As Election Day draws near, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama repeatedly have focused their attention on such key foreign policy issues as the Iraq War and the global financial crisis. U.S. policy toward Latin America, on the other hand, has been notoriously absent from figuring in recent presidential debates or stump speeches, as both candidates seek to win over last-minute voters by reiterating their campaign platforms on domestic and foreign policy topics of high public concern. An exception to this was Obama’s brief reference to the Colombian government’s seeming indifference to the killing of labor leaders in that country with impunity, mentioned in the last presidential debate.
Nonetheless, Barack Obama has developed his policy agenda on U.S.-Latin American relations throughout the course of his presidential campaign. Beginning with an appearance at the Cuban-American National Foundation in May 2008, he set forth the proposal that the U.S. should foster a new era of hemispheric relations based upon mutual understanding and respect for national sovereignty. Similarly, the Senate voting record of vice presidential candidate Joe Biden reveals his position on regional matters, which over the years has seldom strayed from a standard approach to regional issues. This is not to suggest that there was a golden age sometime in the past when pundits came forth with erudite perceptions on how to advance enlightened U.S. regional policies fostering constructive engagement and a quest for equality and social justice.
The Obama Platform on Latin America
America is not only a member of the hemispheric chorus, but a player as well. Barack Obama’s first serious effort at exhibiting a position on U.S. policy toward Latin America occurred in May 2008. Following an appearance at the Cuban-American National Foundation, a conservative Miami exile group, Obama released his 13-page “A New Partnership for the Americas” plan, which outlines three major regional policy issues that his administration would tackle if elected to office: (1) political freedom/democracy, (2) freedom from fear/security, and (3) freedom from want/opportunity.
Obama’s aim to foster political freedom within the hemisphere relies on the necessity of governments to address the needs of their people “in a democratic and sustainable way.” Obama has stated that he will promote the expansion and reform of democratic institutions, and has stressed that the U.S. must work with democratic-left governments (including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez). U.S.-Latin American relations under the Bush administration have languished as a result of “a misguided foreign policy with a myopic focus in Iraq…its policy in the Americas has been negligent to our friends,” Obama says. The U.S. must now re-establish a relationship with Latin America based on its willingness to promote democratic development, and abandon the tradition of supporting only those regimes which directly advance the U.S.’s narrowly defined national interests. In addition, according to the candidate, the U.S. must refrain from tying personal relationships to foreign policy initiatives, as epitomized by President Bush’s close ties with his ideological soul-mate, Colombia’s President Uribe. According to Obama, the strengthening of democracy will at its core address the protection of human rights, as well as support the rejection of de facto coups and autocratic practices. The U.S. will foster democratic institutions by strengthening democracy at home – habeas corpus will be restored, Guantanamo Bay will be closed, and torture and indefinite detention will end. Within Latin America, strong civil societies, accountable police forces, and organizational transparency will be promoted. Nonetheless, critics on the left of Obama’s Latin America program contend that his proposals neglect to effectively engage some of the most challenging new developments emerging in the hemisphere, despite the fact that Obama has attempted to break with prevailing U.S. policy toward the region in several fundamental ways.
Obama views Cuba as a case in point for the strengthening of democratic institutions in the Americas. He will work to free up the sending of remittances from family members in the U.S. to relatives on the island and the right to travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. He believes that the “empower[ment] of the Cuban people” should be prioritized in order to reduce their dependence upon the regime. Yet, Obama does not support a clear end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which he believes should remain in place to act as leverage in encouraging positive democratic change on the island. This same sense of caution reflects his thinking on Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela for which he has used somewhat harsh language to distance his campaign from Chavez’s fierce populism. With respect to U.S.-Cuba relations, critics of Obama’s Latin America platform cite that the Democratic candidate is lagging well behind the leading edge of revisionist thinking on the issue now taking place in this country.
According to Obama, U.S.-Latin American security policy should focus on the issues of transnational gangs, violence, drugs, and organized crime. Gang activity has proliferated throughout the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and into Mexico, and its impact has spilled over into U.S. civil society. The Democratic presidential candidate says he will step up U.S. security efforts in Central America to stem the flow of gang-related crime and narcotrafficking, as well as formulate regional strategic cooperation on personal security issues. The professionalizing of the police and judicial branches of these countries should be emphasized, corruption targeted for abatement, and a hemispheric pact on security issues signed. In breaking with more traditional views of U.S.-Latin American policy, which tend to view drug and arms trafficking, illegal immigration, and gang activity as agenda items which must be addressed by the U.S.’s southern neighbors, Obama realizes the need to create a “comprehensive strategy on regional crime that addresses the U.S.’s contribution to the problem.”
In dealing with security measures, Obama highlights the crucial roles of Mexico and Colombia in promoting regional cooperation. Mexico plays a central role in the production and shipment of drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines; Obama supports the continuation and expansion of the newly implemented Merida Initiative in order to roll back rampant violence, corruption, and drug and arms trafficking throughout the region. He believes that security cooperation should extend beyond U.S.-Central American relations to include further security measures developed in the rest of Latin America. He has committed himself to combat the Mexican drug cartels, and establish relations with other Latin American countries to decrease both the supply and demand for drugs. Additionally, he supports the continuance of U.S. aid to Colombia to fight narcotrafficking and strengthen civilian institutions. He also has defended Colombia’s recent incursion into a FARC guerrilla camp based in Ecuador, stating that Colombia has a “right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders.” Commentators argue that Obama has ignored the human rights violations countenanced by the Uribe government as well as its highly qualified and quasi-democratic regime, which include scandals involving both his own political party and right-wing death squads that still operate in the country.
Barack Obama’s stance on economic development in the Western Hemisphere centers on an increase in U.S. foreign aid, vocational training, micro-finance, and community development-which is little better than a conservative development plan. He will attempt to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, will work to decrease the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, and increase global education. He will cancel the debts of Paraguay, Guyana, St. Lucia, Bolivia, Haiti, and Honduras, as well as those of other countries around the world which have been designated as “heavily-indebted poor countries.” Obama will seek to reform the IMF and World Bank, and establish fair trade that promotes labor and environmental standards. In addition, the WTO will be encouraged to enforce mutually advantageous trade agreements. Obama opposed CAFTA and a U.S.-Colombia FTA, and will seek to amend the provisions of NAFTA to increase its benefits for American workers.
The Democratic candidate believes that the U.S. immigration system must be reformed by creating tighter border security and ensuring a just path to citizenship which “reaffirm[s] our heritage as a nation of immigrants.” He seeks to work with Latin America on addressing climate change and energy security, taking particular note of expanding the partnership with Brazil to share technology, develop markets for biofuels, and create greener methods of energy consumption. Other important measures that the Obama administration must deal with include the preservation of the Amazon rainforest and the fight against deforestation through economic incentives.
What about Joe Biden?
Several of Barack Obama’s proposals consistently agree with those long entertained by Joe Biden. Like Obama, Biden disagrees with the detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He believes that the rules of NAFTA must be reformed, and has opposed the FTA with Central America. Biden asserts that free trade agreements must include provisions for labor rights and environmental standards, echoing Obama’s arguments for fair trade. Washington Post staffer Marcela Sanchez’s recent article reports Biden’s concern over the rampant inequality faced throughout Latin American society, an issue also addressed by Obama in his “A New Partnership for the Americas” plan. According to Sanchez, Biden maintains that he “has fought to address the root cause of the…instability that has plagued the region, particularly in recent years: social inequality.”
On immigration reform, Obama and Biden seek to increase border security as well as enact provisions to absorb undocumented workers and their families presently living in the U.S. Similarly, both voted to create a 700-mile long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border under the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Biden and Obama agree that the U.S. should ease up on restrictions limiting remittances and travel to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, as well as promote the development of small business on the island, without actually lifting the embargo. Both Biden and Obama are supporters of continued aid to Colombia, under the terms of Plan Colombia.
A Brighter Future for U.S.- Latin American Relations with Democrats?
Public reactions to the Latin American component of the Democratic platform have been mixed. On one side, supporters of Obama have asserted that his stance on Latin America represents a fundamental break with the rigidity of past U.S. policies toward the region, a move which will cause the U.S. to view Latin America less as a junior partner with only localized military security issues and more as a sovereign highly pluralized neighbor that insists on autonomy. The Democrats emphasize that in the age of globalization, the U.S. cannot afford to nurture failed policies that treat Latin America solely as a strategic playing field for parochial U.S. regional interests narrowly defined. In the words of The Huffington Post’s Laura Carlsen, “U.S. relations with Latin America can no longer be seen as a regional foreign policy box.” President Bush has abandoned Latin America to concentrate on the promotion of U.S. national interests in the Middle East. An example of this is the lack of sufficient quality time allocated to allow for the full flowing of substantive development in relations between the U.S. and Latin America, which has created a power vacuum that has been filled by strong, often intensely ideological figures such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, both populist politicians who have sought greater innovation and experimentation for Latin America as a function of the region’s reaction to George Bush’s unpopular presidency. To Obama’s Latin Americanist supporters, now is the time to communicate to the hemisphere that the U.S. must foster greater and more freely given political, economic, and security cooperation in a policy based on equality, respect, and mutuality.
Obama’s “A New Partnership for the Americas” plan reflects Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, delivered in the wake of World War II and meant to provide a world vision based on political and religious freedom, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt’s presidency was responsible for the formulation of the Good Neighbor Policy; by constructing his Latin American platform upon FDR’s legacy in the region, Obama has shown a willingness to foster a more cooperative and perhaps a more creative era for hemispheric relations. The Good Neighbor Policy grappled with issues of national sovereignty and development, renounced military intervention, and gave Latin America ample space to establish its own reforms free of heavy-handed U.S. interference accompanied by brazen diktats. Supporters of Obama’s pledge toward Latin America foresee that Obama’s initiatives and spirit could begin to reverse the U.S.’s reputation as the “colossus of the north,” ushering in an updated version of the Good Neighbor Policy that could carry U.S.-Latin American relations to a new level of sustainability and hemispheric autonomy, if he decided to do so.
Others are not so sure that an Obama administration would be willing or able to form a comprehensive, functional strategy with respect to U.S.-Latin American relations that will not be held hostage by some of the extremist ideologies found to be at work in Miami and exile centers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Obama chose Joe Biden as his running mate due to his foreign policy expertise. Despite the fact that Biden has played a key role in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he only has traveled to Latin America on four occasions. As for Obama, he never has even been to Latin America. Biden states that NAFTA should be renegotiated and opposed FTAs with Chile, Peru, and Central America on the grounds that they failed to incorporate proper environmental and labor standards. Nevertheless, his critics fairly or unfairly argue that Biden is just pandering to the sectarian interests of U.S. labor unions. While Biden was campaigning for his presidential bid in 2006, he called Mexico an “erstwhile democracy” and a “corrupt system” that can be blamed for fostering illegal immigration and wielding a chaotic role in narcotrafficking. Biden’s statement, while containing more than a grain of truth, largely ignores the fact that the U.S. contributes to the illegal immigration and drug trafficking phenomena through the exploitation of grossly underpaid migrant workers needed for “cheap labor” enterprises in the U.S. and the insatiable domestic demand for illegal narcotics.
Obama supports the extension of the Merida Initiative to create a more comprehensive regional security bloc within the Western Hemisphere. The Merida Initiative was proposed by President Bush as the keystone of his U.S.-Central America security plan, and is focused on the provision of military and police aid to Mexico (with much smaller amounts to Central American countries) to fight organized crime and drug cartels. It is a complete truism that the military and legal structures in Mexico and Central America have suffered from a history of corruption and human rights abuses, and critics of current U.S. policy argue that increasing military aid to the region only increases the capacity of local authorities to abuse power of an already deeply flawed law enforcement system. The Merida Initiative is in many ways similar to Plan Colombia, which provides military and police aid to fight narcotrafficking and organized crime there.
In Colombia, human rights and labor violations have been committed by the military and paramilitary groups on a massive scale; the vast majority of the aid granted to Colombia by the U.S. is utilized for military purposes, and only a small fraction of Plan Colombia’s funds are allocated to the protection of human rights. Biden has voiced his support of Plan Colombia, and Obama seeks to continue the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, stating that “we need to continue efforts to support Colombia in a way that also advances our interests and is true to our values.”
It remains unclear, however, whether Senator Biden is even aware of the vast corruption of the Uribe presidency, the continued human rights violations that the present regime sanctions, and the autocratic tendencies chronically exhibited by Uribe, who is hardly a democratic figure. This is why last night’s reference to Colombia by Obama was so important. In 2007, he also had sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stating that the U.S. must balance its military aid to Colombia with social and economic reforms. Nevertheless, four recent letters (two to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, one to then-Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, and one to President Uribe himself) regarding human rights abuses in Colombia lacked his endorsement.
Obama has stated that he will open dialogue with democratic-left regimes to instill the notion throughout the Western Hemisphere that the U.S. will operate without an ideological litmus test, nor will it only engage with Latin America only when Washington considers U.S. national interests at play. Critics argue that Obama’s policy proposals toward Latin America are at times muddled – at the same time that Obama supports unqualified dialogue with leftist hemispheric governments, he defends Colombia’s raid on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador to track down members of FARC. Such an act on Bogota’s behalf has been viewed by a number of Latin American left-leaning regimes as well as some OAS members as a violation of international law and Ecuadorian national sovereignty. But Obama has insisted that Bogota has a right to go beyond its national borders to weed out terrorists who seek refuge in order to attack Colombia. Likewise, Obama promotes an extension of the Merida Initiative, but fails to mention that Colombia and Mexico–new prime recipients of U.S funds, are the two principal conservative governments in Latin America and are the only ones likely to be interested in such an initiative. While Obama may support discourse with democratic-left regimes, it is unclear whether he will be able to reach consensus in negotiating policy initiatives with Latin America’s more left-leaning governments, through a willingness to make meaningful concessions. Obama presents an invitation to create a new partnership with Latin America, but cites Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico as examples of countries with which the U.S. will forge new economic, political, and security ties. There is barely enough here for regional leaders to even take note of. Obama may not be so quick to partner with such candidates as Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia in strengthening U.S.-Latin American relations, whatever his new open door policy may seem to be.
While the complete nature of Obama’s Latin American platform remains to be seen, there is no doubt that Obama’s stance on hemispheric affairs will differ from that of the Bush White House, but not so much from Clinton’s regional policy which was barely discernable from Reagan-era area policy. At the same time, the Democratic nominee does not appear to be particularly sure-footed on regional affairs, and could disappoint avid U.S. Latin Americanists now associated with the Democratic Party. Drawing on the ideologies of FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” Obama could represent a break with the failed policies of the past. Obama has underscored the idea that the U.S. should be prepared to enter into dialogue with every nation in the region, be it friend or foe. Through it all, he has maintained his posture that the U.S. should speak to regional leaders without preconditions, despite outspoken criticism from right-leaning U.S.-based Cuban and Venezuelan exile groups. Yet, at other times he appears to hedge on this position.
Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate raises many questions as to the ultimate pertinacity of Obama’s policy initiatives toward the region. Professor Greg Weeks, an innovative analyst based at the University of North Carolina has characterized Biden as “Mr. Status Quo” with respect to U.S. policy toward Latin America, and as such he may present a challenge to the implementation of the liberal reforms Obama has promised as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. At the same time, Biden and Obama have agreed on a variety of key issues with respect to the area. As Biden’s foreign policy experience lies primarily within the realm of Middle Eastern affairs, he may prove responsive to approaching Washington’s dealings with Latin America in a new and more imaginative approach.
Yet, it must also be remembered that U.S. authorities traditionally have sought to promote this country’s own national interests as projected onto Latin America, and not necessarily those of intrinsic interest to Latin America. In this respect, take the issue of Honduran President Zelaya’s extremely bold statement of a long overdue position on drug legislation after having met up with the U.S. philanthropist George Soros. Though Obama asserts that he will encourage a new era of U.S.-Latin American cooperation built on respect for sovereign governments, nevertheless, he will be forced to contend with competing influences in Washington which favor the maintenance of the U.S.’s current stance within the region, particularly in dealing with Cuba and Venezuela, and a prejudice in favor of orthodox development strategies.
Obama’s choice of Greg Craig as a foreign policy adviser may prove to be a valuable asset to his administration’s policy potential in formulating a more rational and innovative approach toward Latin America. Craig has voiced support for a multilateral approach toward dealing with the region, as well as stressed the need to encourage free elections and the recognition of democratic governments. Craig also has sought to promote fair trade standards that consider the heavy social costs of free market economics, and he favors hemispheric ties over bilateral agreements. He would have the Obama government concentrate on education, health care, poverty, and other social justice issues as major U.S. policy concerns within Latin America, instead of focusing mainly on traditional concerns such as trade opportunities, narrowly defined security interests, and northward drug flows. According to COHA Research Associates Michael Katz and Chris Sweeney, Craig can provide the vision that “Washington needs in order to mend the divide between the U.S. and the new left in Latin America” (see COHA’s “Obama Adviser Greg Craig: A Man of Merit,” August 19, 2008).
Dan Restrepo, an Obama senior adviser on Western Hemispheric affairs, has argued that the U.S. must work toward a “partnership with countries throughout the Americas so that democracy, opportunity, and security” are broadcast everywhere in the region. Like adviser Greg Craig, he asserts that the U.S. must encourage fair trade agreements throughout the region. Like Obama, he opposes the ratification of a U.S.-Colombia FTA, citing human rights abuses and violence committed against labor leaders as factors which must be considered in the negotiation of free trade deals. Greater opportunity for Latin America should come through “bottom-up” strategies of economic and social improvement.
If Obama is elected, the strengths and weaknesses of his policies toward Latin America will rely upon his ability to remain committed to a broad-range approach to the region in spite of conflicting interest groups and pressures. Whether he will move to the conservative or liberal side of his platform depends on his capability to work against tendencies resisting change among Washington policymakers. The policy position of the extreme right will remain clustered around Senator McCain’s Latin American adviser, the aptly designated Otto Reich; simultaneously, Obama will be forced to deal with moderate Clinton Democrats who favor free trade policies and a relatively hard line approach towards Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela.
Obama’s promises to induce reform with respect to the U.S.’s stance on Latin America provide hope for regional cooperation, and offer a chance to turn the tide on the U.S.’s hitherto flawed position in its relationship with the countries south of its border. Historically, presidential candidates often make promises just to get into office, and then fail to honor them. Given that Latin American issues are rarely critical to U.S. presidential campaigns, Obama’s proposals may prove to be empty, or they may in fact offer the possibility of a real change in hemispheric relations. Colombia offers an excellent opportunity for Obama to distinguish between President Uribe’s faux democracy and the real thing. In this instance it becomes symbolic of what could prove to be a real distinction behind Obama’s regional policy.
Larry Birns is the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), which originally published this analysis.