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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 2:18 PM EDT

 

Obama will probably reiterate recent official statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, that the United States bears real responsibility for Mexico's drug-war violence and perhaps bemoan the way an "inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border" fuels drug-related killings. Like every other administration, though, Obama's will have to answer to the National Rifle Association (NRA), which at this point carries out its own foreign policy.

In 2005, for example, when Brazil held a referendum to implement a stringent gun-control law, the NRA spent considerable money lobbying to successfully defeat it. So expect the NRA to fight any attempt to stem the flow of guns south of the border. In fact, Wyoming senator John Barrasso hopes to use the fear of Mexican drug violence to force a greater distribution of assault weapons. As he put the matter, "Why would you disarm someone when they potentially could get caught in the crossfire?... The United States will not surrender our second-amendment rights for Mexico's border problem."

And so it goes: On nearly every issue that could either actually help relieve the suffering of Latin Americans or allow the U.S. to win back strategic allies, domestic politics will hinder Obama's range of action, even if not his immediate popularity.

Just recently, a study group made up of some of Latin America's leading intellectuals and policy-makers, including former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, declared the U.S. war on drugs a failure and recommended the legalization of marijuana. Obama is obviously sympathetic to this position, having instructed his Justice Department to back off "medical marijuana" prosecutions. But will he be able to de-escalate the war on drugs in Latin America? Not likely.

As a candidate, the president did say he wasn't opposed to all wars, just stupid ones—and this one is as stupid as they come. It hasn't lessened narcotics exports to the U.S., but has spread violence through Central America into Mexico, while entrenching paramilitary power in Colombia. Plan Colombia, the centerpiece of that war, is a legacy of Bill Clinton's foreign policy, and much of the six billion dollars so far spent to fight it has essentially been direct-deposited in the coffers of corporate sponsors of the Democratic Party like Connecticut's United Technologies and other northeastern defense contractors.

Rather than dismantling Plan Colombia, plans are evidently afoot to have it go viral beyond the Americas. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently commented that "many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia," and suggested that it be franchised "specifically to Afghanistan." Washington Post White House correspondent Scott Wilson agrees, urging Obama to use Colombia as a "classroom for learning how to beat the Taliban." Buried deep in Wilson's recommendation was a revelation: U.S. officials, he wrote, "privately" told him that death-squad terror was a necessary first step in Plan Colombia, serving as a "placeholder" until the U.S. could train a "professional" army. The Bush administration kept "the money flowing to Colombia's army despite evidence of its complicity in paramilitary massacres."

The Path to Latin America Runs Through Brasilia...

Ultimately, imperial Washington's only real road may run through the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. After all, Obama approaches the region not as a leader of a confident superpower, but of an autumnal hegemon. As such, his best option may lie in forming a partnership with Brazil—Latin America's largest, most diversified economy, with enormous, newly discovered offshore oil reserves and a fulsome set of political aspirations—to administer the hemisphere. The White House clearly recognizes this to be the case, which was why an administration official called Lula's recent one-on-one meeting in Washington with Obama a recognition of Brazil's "global ascendancy."

Just before the G-20 meeting convened in London, Lula blamed the global financial collapse on the "irrational behavior of people that are white" and "blue-eyed." Standing next to the blanching British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, he continued: "I do not know any black or indigenous bankers so I can only say [it is wrong] that this part of mankind, which is victimized more than any other, should pay for the crisis."

If these words came out of Chávez's mouth, they would have been taken as but the latest indication of his irrational anti-Americanism, but the Obama administration needs Lula. In London, Obama could barely contain himself: "That's my man right here," he said, grabbing Lula's hand as Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner looked on. "Love this guy. He's the most popular politician on earth. It's because of his good looks." That certainly represented an improvement over George Bush, who asked Lula's Brazilian predecessor, "Do you have blacks, too?"

Yet Brazil's cooperation will come at a price, which Obama will have trouble meeting. This country's baroque and bloated farm subsidy and tariff program—which House and Senate members recently refused to let Obama cut—will prevent the president from bowing gracefully to Lula's central demand: that the U.S. live up to its rhetoric about free trade and open its economy to Brazil's competitive agro-industry.

...Around Caracas...

And then there's Venezuela. Seventy-five years ago, Secretary of State Hull feared the Hearst papers would attack him "fwom coast to coast" if he renounced interventionism. Well, the more things change...

When Obama's State Department declared Venezuela's recent referendum to remove presidential term limits (and so allow Chávez to stand for reelection) an internal matter "consistent with democratic principles," it was attacked by the Houston Chronicle, which is owned—you guessed it—by the Hearst Corporation. More criticism followed, sending administration officials "scrambling," according to the Wall Street Journal, "to assert that the Obama administration hasn't softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela."

Since the ongoing demonization of Chávez carries absolutely no domestic costs and its easing plenty of potential debits, Obama might be forced to keep up some version of the Bush administration's hard-line, perhaps providing the president cover to moderate rhetoric, if not policy, in real danger spots where far more is at stake—as in the Middle East.

...And Ends in Texas

Immigration is one area where Obama might have some room to maneuver, but he would have to overcome the Glenn-Beck wing of the Republican Party. Ordering Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to stop hunting undocumented Latin American workers (as the presidents of Mexico and Central America have demanded) and opening a real path to citizenship would go a long way toward improving relations with southern neighbors. It would also guarantee the loyalty of the Latino vote in 2012 and, by creating millions of new voters, perhaps even pull Texas closer to swing-state status.

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Ultimately, however, Obama's vision will be limited by the smallness of the imaginations of the counselors he has surrounded himself with. There are neither Gruenings, nor even Hulls in that crowd. He has kept on George W. Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Thomas Shannon and has picked Jeffrey Davidow to be his special advisor at the summit.

A career diplomat, Davidow's foreign service has been largely unremarkable, though his first posting was to Guatemala in the early 1970s when U.S.-backed death squads were running wild, and was followed by an assignment as a junior political officer in Chile, where he observed the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende. Committed to the Clinton-era mantra of economic liberalization, these diplomats will never recommend the kind of game-changing ideas Gruening did.

Given that the global financial crisis will dominate this summit, Obama's appearance will be seen by some as a return to the scene of the crime. After all, it was in Chile that the now-discredited model of deregulated financial capitalism was first imposed. This occurred well before Presidents Reagan and Clinton adopted it in the U.S.

As it then spread through most of the rest of Latin America, the results were absolutely disastrous. For two decades, economies stagnated, poverty deepened, and inequality increased. To make matters worse, just as a new generation of leftists, taking measures to lessen poverty and reduce inequality, was recovering from that Washington-induced catastrophe, a reckless housing bubble burst in the U.S., bringing down the global economy.

Latin Americans will want an accounting. As even Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally, put it: "[The] whole world has financed the United States, and I believe that they have a reciprocal debt with the planet." Hugo Chávez couldn't have said it better.

Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan) and Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, forthcoming in June. He can be reached at grandin@nyu.edu.

Copyright 2009 Greg Grandin

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