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Obama in Latin America

Many are watching to see if Obama is ready to reverse course with Latin America—as Roosevelt did more than three-quarters of a century ago.

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

He was right. In Montevideo, Gruening helped bridge the gap between U.S. envoys and "anti-American" Latin American diplomats, including those from Cuba where, well before Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, serial U.S. interventions had strained relations between Havana and Washington. Most importantly, he reconciled the Secretary of State to the principle of non-intervention.

Hull "rose to the occasion magnificently," Gruening wrote, announcing that the United States would henceforth "shun and reject" the "so-called right-of-conquest... The New Deal indeed would be an empty boast if it did not mean that." Latin American delegates broke out in "thunderous applause and cheers." And FDR, ever the agile politician, seized the moment, confirming that the "definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention."

"Our Era of 'Imperialism' Nears its End," the New York Times announced. "'Manifest Destiny' Is Giving Way to the New Policy of 'Equal Dealing With All Nations.'"

Twenty-One Different Kinds of Hate

Not quite, of course. Washington would return to a policy of interventionism in the Cold War era. Nonetheless, the importance of this diplomatic sea-change cannot be overstated.

Montevideo was Roosevelt's first significant foreign policy success, marking a turn in the country's fortunes as an ascendant superpower. He then ordered the Marines to withdraw from Haiti, while giving the country back its national bank; he abrogated the Cuban constitution's hated Platt Amendment, which had turned the island into a U.S. vassal-state; and he began to tolerate a degree of economic nationalism in Latin America, including Mexico's expropriation of the holdings of Standard Oil.

FDR's enormous popularity in Latin America fired his aspirations to world leadership. Visiting Buenos Aires in 1936, he was greeted by more than a million ecstatic well-wishers who gave him a "wild ovation" and "pelted him with flowers." Even Buenos Aires's usually skeptical press heralded him as a "shepherd of democracy," while hospitals expected an "enormous crop of 'Roosevelts' among baby boys," despite a ban on foreign names for infants.

Improved relations with Latin America also helped the U.S. recover from the Great Depression. With Asia off limits and Europe headed for war, Washington looked south both for markets for manufactured goods and for raw materials, negotiating trade treaties with 15 Latin American countries between 1934 and 1942.

More importantly, Latin America became the laboratory for what eventually became known as liberal multilateralism—the diplomatic framework that, after World War II, would allow the United States to accrue unprecedented power. With the League of Nations practically defunct, diplomats began to discuss the possibility of a new "League of the Americas," which would eventually evolve into both the Organization of American States and the United Nations. (Each would enshrine in its charter the principle of absolute non-intervention.) Roosevelt himself would hold up the "illustration of the republics of this continent" as a model for global postwar reconstruction.

Cordell Hull got the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to found the U.N. and FDR took credit for overcoming "many times 21 different kinds of hate" to "sell the idea of peace and security among the American republics." But the thanks really should go to anti-imperialists like Gruening and guerrilla fighters like Nicaragua's Augusto Sandino who rendered militarism an unsustainable foreign policy.

Seventy-Five Years Later...

The parallels with today are unmistakable: a global economy in tatters; a new president with a mandate for reform, but blocked abroad by rising rivals and hamstrung by the rapid recession of U.S. power and prestige thanks to years of arrogant, unilateral militarism. And coming on the heels of a London summit of economic powers, a Latin American conference: the Fifth Summit of the Americas to be attended by 34 heads of state representing every American country except Cuba.

The last time this summit convened at the Argentinean beach resort town of Mar del Plata in 2005, Argentines greeted George W. Bush not as a shepherd of democracy but as an evangelizer for war, militarism, and savage capitalism. Thousands turned up from all over the continent to burn the president in effigy. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales convened a festive parallel "People's Summit," while Argentine soccer legend Maradona called Bush "human rubbish" and "a bit of an assassin." To paraphrase Michael Moore's Academy Award homage to the Dixie Chicks, when Maradona is against you, your time in Latin America is up.

With an aircraft carrier stationed just offshore and fighter jets buzzing overhead, Bush still was nervous and seemed distinctly out of his league. Coming just a few months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, with Iraq careening out of control, Bush's disastrous performance in Argentina, combined with an impressive display of Latin American unity, hastened the demise of the pretension of the neoconservatives to global supremacy. "The United States continues to see things one way," said one Latin American diplomat at the Summit, "but most of the rest of the hemisphere has moved on and is heading in another direction."

And so it had, with a left turn that started with Chávez's 1998 election as Venezuela's president and still continues apace. Last year, after all, Paraguay elected a liberation theologian as president; and last month, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front—the guerrilla group turned political party Ronald Reagan spent six billion dollars and 70,000 Salvadorean lives trying to defeat in the 1980s—finally came to power in El Salvador.

This week many will be watching to see if Barack Obama, in what will be his first real engagement with Latin America, is ready to reverse course at this Summit as Roosevelt did more than three-quarters of a century ago. To the United States, Latin America has not just been a source of raw materials and markets, but a "workshop," a place where rising foreign-policy coalitions try out new ways to project U.S. power following periods of acute crisis. FDR did it, as did Reagan and the New Right when, in the 1980s, they used Central America to experiment with junking multilateralism, while remilitarizing and remoralizing foreign policy.

Today, President Obama is enormously popular in Latin America. A number of local politicians in the region even legally adopted his name to give themselves an edge on ballots, and undoubtedly quite a few baby boys will be called Barack. Brazil's president, known simply as Lula, says he is praying for Obama—and even Maradona admits he likes him "a lot."

But popularity only goes so far. For the first time in many decades, an American president might find that the days when the U.S. could use Latin America as an imperial rehearsal space are drawing to a close.

The Colombian Option

So what will Obama offer in Trinidad and Tobago? He will, like Hull in 1933, be intent on "radiating goodwill," but he will not necessarily "be friendly with everyone." He's already poisoned the water by insisting that Hugo Chávez is an "obstacle" to progress. Love Chávez or hate him, he is recognized as a legitimate leader by all Latin American countries and is a close ally to many. For eight years, a Bush administration policy of driving a wedge between the rest of the region and the Venezuelan proved a dismal failure, except when it came to increasing the outflow of Washington's hemorrhaging power in the hemisphere.

On many fronts, however, the president is likely to discover that his real obstacles to progress south of the border lie uncomfortably close to home.

In preparation for the summit, the Obama administration has made some overtures to Cuba, responding to demands by nearly every Latin American country that Washington end its cold war against Havana. The need to keep Democratic senators from Florida and New Jersey (states with large Cuban-American populations) in the fold means that the general travel ban and trade embargo will, however, stay in place, at least for now. (In 1933, Hull tried to prevent the Cuban envoy from speaking, fearing that he would give a fiery anti-American speech; Gruening appealed to the principle of free speech to reverse the ban.)

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