begin by
taking him at his word.
Barack Obama's words at the Summit of the Americas charted a
new course for U.S. foreign policy. They reflected, in many
ways, the directions progressives have been trying to move in
If we really want to see the country move in these
directions, it makes much more sense to push for follow-
through than to sit back and speculate on what the
administration will do. Taking Obama at his word does not
mean we should be complacent. A few examples from his speech
illustrate ways in which we can take action:
Bottom-up development: Free-trade agreements don't create
bottom-up development. This is why the poor are nearly
unanimously opposed to them, as seen in Colombian "minga" 
demonstrations against the free trade agreement and the
Mexican 2006 elections. U.S. citizens should oppose the
Colombian FTA  based not only on labor rights but also
because it's the wrong kind of development, particularly in
times of crisis. NAFTA should be renegotiated to create a
more equitable distribution of wealth in Mexico and enhance
labor rights, and a moratorium on free trade agreements 
should be established, pending a full review of impact and
reforms of the NAFTA model.
Reform multilateral financial organizations: If these
institutions are recapitalized as major actors in confronting
the crisis, they must be reformed to prevent the errors of
the past. Fixing problems of skewed representation,
conditionality, and negative lending priorities will be a
huge task. U.S. citizen groups can join  with Latin
American organizations to make a difference.
Regulation: The Obama government didn't emerge as a champion
of regulation at the recent G-20 meeting . U.S. citizens
must organize to insist on regulation to avert future crises
and curtail illicit fortunes made off speculation. One place
to start is by regulating commodity speculation  that led
to the food crisis.
The Fifth Summit of the Americas showed a tenuous coming to
terms among nations in a new political and economic context,
reflected in the fact that the obsolete declaration was
signed only by the host country. But Latin American countries
were willing to give the new U.S. president the benefit of
the doubt, and prepare to engage in tough political
negotiation and dialogue. Their response to this "new era" in
hemispheric relations serves as a good lesson in strategy for
advocates of U.S. foreign policy reform in the United States.
It's important to remember too that timing is a crucial part
of politics. Most of the reforms proposed are vague, fall
short of what is needed, or are even counter-productive. At a
time of economic crisis in the United States, this doesn't
mean abandoning pressure for needed reforms, but we do need
to understand the support among the public is an essential
aspect of reform. That is a job for the citizen groups that
have so long fought for a new U.S. foreign policy.
These actions would form a much more constructive strategy
than naysaying and sterile debates over whether or not the
three-month-old Obama administration is sincere.
© 2009 Foreign Policy In Focus
[Laura Carlsen (lcarlsen(at) ciponline.org) is director of the
Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org ) in
Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two
decades. She is also a Foreign Policy In Focus