By Sol Sanders, Grady Means

 

For more than a half century, dating from FDR and Cordell Hull’s “Good Neighbor” policies, U.S. diplomacy in Latin America has been focused on encouraging democracy, free markets, and economic development.  Over those five decades there have been huge successes – and there have been dramatic failures.

An historical perspective, however, shows remarkable overall progress:

The 1980 map of Latin America was largely one of authoritarian, often military governments, generally controlled by small oligarchies, with hyper-cyclical, commodity-based economies, nearly all plagued by huge debt and hyper-inflation.

However, by 2000, Latin America was largely an array of broad-based popularly elected regimes, structured and diversified economies with low to moderate inflation and manageable debt.   The   problems of severe poverty, economic inequity, and drug cartels remained, but significant progress had been made.

The U.S., as the largest foreign direct investor and the largest supplier of development aid and offering the largest market for Latin American exports, as well as the most active supporter of centrist democratic movements, played a significant role in this massive transition.

For the most part, it is a record for which every American whatever his domestic political allegiance can be proud. Despite the overwhelming demands of the war on terrorism after 9/11 there were important continuing new initiatives by the Bush Administration in this tradition. Chief among these was a proposal for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone, which would boost investment in the Latin countries as well as expand trade along the lines of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Barack Obama seems to be largely unaware of this history.  Rather, he seems persuaded by radical critiques of the U.S. role — such as presented in the book Chavez gave him at the summit.  By the way, this book was repudiated by its author, and is an unbalanced screed on American and European transgressions over centuries. Curiously, there was little in Obama’s campaign oratory about opposing abuses of human rights in Latin America.

His tolerance – and what much of his audience interpreted as acceptance — for the most radical denunciations of the U.S. role at the recent Western Hemisphere summit was shocking. Obama’s seeming contrition before an avalanche of vicious attacks on the U.S. will simply discourage democratic allies and reconfirm the views of the autocrats that he may be weak and perhaps feckless. In fact, as one observer noted, Obama passed up a priceless opportunity to defend freedom in a region where it always seems in jeopardy. Instead, even a leftwing critic noted that Obama had let Latin American leaders off the hook by not holding Castroite Cuba to the standards they apply to Washington’s actions.

Instead, the Hemisphere has been treated to some incomplete early Obama Administration policy initiatives. These include a largely rhetorical outreach to Mexico which continues the policies of the previous administration; an amendment of regulations regarding migration and remittances to Castroite Cuba; and his personal, enthusiastic encounter with the leader of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. These signals by the new Administration could be seen as false steps that reward our enemies in the Hemisphere while ignoring or giving too little to our friends.

The response to his reduction of restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba and limits on remittances has been met by no concessions from the Castro Brothers. In fact, Fidel Castro has quickly rejected the spin the White House placed on Raul Castro’s one speech phrase suggesting negotiations might proceed without pre-conditions.

Neither his earlier pre-inauguration meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon nor his stop enroute to the Summit produced any new initiatives or impetus to what had been increasingly lagging Bush Administration aid efforts to boost relations with our southern neighbor. He still faces the problem of producing a winning policy on U.S. immigration, which is as important to the Mexican government as a successful attack on the drug cartels. He has added new tangles to the relatively minor problem of trucking across the international border which has led Mexico to slap on countervailing duties in defiance of the North American Free Trade Agreement in what they insist are U.S. violations.

Meanwhile, Chavez has been destroying Venezuela’s free society, while helping the Iranians establish a beachhead in the Hemisphere. At the very moment Obama’s summit tête-à-tête with Chavez was being aired on Venezuelan State Television – obviously as a prop for the Caudillo’s declining popularity – a leader of the opposition, the mayor of Maracaibo sought the traditional Latin American refuge in Peru to avoid assassination after being in hiding for months. The opposition mayor of Caracas, the largest city and capital of the country has been shorn of his prerogatives. Chavez, through a plebiscite in February, is aiming toward a “lifetime presidency”, one of the basic relics of Latin America’s past that U.S. policy had hoped to have overcome.

At an international meeting where he was being welcomed – sometimes on terms bordering on racist – the U.S. President did not seize the initiative. He might at least have announced that he would renounce his campaign stand and move his fellow Democrats to finally lift their opposition to the long languishing free trade agreement with Colombia — the kind of economic initiative and reward intended for U.S.’ allies in the Hemisphere.

There was no follow up on his now almost standard mantra of condemning past American actions in what the President has called the necessity to “reverse the mistakes of the past to start a new dialogue.”

What did the President do?

Obama tried to make friends among the Latin American leaders – notably the most repressive.  Although there was an obvious agenda based on earlier programs, he did little to advance U.S. interests or to even suggest what Obama Administration policy will be other than to say that it will be “different than his predecessor’s.”  To a large degree, Obama seemed to have his eye on U.S. audiences and politics. He seemed proud that our former sworn enemies appeared to like him and applaud him – especially our traditional enemies in the region.  He failed to see that whether they like him is largely irrelevant as they now just see him as more malleable than his “predecessors.”

Did the U.S. gain or lose?

The U.S. Lost Serious Ground at the Summit:

  • Our enemies in Latin America got the strong impression that we will be tolerant not only of their suppression of democracy at home but accept their links to terrorist groups and nations.
  • Democratic forces in Latin America got the impression that the U.S. is no longer interested in actively supporting democracy, market economies, or free trade – very discouraging to those who have followed the U.S. lead and struggled to advance the region over the last 20 years. In the post-summit press conference, Obama seemed to accept the left’s critique of “the Washington consensus” which in fact only puts forth what have historically been U.S. aims for the region.
  • China, Russia, and Iran got the strong impression that this President will not defend American strategic interests in the region, long considered “America’s backyard”. Russia will see a green light for its rather feeble attempts to make trouble for the U.S. in the region and China will see a green light for aggressive commercial efforts and perhaps new naval bases – all of which could create a strategic military nightmare for the U.S.
  • Absolutely no adversary will interpret the friendly smile and the “apologies” as an “opening” to negotiate strategic interests or to change their policies. As was evident from the insults from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, conversations constructive to U.S. interests will be even more difficult after this summit.

That is why, in our news digest “WorldBuzz.com,” we gave him a D- for last week’s Latin American Summit.

In Latin America, with its long history of intimate [and sometimes difficult] relations with the U.S., perhaps more than elsewhere, fostering good relations requires a deep understanding of culture and history, as well as politics and political objectives – and not least economic relationships. If further progress is to be made – especially in the midst of a worldwide credit crunch and recession which is more slowly but inevitably impacting Latin America — a very clear plan and strategy is necessary to meet the issues.

What are those issues, many of them urgent and in need of attention by administrators as well as policymakers in Washington?

 

Mexico

  • Drug wars: The Mexican cartels are growing in strength and carrying their battles into the U.S.  A destabilization of the Mexican government could lead to serious border frictions and even resultant unrest among illegal and legal Mexican immigrants in the U.S.  Pres. Felipe Calderon has taken aggressive and brave action to challenge the cartels. He needs U.S. help.  Obama did not conclude any agreement or begin to deliver on the already promised military equipment needs of the Mexican government in fighting the cartels, nor was progress made on any related issues.  Instead Obama apologized for the guns crossing the border from the U.S. to Mexico.  This turns out to be inaccurate. [They are mostly coming from Central America, pistols are not the problem and assault rifles are freely available on the world’s grey markets — including the notorious AK47.].
  • U.S. drug market: The Mexicans complain that the huge U.S. demand for drugs drives the illegal drug trade through Mexico.  Obama has responded by having the U.S. Attorney General indicate that restrictions on medical marijuana should be removed, opening a major new channel for illegal drugs.
  • Border control/trucking issue: the festering issue over Mexican truck drivers coming into the U.S. has prevented Mexico from agreeing on a pre-screening process for cargo crossing the border.  This has created gigantic border delays and much less effective vehicle checks.  The issue is partly caused by an Obama consideration to the Teamsters Union, and seems to ignore the broader national security issue.

 

  • Economic growth and stability: The declining price of oil has badly hurt the Mexican economy.  Obama has indicated that he wants to re-negotiate certain aspects of the NAFTA, creating further uncertainty for Mexico [as well as Canada] and investors.  In addition, his seeming advocacy of the “buy-America” aspects of the bailout initiatives creates further confusion in Mexico’s key export market.

 

Venezuela

  • Authoritarianism: the declining price of oil has under-cut Chavez’s primary political payoff tool and weakens his hold on power.  In response Chavez is moving quickly and aggressively to full dictatorial power.  Chavez cannot cooperate with Obama on moving back to democracy or lessen brutality and repression because he would quickly lose power.  Obama’s friendly embrace with Chavez and accepting his “gift” discourages democratic forces fighting to reverse Chavez’s brutal seizure of power.
  • Regional aggression: Obama seems to be unaware of official U.S. government public documentation of Chavez’ aid and trafficking with the narco-terrorists in Colombia. There is circumstantial evidence that his regime either collaborates or ignores the encroachment of the Mexican drug cartels working through Venezuela with the Colombian narco-terrorists.
  • Iran: Chavez and Iran have a close working relationship to overthrow democratic regimes in the region, to train terrorists, and find ways to work against the U.S. Chavez gets training from the Republican Guard, has set up a bank with Iran, and supports Hamas and Hezbollah.  Chavez reportedly provides Venezuelan passports to Iranian operatives so the can enter countries like Mexico secretly and link to Mexican cartels.  Obama’s “soft” tone with Chavez will only tighten the relationship with Iran since they have less to fear from the U.S.
  • China: China is working with Venezuela on oil development and seeking Caribbean bases for the Chinese navy.  Obama can do little or nothing to reverse this relationship, but overly friendly gestures to Chavez will only encourage more aggressive PLA movement into the Hemisphere.
  • Russia: Russia is seeking military air basing agreements with Venezuela for planes that can carry nuclear weapons.  Russia will take the same view as China – that Obama is no threat to their ambitions in the Hemisphere to offset U.S./NATO power in Europe.

Cuba

  • Cuba is still a highly repressive, totalitarian regime, which shows little or no sign of change in the near future.  Obama made a number of concessions and got nothing in return (even China releases a few political prisoners as a sign of “good will.”).  Fidel Castro made sure, after the summit, to reconfirm that Obama’s actions did nothing more than re-confirm the legitimacy of the “Revolution.”

 

 

Colombia

  • Colombia’s Uribe is the other Latin American leader who has aggressively taken on the drug gangs and the terrorist, Venezuelan-supported FALN.  While Obama was courting the tyrants, he gave little attention to an important ally.  In addition, by refusing to throw his weight against the Congressional Democrats blocking a new free-trade agreement with Bogota, he under-cuts the political position of Uribe, and suggests what it means to be a partisan of the U.S. in Latin America.

Chile and Peru

  • Obama failed to recognize the tremendous success of these democracies and free-market economies as models, along with Brazil, for the rest of Latin America.

 

Nicaragua

 

  • Obama sat passively through a one hour, anti-American harangue without comment.  Then gave one of his First-Fist bumps to Ortega in spite of his efforts to renew Sandinista repression in Nicaragua and develop alliances with anti-American dictators throughout the world. The kind of menace even a relatively small anti-democratic regime in Central America poses is the news that Daniel Ortega is working with Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, trying to bring down the present government in Bangkok from exile with his billions.

What did the President do?

Obama tried to make friends among the Latin American leaders – notably the most repressive.  Although there was an obvious agenda based on earlier programs, he did little to advance U.S. interests or to even suggest what Obama Administration policy will be other than to suggest that it will be “different than his predecessor’s.”  To a large degree, Obama seemed to have his eye on U.S. audiences and politics. (He was proud that the former sworn enemies appeared to like him and applaud him – especially our traditional enemies in the region).  He failed to see that they whether they like him is largely irrelevant but that they just see him as more malleable than his “predecessors”.

Did the U.S. gain or lose? he U.S. lost serious ground at the summit:

Our enemies in Latin America got the strong impression that we will be tolerant not only of their suppression of democracy at home but accept their links to terrorist groups and nations.

  • Democratic forces in Latin America got the impression that the U.S. is no longer interested in actively supporting democracy, market economies, or free trade – very discouraging to those who have followed the U.S. lead and struggled to advance the region over the last 20 years. If they had any doubts, in the post-summit press conference Obama – whether he actually understands the concept or not – accept the left’s critique of “the Washington consensus” which in fact only sloganizes what have been U.S. aims historically for the region.
  • China, Russia, and Iran got the strong impression that this President will not defend American strategic interests in the region long considered “America’s backyard”. Russia will see a green light for [its rather feeble attempts to make trouble for the U.S. in the region] and China will see a green light for aggressive commercial efforts and perhaps new naval bases – all of which could create a strategic military nightmare for the U.S.
  • Drug leaders saw a President who appears sympathetic toward further legalizing drug use and who will not “walk the walk” on supporting Mexico in fighting the cartels. Attorney General Holder has already announced a relaxation of prosecution of violations of the sale of “medical marijuana”.
  • Absolutely no adversary will interpret the friendly smile and the “apologies” as an “opening” to negotiate strategic interests or to change their policies. As was evident from the insults from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, conversations constructive to U.S. interests will be even more difficult after this summit.

Bottom Line:

  • Unprepared
  • Uninformed
  • Ineffective
  • Weak
  • Naïve
  • D-

Sol Sanders and Grady Means, the managing editor and the publisher of http://worldbuzz.com/. Mr. Sanders has been an international journalist for over 50 years and served as the International Outlook Editor for Business Week and is the author of the book “Mexico: Chaos on Our Doorstep.”  Mr. Means served in the White House with Vice President Rockefeller and as a management consultant led many privatization initiatives throughout Latin America.

 

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