Published on March 16, 2009 in: Z Magazine



Thawing Relations with Latin America

March 16, 2009

by Jake Johnston

After reaching a low point during the Bush years, the icy relations with Latin America may finally be thawing. No, Obama probably will not be praising Chavez's social advances, Evo's economic policies, or Lula's financial support to the MST, and he certainly won't be calling Calderon and Uribe illegitimate presidents (they are), but any progress in north-south relations should be duly noted. After a relationship characterized by domination through coups, the neo-liberal economic model and the War on Drugs, we may finally be seeing some signs of "change we can believe in".

After Obama's election, the international happiness was tangible. The hope that was so deeply felt in our own country was felt throughout the world, and especially in Latin America. Just six years about being temporarily ousted by a US backed coup, Chavez had this statement for the new president; "We are convinced that the time has come to establish a new relation between our countries and with our region based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, equality and real cooperation." Similarly Evo Morales, who has consistently compared Obama to himself for their historic election victories, had this to say; "Mr. Obama's triumph is really historic. We congratulate him on that triumph and we await the improvement in our (bilateral) relations in the future,". Yes, there was reason to hope, instead of taking cues from the north, maybe this time the north had taken their cues from the south.

Has the north-south relationship changed? Are relationships improving based on "respect for sovereignty, equality, and real cooperation"? It is a slow process, and nobody should expect a sea change immediately, however there is reason to believe it is indeed a new day.

Yesterday President Luis Inacio Lula Da Silva was the first Latin American leader to visit President Obama in Washington. As a leader with immense clout, not only in his own country, but also throughout the region, it will be extremely important to develop close ties with him. Obama had this to say after the meeting; ‘"I have been a great admirer of Brazil and a great admirer of the progressive, forward-looking leadership that President Lula has shown throughout Latin America and throughout the world,". The pragmatic leadership of Lula that Obama praises is exactly the type of leadership the we should hope Obama brings to the region in his future relations, indeed there have been some signs that this will be the case.

Today, as Salvadorans go to the polls to elect their next president, it will be under far different circumstances than in 2004 when the US' interference had a direct impact on the results. Long a pawn on the front of the Cold War, and a "model" of neo-liberal economics, El Salvador has the chance to exert its own sovereignty with the election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes. Unlike in 2004, when the nearly two million Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States were threatened with deportation, and the four billion dollars in remittances (almost 20% of the economy) threatened as well, newspapers in El Salvador yesterday printed these quotes from the top State Department diplomat for Latin America Thomas Shannon, "I have met with both political candidates here in Washington," Shannon said. "We have engaged both major political parties in El Salvador. And we have made it very clear that this is a choice of the Salvadoran people that we will respect ...", and further down on the front page, this from ranking House Foreign Affairs Committee member Howard Berman (D-CA), "I am confident that neither TPS nor the right to receive remittances from family in the United States will be affected by the outcome of the election, despite what some of my colleagues in Congress have said,". While the comments came late in a race that has been characterized by an all out smear campaign against Funes and the FMLN, it is a distinct break from past US policy and a positive sign for future relations no matter who the president ends up being.

There are also positive signs in changing relations with Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia. The recent changes in Cuba policy are a step in the right direction, but are far short of Obama's campaign pledge, and of truly normalizing relations. However, White House spokesperson Gannet Tseggai hinted that more changes could come, saying, ''The president was not involved in the drafting of that provision, and it does not take the place of his own review of family visits and family cash remittances,'' . Certainly remittances and family travel are not the only things that need to be changed, the embargo has got to be stopped, but as Obama opens up to the region he will face a lot of pressure to due just that.

Regarding Venezuela and Bolivia, while diplomatic ties are still severed, the State Department issued statements in support of both the Constitutional referendum in Bolivia as well as the more recent referendum in Venezuela. This, coupled with Thomas Shannon's comments on Friday; "We are intent on engaging all countries constructively," Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon told reporters today when asked about the prospects of deeper engagement with countries in the region at odds with the United States," show the new adminstration's commitment to dialogue. Despite recent comments by Richard Lugar (R- IN), denouncing Bolivia's recent expulsion of another US diplomat, Shannon was much more pragmatic, refusing to denounce the expulsion and adding, "We will continue to approach the Bolivians in the hope that we can address the underlying issues that have affected the relationship,". Much work still needs to be done, disclosing USAID recipients, denouncing opposition destabilization efforts and concerted diplomatic discussions, however recent comments certainly show a shifting attitude towards those countries that have been considered "enemies" under the previous administration.

Another aspect of US involvement in the region concerns the War on Drugs. Despite militaristic comments made regarding the situation in Mexico, there are also reasons to believe that the US will begin to make an effort to change the prevailing paradigm. A recent report by former Latin American presidents made a call for drastically changing the US anti-drug efforts in the region. As the largest consumer of drugs, and the supplier of most of the guns to the cartels in Mexico, it is clear the US must take begin to make efforts within its own border instead of just funneling aid to Colombia and Mexico. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office labels Plan Colombia a failure and calls for cutting military aid. While some are still calling for the Merida Initiative (Plan Mexico), to be modeled after Plan Colombia, it is clear that this view is losing ground. By spending upwards of a billion dollars a year, the US has succeeded in increasing drug production, displacing thousands upon thousands of persons and supplying countless weapons to dangerous cartels. What actions has the new administration taken? The new drug czar appointed by Obama is a former Seattle police chief, who put marijuana users at the very bottom of his priority list. There have been wide spread calls, including by the former Latin American presidents, that legalizing or at least drastically changing the US marijuana laws would greatly help. This is still far off, and by no means a guarantee, but the new appointment certainly shows the administration's commitment to progressive ideas in combating drug use. Meanwhile, regarding Mexico, despite some calling for troop placements and US military involvement, Obama recently made some very positive remarks. On sending troops to the border, he said "'We've got a very big border with Mexico, I'm not interested in militarizing the border.'" And in the same interview Obama acknowledged what has gone unacknowledged for a long time by the US government, adding, ''The drugs are coming north, we're sending funds and guns south,'' he said. "As a consequence, these cartels have gained extraordinary power." Accepting the US role will be the first step to implementing true change.

Overall, relations with Latin America are not perfect. And as the old adage goes, "actions speak louder than words", however, the collection of recent comments by top White House spokespeople and from Obama himself do point to at least a slow thawing of relations. This will all be on view come April when every President from throughout the region will come to Trinidad & Tobago for the Summit of the Americas. While the economic crisis will take center stage, the calls for normalizing relations with Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela, for ending he embargo, changing the War on Drugs, and respecting sovereignty will all certainly be on the table. Those who have worked tirelessly to push this agenda must continue to do so despite the early positive signs. But for those who have become disillusioned by the new administration, there are reasons to believe that indeed a relationship based on "respect for sovereignty, equality and real cooperation" is possible.


© 2009 Z Magazine



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