The Candidates and Latin America

With an increasing number of presidential primaries occurring around the country in the very early part of 2008, those of us concerned with Latin America are forced into an earlier-than-ever examination of the candidates’ stances on foreign policy. Though we might have expected that Latin America would be overshadowed entirely by the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or emerge only in the context of immigration, hemispheric relations have come up surprisingly often in early campaigning. So what do the candidates talk about when they discuss Latin America? In a word, Chávez.

Christy Thornton

With an increasing number of presidential primaries occurring around the country in the very early part of 2008, those of us concerned with Latin America are forced into an earlier-than-ever examination of the candidates’ stances on foreign policy. Though we might have expected that Latin America would be overshadowed entirely by the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or emerge only in the context of immigration, hemispheric relations have come up surprisingly often in early campaigning. So what do the candidates talk about when they discuss Latin America? In a word, Chávez.

Perhaps the most high-profile example came after a Democratic debate in South Carolina in July, during which Illinois senator Barack Obama said that, if elected, he would meet with the leaders of “rogue states” like Iran, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton went on the immediate offensive against Obama, saying she would not meet personally with Castro or Chávez in her first year because, as she said rather cryptically, she didn’t want “to be used for propaganda purposes.” An intense, if brief, media frenzy followed, in which the “rogue” nature of the Cuban and Venezuelan states was a recurrent theme. (Nevermind that earlier in the year, after she made remarks about the use of record oil-company profits to further alternative energy research, one commentator called Clinton “Hugo Chavez in a pantsuit.”)

The Democrats are not alone in obsessing over Chávez’s Venezuela. When it was revealed in March that Rudy Giuliani’s Texas law firm was to be paid up to a quarter million dollars for lobbying in Houston on behalf of Citgo—which is, of course, the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company—the Giuliani camp issued a statement that read, in part, “Giuliani believes Hugo Chavez is not a friend of the United States, and his influence continues to grow because of our increasing reliance on foreign sources of oil.” It’s clear that the former New York City mayor saw no contradiction in decrying the influence of foreign oil while his firm represented, well, foreign oil.

And Giuliani has much company among the Republican candidates. John McCain’s campaign Web site featured an online petition calling for support in his quest to “stop the dictators of Latin America,” and which called for the ouster of Chávez “in the name of democracy and freedom throughout our hemisphere.” (To whom this petition would be addressed was unclear; it was since taken down.) In a March news conference in Miami’s Little Havana, McCain stressed that “everyone should understand the connections” between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez. “They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other,” he said. “It’s very disturbing.”

Equally disturbed is Mitt Romney, who in July, on Venezuela’s Independence Day, issued a statement decrying the “troubling times in Venezuela,” where, according to Romney, “Chavez continues his methodical assault on . . . his people’s freedom.” Earlier in the year, Romney had announced the formation of a Latin America Policy Advisory Group, which includes the likes of Ambassador Roger Noriega, a former aide to Jesse Helms who is accused of involvement in the ouster of Aristide and who publicly applauded the coup against Chávez; former representative Cass Ballanger and the American Enterprise Institute’s Mark Falcoff, both active Contra supporters and members of Reagan’s Commission on Central America, led by Henry Kissinger; and heavyweight lobbyists Al Cardenas, the former Chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, and Jorge L. Arrizurieta, a Bush “Pioneer” and top proponent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. All in all, Romney’s Latin America advisers number a stunning 10 out of the 25 national security and foreign policy “wonks” affiliated with his campaign, as listed by The Washington Post. How does that compare with the other campaigns? Both Giuliani and McCain have one Latin America–affiliated adviser. The Democrats? Not a single one between them.

But Romney’s plethora of Latin America advisers—whom he brought together in a blatant attempt to secure votes in the Republican battleground of Florida—does not mean that his campaign is more focused on Latin America than the other leading contenders for the White House. Foreign Affairs recently published essays by the top six candidates, meant to provide a comprehensive look into the foreign policy objectives of each. Romney’s essay was the shortest of the bunch, coming in at 5,046 words, a whopping 23 of which were concerned with Latin America. Ten advisers, 23 words.

His wasn’t the least concerned with the region, however; John Edwards devoted a mere 12 of his 5,250 words on “Reengaging with the World” to Latin America, while devoting almost 800 to “strengthening the military.” (A review of Edwards’s list of foreign policy advisers reveals that nine of the 11 listed are in his “Military Advisory Group.”) Similarly, Obama devoted around 20 vague, bromidic words specifically to Latin America, while Clinton, Giuliani and McCain each managed to prepare an entire paragraph on hemispheric relations. Clinton’s contribution insists that “we have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America,” while Giuliani laments the “inevitable path to greater statism” being forged in Bolivia and Venezuela, and McCain airs the conservatives’ dirty laundry list of policy prescriptions: “marginalizing” the “nefarious” influence of Chávez, preparing for a “transition to democracy” in Cuba, defeating drug cartels in Mexico, and implementing the FTAA.

So what should we take away from all of this pandering to Miami and posturing on Chávez? In short, more of the same failed policies we’ve seen since the end of the Cold War. It’s clear that those of us counting the days until the end of the Bush administration should not expect significant change in Latin America policy to come from the White House—no matter who wears the pantsuit.


Christy Thornton is NACLA's director and publisher.
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