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  • The US in Latin America: Obama for Now, Maybe Worse to Come...

    | Photo: Archive

Published 21 June 2016
Right now the U.S. government is again working out what tactical mix to apply in order to achieve its strategic objectives.

Trying to interpret events at the recent OAS General Assembly in Santo Domingo leads directly to questions about how current U.S. foreign policy in the region may develop from now into 2017. Clearly, the U.S. government has had to reformulate its diplomatic stance and acknowledge that 19 countries in the region, a big majority, support the Venezuelan government's efforts to resolve the country's crisis. That represents an important diplomatic victory for President Nicolas Maduro and opens the door to potential negotiation with the US government, but it is far from clear whether that process will help improve Venezuela's internal crisis.

Prior to and around his election triumph back in November 2008, much opinion in Latin America speculated about a possible change in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean under President-elect Barack Obama. For example, many people thought there might have been an early relaxation of US policy towards Cuba, more rational dealings with the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, perhaps less support for Alvaro Uribe's narco-paramilitary government in Colombia. But even then it was clear that shape-shifting Barack Obama was a pig-in-a-poke President making promises he lacked either the will or the political power to keep

The night of Barack Obama's 2008 election win, a reporter for Nicaragua's Canal 2 television channel asked the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Robert Callahan, veteran sidekick of John Negroponte, if U.S. policy towards Latin America was likely to change. Callahan answered that he thought it unlikely, adding, “U.S. policy towards Latin America has been really very consistent over the last 40 years. Certainly for 35 years, since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Back then the U.S. decided that the most appropriate U.S. policy for Latin America would be one promoting human rights, democracy and economic development." Callahan's remarks are worth remembering as Barack Obama's second presidential term nears its end.

Many people think the extraordinary events at the recent Organization of American States summit in the Dominican Republic, where the member states voted to submit the Secretary General's actions to formal appraisal, may signal some kind of change in U.S. policy in the region. They point to the U.S. government's opening towards Cuba, to its support for the peace process in Colombia and now to the purported softening of the U.S. government stance towards Venezuela's government as expressed this week by John Kerry. But as Robert Callahan noted back in 2008, U.S. foreign policy in Latin America is very consistent and one of its characteristics, as Iran's leader noted recently is that the U.S. government cannot be trusted. So while modalities may change, the underlying policy does not.

The clearest example of U.S. government duplicity came just months after President Obama took office in January 2009. At the 5th Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he claimed U.S. policy in the region would leave behind its past of military intervention and support for dictatorships. Just two months later, he supported by default the coup in Honduras. That same year U.S. policy continued to promote destabilization in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, intervene in Haiti, support the war in Colombia and maintain the blockade against Cuba. That year, too, the U. .government cut US$60 million in development cooperation funding to Nicaragua based on false opposition claims of electoral fraud.

U.S. foreign policy in the region only showed signs of apparent change during President Obama's second term of office, after Hillary Clinton left the State Department, being replaced by John Kerry as Secretary of State in February 2013. Three years on, the fundamental question is whether the opening towards Cuba and the supposed readiness now to talk with the government of President Nicolas Maduro mark a substantive change in U.S. regional foreign policy. On the one hand, that question is very much qualified by the fact that for the United States, this is an election year. On the other, so much depends on what underlying U.S. regional policy objectives really are. The U.S. elites undoubtedly see Latin America as a key region where they need to try and recoup control in order to help brake relative U.S. decline against Eurasia, led by Russia and China. So Latin America and the Caribbean will probably be a foreign policy priority for the next U.S. President. In this election year, President Obama almost certainly prefers to avoid a major crisis in the foreign policy sphere.

Right now the Federal Reserve is nervously postponing an interest rate hike because raising rates now threatens a U.S. economy highly vulnerable, as it was in 2007, to a collapse in huge asset price bubbles in equities, credit and housing. Similar nervous equivocation seems to be affecting U.S. foreign policy as the State Department apparently struggles to adjust to awkward global realities. Among these one of the most important is Latin American governments' broad refusal to submit to U.S. regional imperatives ahead of their own as they did in the past. This was clear, for example, in the support for Cuba's participation in the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama. Over the last few weeks it has been clear from the Association of Caribbean States support for Venezuela in their recent summit in Havana, as well as the OAS General Assembly vote to scrutinize Secretary General Almagro's behavior towards Venezuela.

Going back to what Robert Callahan said back in 2008, he mentioned three main regional concerns “human rights, democracy and economic development”. Self-evidently, those terms uttered by a U.S. diplomat require heavy interpretation. So in the field of human rights and democracy, a U.S. diplomat will mean freedom for vicious right wing media to misrepresent and denigrate progressive governments, for U.S. funded NGOs to engage freely in political destabilization and for violence by the political opposition to go unpunished. U.S. diplomats dress up all those abuses as freedom of expression while condemning legitimate government reaction as an abuse of the rule of law. When elections fail to give the desired outcome, the U.S. government questions the results, or even, as in the case of Cuba, dismisses them completely. The U.S. government's opening to Cuba is another of the new realities resulting from the regional integration process of Latin American and Caribbean countries over the last ten years.

Part of the reformulation of ostensible U.S. regional policy has been the U.S. State Department's emphasis, since John Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton, on the motif of corruption in an effort to make its overall messaging on democracy more plausible. The collapse of the government of Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala last year was emblematic of the way U.S. government and corporate psychological warfare can exploit the corruption motif so as to portray change, in fact ensuring things stay the same in a way favorable to U.S. regional policy. A more realistic measure of the U.S. government's commitment to fight corruption is its virtually total silence on the corruption-ridden soft-coup regime of Brazil's usurper President Temer. Likewise, a realistic measure of the U.S. government's commitment to fundamental rights and liberties is its unconditional support for the corrupt regime of Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras, plagued by paramilitary murders like that of Berta Cáceres, and U.S. government silence on the Ayotzinapa outrage in Mexico, among many others.

U.S. diplomats link democracy to economic development using the formula “free markets = democracy” by which they mean maximizing opportunities for business and investment for U.S. commercial and financial corporations. U.S. diplomats typically minimize or ignore social and economic rights like access to health care, education, social security or housing. Now the US economy is languishing in what looks like long term stagnation, the U.S. government is more anxious than ever to resurrect something like the Free Trade Area of the Americas in one guise or another and is doing so on various fronts. In Central America, U.S. diplomats led by Vice-President Joe Biden promote the Alliance for Prosperity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In South America they encourage the Pacific Alliance, of Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile. Of those countries only Colombia has yet to sign the Trans Pacific Partnership but intends to do so. Using trade to advance other foreign policy objectives is an important strand of U.S. foreign policy practice. In that regard, U.S. government officials learned a great deal from Robert Zoellick's work as U.S. Trade Representative under President George W. Bush.

Zoellick explicitly linked U.S. trade negotiations to the broader U.S. foreign policy agenda, noting at one point, “The U.S. seeks cooperation - or better - on foreign policy and security...Given that the U.S. has international interests beyond trade, why not try to urge people to support our overall policies? Negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S. is not something one has a right to - it's a privilege." Zoellick also explicitly stressed the continuity of that stance since World War 2, "American trade policies are connected to our broader economic, political and security aims. This intellectual integration may confound some trade scholars, but it follows in the footsteps of reconstruction after 1945." This was very much the spirit of U.S. President Obama's recent visit to Argentina, intended to boost President Macri's moves to change policy within the powerful Mercosur trading bloc, dominated by Brazil, especially with regard to the Trans Pacific Partnership and its associated Trade in Services Agreement.

The fundamental objectives of the U.S. really have nothing to do with what most people in Latin America now understand by human rights, democracy and economic development. It may indeed be true that the U.S. government prefers to see Latin America in chaos than to see progressive governments build a stable and prosperous region committed to peaceful security arrangements in a multi-polar world. That would certainly explain why it continues the blockade against Cuba and why it continues to deliberately promote destabilization of progressive governments across the region. However, the overriding objective of U.S. government regional policy is not mere destabilization but ultimately to guarantee access for U.S. corporate elites to strategic natural resources, especially hydrocarbons, minerals and biodiversity and to human resources in the form of cheap labor and vulnerable consumer markets. In the past, the U.S. authorities, their allies and powerful allied multilateral institutions have guaranteed that control and access via diplomatic and economic intimidation, debt and development cooperation and relentless psychological warfare, all ultimately backed up by military force.

That set of policy tools has not changed for over a hundred years, only the modalities of their application. Between now and the November U.S. presidential election there will most likely be an elaborate regional charade. The U.S. may well present a softer diplomatic front but still keep up strong covert and not so covert pressure focusing on Venezuela, but also intervening one way or another in all the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance of our Americas and against progressive political movements elsewhere. Over the next few days, President Obama's representative, Thomas Shannon may well engage in some kind of exchange with the government of President Nicolas Maduro. For the US government team they probably interpret that as a mission to negotiate terms of the Venezuelan government's eventual surrender of power. President Nicolas Maduro and his team clearly believe they can turn the country's economy around, while the Venezuelan opposition in the National Assembly continue to discredit themselves.

Right now the U.S. government is again working out what tactical mix to apply in order to achieve its strategic objectives. That may imply continuity of regional foreign policy into 2017 and beyond. But that may well change, under a new U.S. government most probably led by the sadistic, crooked, warmonger, Hillary Clinton. All the signs are that Clinton will promote individuals like Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power and Susan Rice to leading positions in her foreign policy team. These individuals promoted the current U.S. foreign policy disasters in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Broader State Department opinion may well be faithfully reflected in the recent leaked message to President Obama from 51 current State Department diplomats arguing in favor of a bombing campaign against the Syrian government. While the use of military force in Latin America for now seems unthinkably remote, the implication for future U.S. foreign policy in Latin America under Clinton presidency is a probable shift towards an even more interventionist stance across the region. In response to all these developments, Nicaragua's position at the OAS General Assembly in Santo Domingo for the moment probably represents the opinion of most progressive governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nicaragua's representative said:

“Institution building aimed at achieving sustainable development is necessary, but without Peace, without stability, without respect for sovereignty, free self-determination, sovereign equality between States and non-interference in their internal affairs, it is difficult to achieve that objective.

In Our America, the contradiction arises between the need for institution building for sustainable development for the benefit of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean and the intervention policies on the part of the power elites of the great powers who obstruct the processes of progress and development in our countries.

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in his message to the Summit of the Association of Caribbean States affirmed that dialog, peaceful co-existence, tolerance and the self-determination of peoples are inalienable principles we are obliged to maintain, respect and defend against those who dare to deprecate them, change them or ignore them.”

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