Not Just Change, but Justice: Taking On Policy in the Obama Era

January 9, 2009

A few days before Thanksgiving, the Brookings Institution, reflecting the views of a broad swath of U.S. officialdom, issued a lengthy report calling for substantial changes in U.S. Latin America policy. The report identified several abject policy “failures,” changes to which could be happily embraced by NACLA Report readers. These included ending “counterproductive” (to U.S. interests) policies like the economic blockade and political isolation of Cuba and the U.S.-sponsored drug war. On the other hand, the call for immediately implementing anti-labor free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama—to maintain U.S. “credibility”—will be less warmly received by the NACLA community, since it violates all the social justice standards we have set.

What Latin America needs is not change that would enhance U.S. interests, but a healthy dose of social justice. The region suffers from astounding inequality. In Bolivia, according to the UN Development Program (UNDP), the ratio of income received by the richest 10% of the population to the poorest 10% is 168 to one, making it the most income-unequal country in the world. Ten Latin American countries are among the next 15 on the UNDP’s rankings, vying for second place among the “most unequal.” Inequality between countries is also immense. According to LatinFocus, about 70% of the region’s GDP is produced by just two countries, Brazil and Mexico. And IMF figures show that GDP per capita in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela is more than double that of most of the countries of Central America and the Caribbean.

Any policy agenda for the Americas — one that promotes economic development, inclusive social policies, equal access to resources and infrastructure, and genuine democratic participation — must begin with these hard facts. And it must take into account that all this exists under the careful watch of the United States, whose influence in the region, the Brookings report laments, is slipping away. The long-standing U.S. pursuit of its own interests across the region must be held at least partially responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

Our intention in this Report is to take on policy by asking two very difficult questions: first, “What might a progressive U.S. policy agenda look like?” Second, “What can we, progressive U.S. activists, contribute to the debates over the policies and political mobilizations that can bring us closer to such an agenda?”

In both cases we tread the line between, on one side, getting co-opted by proposals for “soft power” or “imperialism with a human face,” and, on the other, seeming to take the position that until capitalism and imperialism are thoroughly transformed, there is nothing to be done and nothing useful to say. In order to explicitly confront these dilemmas, we kicked off this project in September by recording a roundtable discussion in the NACLA offices among some of our contributors on the utility and validity of producing such a Report. We open with an edited version of that discussion, which critically assessed both U.S. policy and the very nature of “policy” itself.

The roundtable is followed by seven brief essays on specific aspects of U.S. policy. The authors in this Report take two different approaches to these questions. On the one hand is an approach that searches for the openings that allow us to influence the national debate, not simply by supporting the “least worst” options, but by suggesting viable progressive alternatives and supporting some valuable, winnable demands. On the other hand is an approach “from below,” the argument that grassroots struggles—and solidarity among equals—can best bring about meaningful progressive transformation. To this end, we have included information on on-going grassroots campaigns here in the United States throughout the Report.

Greg Grandin (the U.S. approach to sovereignty), Matías Vernengo (economic policy), Lesley Gill (relations with Colombia), and Roger Burbach (relations with Bolivia) focus on state-level policy proposals. The theme of policy making from below is taken up by Deborah Poole in her essay on grassroots movements in the Andes, as well as by Jane Guskin and David Wilson on immigration policy, and Dan LaBotz on labor policy.
This discussion is only just beginning—NACLA, together with the Latin America Solidarity Coalition, will be holding events throughout the country this spring that will further examine these questions and develop an agenda for grassroots action. For more information, visit We hope you’ll join us in our struggle to bring not just change, but justice, to U.S. policy in the Americas.


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