The Obama administration admits its approach must change, as Latin American countries unite against the US
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 6 May 2009 19.00 BST
Three years ago I wrote an article arguing that the political changes sweeping across Latin America were epoch-making and probably irreversible, and that they would fundamentally alter the relationship between the region and the United States. Some of the most important economic causes of the region's shift to the left – including the unprecedented long-term growth failure since 1980 – were unrecognised then and remain mostly unacknowledged to this day.
At the time, Washington's stated strategy was to isolate Venezuela from its neighbours. This was before the election of additional left governments in Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Paraguay and El Salvador. I argued that this strategy was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening in the region, and that it would only succeed in isolating the United States from its southern neighbours.
All this has come to pass, but more interestingly, for the first time we have an acknowledgement of this failure from the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. At a press conference last Friday, she said in response to a question about Venezuela:
When we look around the world, actually, we see a number of countries and leaders – Chávez is one of them but not the only one – who, over the last eight years, has become more and more negative and oppositional to the United States. ... The prior administration tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to ... turn them into international pariahs. It didn't work.
This is a remarkable confession, and it didn't get a fraction of the attention it deserved. Clinton did not name the countries, but in Latin America, Bolivia would have to be included as a country where Washington has incurred resentment by supporting opposition movements against President Evo Morales. And of course there is the 47-year failure of the embargo against Cuba:
"We're facing an almost united front against the United States regarding Cuba. Every country, even those with whom we are closest, is just saying you've got to change."
She didn't mention that they are also saying that Washington must change its policy toward Venezuela. President Lula da Silva of Brazil, who has consistently defended Hugo Chávez, has told Barack Obama as much and reportedly counselled him at the Summit of the Americas not to listen to his advisers – most of whom have appeared to seek continued hostility toward Venezuela and possibly Bolivia.
It is remarkable that pressure for a reality-based view of the world has had to come from the south, and says a lot about the state of civil society in the US. How is it that nobody from our leading foreign policy institutions could have figured this out years ago? On Cuba, there has been dissent – partly because there are powerful business interests that want access to the island, and partly because 47 years of failure is a long time even for slow learners.
But on Venezuela, the primary focus of US foreign policy in the hemisphere for the past seven years, there has been an overwhelming consensus of fantasy and hype. Chávez is the only democratically elected leader in the world, facing a media that is still overwhelmingly controlled by his political opposition, to be successfully maligned as a "dictator". And a threat to the US – what exactly has he done to the US, anyway, other than provide a $100m annual subsidy to poor people here for heating oil?
The sad reality is that while the US has at least some civil society organisations that can present an independent view to the public on domestic issues, on foreign policy issues we are much more like Russia. The vast majority of expert opinion on foreign policy that is allowed access to major media in the US consists of government officials, former government officials or people who or are otherwise influenced by the government. This is one reason why it was so easy to invade Iraq and so difficult to get out of there or out of Afghanistan – in spite of the American public's long-standing lack of enthusiasm for sending combat troops overseas.
Hillary Clinton also took note that Russia, Iran and China are gaining economic and political influence in Latin America, and recognised that we are operating in "a multi-polar world." This is also obvious – China has recently invested billions in Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador, and agreed to a $10bn currency swap arrangement with Argentina. This week China also passed the US as the number one recipient of Brazilian exports. But Clinton's recognition of a "multi-polar world" is unusual and probably unprecedented for a US secretary of state.
The signals from Washington remain mixed. The state department last week took another gratuitous swipe at Venezuela, listing the country as a "terrorist safe haven", among other unsubstantiated allegations. (A few days later, Venezuela deported five Colombian guerillas to their home country). Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summers recently made a point of saying that Argentina would not qualify for the IMF's flexible credit line, from which Mexico had just received a $47bn commitment.
Washington is the IMF's principal overseer. Mexico and Brazil also each have access to a $30bn currency swap arrangement with the US Federal Reserve. These are large commitments, and a reminder that Washington is still using its clout in a time of crisis to play political favourites, rather than contributing to regional balance of payments support.
But Clinton's unprecedented reality-based remarks are an indication that she and Obama may have taken home some important lessons from their conversations with other presidents at the Summit of the Americas on 22 April. Such new thinking would be long overdue.