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Obama’s failures in Latin America

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By Grace Livingstone*

obama_latamBarack Obama is one of the world’s great orators but no one in Latin America is awaiting his speech at the Summit of Americas this week with bated breath. Four years ago there was cautious optimism that Obama might replace the aggressive unilateral interventionism of the neocons with a more thoughtful approach to Latin American policy, one based on mutual respect and negotiation. But he has disappointed.

He may have toned down the rhetoric against Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, but his policy towards Latin America is barely different to George W Bush’s. His government is still quietly interventionist, funding opposition groups in Venezuela and Cuba, and the Pentagon has spent the last four years trying to shore up its military presence in Latin America. Apart from relaxing Bush’s tight restrictions on travel and remittances, he has made no bold move to end the punitive, counter-productive embargo against Cuba. Obama’s biggest mistake was failing to crack down on the coup in Honduras in 2009, but instead capitulating to the Republican right in Washington, who openly supported the overthrow of the Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

But something has changed since Obama has taken office: Latin America governments are far more autonomous, assertive and united. They have created a regional organisation, CELAC, that includes all the countries in the Americas apart from the United States and Canada. The Southern American block, Unasur, has become a powerful diplomatic force in the region and ALBA, the radical ‘Bolivarian’ alliance, presents another challenge to the US’s ability to set the agenda for the region, although it is doubtful whether ALBA, which is heavily funded by Venezuela, will outlive a Chávez government. Even the Organisation of American States (OAS), which during the Cold War was virtually a tool of US foreign policy, is no longer so easily manipulated; in 2009, much to the chagrin of Washington, Latin American governments voted to end the exclusion of Cuba from the Organisation. Ironically, now the OAS is finally starting to do what it ought always to have done – expressing the views of the governments of the region – rightwing Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs committee have voted to withdraw its funding.

Is the US irrelevant now?

So is the United States an irrelevance in Latin America now? The answer depends on where you live. The Southern Cone countries of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, now sell more exports to Asia than they do to the United States. Their trade and investment is diversified all round the globe and they are better able to withstand US economic leverage than at any point since independence. In contrast, Mexico, since signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, has become an adjunct to the United States economy, supplying cheap manufactures, which enable the US to compete with the influx of low-price goods from China. Although Central America has reduced its historical economic reliance on the US, it is still very much in the US economic orbit, depending on it for between a third and half of its trade. And in the Andean region, while there is an ideological gulf between Caracas and Washington, Venezuela still sells most of its oil to the United States.

Latin American governments have, though, become more vocal on the world stage, forming alliances with other developing countries, including India, South Africa, Russia, Iran and of course China. There has been much talk of China replacing the United States as the hegemonic power in Latin America. While trade with China has grown exponentially – 800% over the last two decades – it started from a very low base, so China’s current economic weight in Latin America is often overestimated. While in 1990 China supplied less than 1% of Latin America’s imports in 1990, by 2008 this figure had risen to 9%. China still only buys 7% of Latin America’s exports. The real danger is that Latin American governments are repeating the same dependent pattern of supplying primary commodities, while buying China’s manufactured goods.

Military build-up

But Washington is worried and one way it has tried to shore up the US’s waning hegemony in Latin America is to strengthen its military presence. The Fourth Fleet of the US Navy, which patrols the waters of Latin America and the Caribbean, was reactivated in 2008. The Obama administration then announced a deal to station US military forces on seven bases in Colombia, but the move caused such outrage in Latin America, that Colombia felt obliged to pull out. US forces still have de facto use of bases in Colombia and the country remains the largest recipient of US military aid in the region. But since the Colombia setback, the Pentagon has embarked on an extensive construction programme of military bases across Central America and the Caribbean, including sites in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and three in Panama. These are not US bases, but US forces are likely to have access to them. Meanwhile, it has ploughed millions of dollars into a militarized counter-narcotics drive in Mexico, fuelling a surge in violence there and repeating the same mistakes of President Clinton’s Plan Colombia: trying to solve a social problem by military means.

Tragic cost in Colombia

This has had a tragic cost in Colombia, which has worst human rights record in the hemisphere. The United States regards Colombia as a success story because the FARC guerrillas have been severely weakened, pushed out of major cities into isolated areas and many of the commanders killed. But the FARC have shown an ability to survive, partly because they are well funded by taxing the coca trade, but primarily because the root causes for the guerrilla conflict still exist – land hunger and poverty in the Colombian countryside. President Santos has implicitly recognised this by embarking on a series of social reforms including a land restitution and victims’ law. When Obama visits Colombia this week, they will jointly announce an agrarian reform and it is also possible that Santos will start peace talks with the FARC in the coming year.

Santos is a neoliberal who wants to transform Colombia into a modern functioning economy, open to multinationals, where the medium of exchange is profit not violence. His understanding of the need for social reform to achieve peace stems from his time as defence minister when he was closely involved in Integrated Action, a military strategy to consolidate gains on the battlefield by providing local communities with infrastructure and social services. This plan was drawn up with the US and was heavily influenced by US counter-insurgency theory drawn from Afghanistan.

The Obama administration nominally backs Santos reformist plans (which notably were drawn up Colombia, not the result of any pressure from Obama,) but the Pentagon continues to heavily fund the Colombian military, giving hardliners and their paramilitary allies the confidence to resist change. While Santos may be genuine in his desire for limited redistribution, regional elites, dominated by large landowners often in collaboration with former paramilitaries, are resisting; which explains why we have seen an upsurge of violence in the countryside even before the land restitution has begun. It is doubtful whether Santos has the capacity or the political will to override these regional elites and it is in this context that the US continued support for the Colombian military sends a dangerous message to those who want to block reforms and undermine peace talks – that they can hold out for total victory against the ‘subversives’, however much bloodshed that may cause.

Obama’s policy in the region has been reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s; both men, supposedly progressive Democrats, allowed their agenda in Latin America to be dictated by the Pentagon and rightwing republicans. In Colombia, the result has been the consolidation of paramilitary power into local and national political structures, the strengthening of a military tainted with human rights abuses and the weakening of civilian social movements. Far from being a success story, Colombia should provide a warning, not a model for US policy in Mexico and Central America.


* Grace Livingstone is the author of America’s Backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror (Zed and LAB, 2009) and Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy & War (LAB, 2003)