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Interview with Adam Isacson – Obama and Latin America


Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy for the Washington Office on Latin America, is a leading expert on defence, civil-military relations and US security relations to the Americas. He spoke to Grace Livingstone, from LAB.

By Grace Livingstone

L: What’s your verdict on Barack Obama’s policies towards Latin America? Have they been different from George W Bush’s? What have been the negatives and the positives?

adan_isaacsonAdam IsacsonAI: Obama’s policy towards Latin America has looked a lot like the second term of George W Bush’s. I make the distinction because by that time a lot of the harder line neoconservative political appointees had faded away and the Bush administration was humbled by what had happened in Iraq, so it put a lot of career diplomats in key positions and this opened the door a bit to discussions on human rights. It didn’t reform its approach in any fundamental way but, having lost control of the US Congress to the Democratic Party, it was quite a bit more conciliatory and valuing non-military efforts more and toning down its obsession with Chávez and Cuba, without really changing the hard line very much.

What I just said, would describe the Obama approach exactly. Also an open door to those who are expressing concern about human rights or economic inequality, without really devoting a lot of political capital to fundamental changes. The only real distinctions with the Bush administration are, firstly, tone and rhetoric: there has been a real effort to use words like partnership and make it look like other regional leaders are actually being listened to, whether they are or not, and an effort to recognise that the United States’ influence is diminished. Along with that, some of the assistance that has been going to Colombia, Mexico and Central America, what had been mostly military assistance to those countries, has now become more balanced, slowly, every year, between military and non-military programmes. That is not to say that the United States has walked away from the frameworks of Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative, but there are no more big helicopter deliveries and there are more things like judicial reform and development programmes. The aid packages do look a bit different than they did under Bush. So those have been the main differences, but for the most part: continuity.

GL: What can we expect to see at the Summit of the Americas?

AI: If we remember this Summit for anything it will be because more countries will endeavour to show, at least rhetorically, more political independence from the United States. The Washington Consensus of the 1990s is a long-ago memory. And on issues like drug policy, how to promote democracy, and on Cuba, you are going to see some very open disagreement with the United States and not just from the usual suspects of far left governments.

GL: So would you say that Latin America is becoming much more independent from the United States?

AI: Absolutely. Latin America is becoming more autonomous from the United States. In many countries in the region, the United States is no longer the main trading partner; that goes for Brazil, Chile and Argentina. US economic assistance has gone way down, especially since the economic disaster of 2008, and even military cooperation with a lot of countries is reduced. With the United States so overstretched in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it is very distracted – the scenario of the United States coming down on a country with a diplomatic, economic, military offensive if that government starts to challenge US prerogatives in the region is a lot more remote than it used to be.

And those who do try to toe the US line, just don’t get the rewards they used to. They won’t be lavished with generous aid and have all of their shortcomings tolerated or receive preferential trade treatment. Elites who toe the US line feel like they’re not getting enough; you hear that a lot in Colombia.

GL: Who are the main people making policy for Latin America in the Obama administration?

AI: There’s really not anyone in the Obama administration who’s running Latin American policy in a top-down, comprehensive way, which is why it might seem adrift. There is an office in the National Security Council for Western Hemisphere Affairs, which is really just four people. It’s run by Dan Restrepo, who is the Western Hemisphere advisor and whose job is to coordinate all of the rest of the cabinet’s policy towards Latin America – the enormous bureaucracies of the State Department, the Pentagon, the Justice Department and USAID. Obviously this small office can only set vague guidelines and often ends up being occupied by things like official visits. They don’t manage things in a day-to-day detailed way. That ultimately falls to the State Department and the State Department hasn’t had an Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs since nine or ten months ago when Arturo Valenzuela left his job. His successor, Roberta Jacobson, is still awaiting confirmation in the Senate … So the various departments of government are focused on whatever their duties for the region are, for example, the Defense Department on security, without coherent direction from Washington.

GL: Why hasn’t the Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson been confirmed?

AI: It has been very hard for Obama to get any of his nominees confirmed by Republicans.

GL: The Republicans did well in the mid-term elections and won control of certain Congressional committees. Has that affected Latin America policy?

AI: In the November 2010 elections, the Republicans won some seats in the Senate, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate, but Republicans did win control of the House of Representatives. More than anything that has meant gridlock. It has been very hard to get anything done legislatively on Latin America. In the House, it has meant that foreign assistance has been slashed because the Republican Party and the Tea Party see that as a waste of money and the Democrat-run Senate can only rescue some of that assistance. The Republicans managed to weaken, but not do away with, some of the human rights conditionality on some of the aid to the region. But other than that, the only change is it has meant is that it is harder to get things done…

GL: Looking ahead to the US presidential elections, if the Republicans were to win, how would that affect policy in Latin America?

AI: It doesn’t look too likely but, if Mitt Romney wins, my guess is that Latin American policy will look similar to today, to the Bush administration’s second term … The one area where you would see significant change would probably be Cuba policy, where the harder line would prevail. Not that the Obama administration has softened Cuba policy very much, but both on travel guidelines and on rhetoric, you would see a tightening. You’d see more of a rhetorical challenge to Venezuela, maybe more of an effort to increase somewhat military assistance to Colombia and Mexico, but other than that it would look a lot like today.

Obviously, if someone like Rick Santorum won – which is looking very unlikely – if the hard-line wing of the Republican Party were to win, we’d be back to scorched earth. Those who want to carry out coups, like the one we saw in Honduras in 2009, against leaders in the region who the United States didn’t like, would have a green light. You’d see sharp increases in military assistance, slashes in development assistance and cosying up to any pro-US elite in the region regardless of their human rights or corruption records. You might see some of that in a Mitt Romney administration, but the hard-line of the Republican Party might not be predominant.

Listen to the interview


Listen to segments of the interview about:

Obama’s policy in Cuba.


Obama’s policy in Mexico



The Pentagon’s plans to build military bases throughout Central America






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