|English | Español||May 23, 2015 | Issue #53|
Obama and the US-Latin America Time Bomb
Defusing US Policy Toward Latin America Requires Cutting the Wires in Proper Order
By Al Giordano
And yet the “old” and “new” methods of anti-democratic imposition rely on the same foundations and priorities as always: In the place of Spaniard, Portuguese, French, British and Dutch conquerors, with their horses, armaments, priests, viceroys and informants recruited from the native populations, today the invaders and looters are faceless global corporations (many still from Europe, but even more of them from the former British colony that is the US). The new invading armies are their stockholders and money launderers, bureaucracies and police corps, and the corrupt television stations and newspapers that have become an increasingly powerful part of the local oligarch political classes. Then as now they get a few of the crumbs in exchange for managing these implements of submission upon the majority populations. Below and to the left: the multitudes of humans that are kept poor in pantry, shelter, health, education, and the authentic freedom that remains out of reach not only for the oppressed, but also – in this devil’s bargain, and including in the United States – for so many of their remote-control oppressors.
Into this quagmire, on Friday, stepped 46-year-old Barack Obama, the US Senator from Chicago that is the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States. In a policy speech in Miami he presented his proposals for US policy toward Latin America. Earlier this week, Narco News vetted the policies and doctrine of his presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain: Not much to see there other than Cold War nostalgia and a continuation of the time bomb’s countdown toward destructive explosion; essentially what was offered by US presidents Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II over the past 28 years.
Obama’s policy speech – which broke definitively from some of those policies while pandering to others – is far more difficult to vet. It will renew some of the same old debates between liberals, libertarians, progressives and leftists about whether the glass he holds out to Latin America is half empty or half full, and whether it contains refreshment or just a better-tasting venom… or whether it’s a glass at all.
Decades of imperial bipartisan US policy toward Latin America have calcified thinking on the Left and the Right alike. Partisans of each will pull out their litmus papers and declare the Obama doctrine acid or alkaline. Your writer, who has studied the Obama phenomenon as closely as any journalist, has learned from decades of practice not to take anything that any politician says during a political campaign as gospel regarding policy proposals. Once the candidate enters public office, hard realities come crashing down, and he or she are left alone only with his or her instincts, and those instincts – not the position papers – are what, in the end, determine policy.
And yet part of the time bomb to be defused is not ‘them,” those in power, but “us,” those adversarial to it, and our too-often stratified knee-jerk reactions that have become reflex after decades of stagnant US policy. As this newspaper has reported so thoroughly, Latin America has changed its reality in the past eight years, and that has created the necessity that the United States change its own. To presume that relations would be able to march on the same as before would show a profound disrespect to the heroes, martyrs and social movements that have advanced in Latin America while their counterparts in so many other parts of the world – particularly in the US – have been bludgeoned into submissive retreat.
What was new and different in Obama’s speech on Friday was not of his own invention, but, rather, a consequence of the changes that have already occurred from the bottom up in Latin America and his luck or wisdom to be young enough to have noticed while his elder political rivals have remained deaf and blind to them. At this point, it would be mere cliché to say that Obama shouldn’t be underestimated. He’s just defeated the Clinton political machine, the single most powerful force in the US Democratic Party for sixteen long years.
The first part of the US-Latin America bomb that we who have been long in the opposition to US policy have the power to cut is our own hardwiring. Your writer invites those on the Left that cling – just like those on the Right – to their litmus paper presumption that policy is a set of position papers and questionnaire responses to pull out your political science lab kits right now. We’ll go through the Obama doctrine on Latin America, as presented by the text of his US-Latin America policy speech, and vet it, first, by the old rules. And then your writer will volunteer what he really thinks has happened.
For those looking to see a continuation of destructive US policies in, and presumptions toward, Latin America from an Obama administration, his speech parroted some of the same bullheaded and divisive language that we’ve heard too much of already from Bush, Clinton and others before him. First and foremost is the caricature he offered of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the characterization of the Venezuelan government as “authoritarian”:
“…demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua.”
Putting aside, for now, the question of whether Obama really believes this nonsense or was pandering to the presumptions long peddled by US media and State out of political necessity, the very bases of that statement don’t hold up to the facts that this newspaper and other independent sources have reported. Repeating these falsehoods may shield him from certain attacks (and probably have a preemptive intent of preventing Chávez or the leaders of Bolivia and Nicaragua from praising his candidacy, as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega did earlier this year and as occurred in 2004 when praise offered by Chávez caused political controversy back in the US for then-Democratic nominee John Kerry). But the repetition of these myths also serves to reinforce and further propagate them.
Here are the facts: Compared to every Venezuelan administration before it, the Chávez government, in office since 1998, has been far less authoritarian or repressive than any other in history. Chávez, democratically elected, ended what had been rampant and daily official state censorship of newspapers, radio and television, while legalizing and facilitating the growth of more than 100 community-run non-profit TV and radio stations throughout the country, vastly expanding the spectrum of free speech and the access the people have to the media. Not a single Venezuelan journalist has been imprisoned or assassinated under his watch (the first time in Venezuelan history that has happened). Political opponents that have attempted violent coups d’etat, sabotage of oil production facilities and other acts that, had they been attempted in the United States or other countries, would have caused them to be prosecuted and imprisoned for terrorism, continue to walk and speak freely in Venezuela’s democracy.
The canard regarding Venezuela’s “checkbook diplomacy” and making “inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua” not only reflects a tired Cold War view of the globe (inserting Venezuela into the rhetorical role that the Soviet Union used to play in US pronouncements) but the worst that could be said about Venezuela’s generosity, courtesy of its oil profits, to other Latin American nations is that it studied US foreign policy and its imitation of it is the highest form of flattery.
For Obama to have said, “we can lead the hemisphere into the 21st century,” reflected the standard nationalist language heard from all politicians in all nations – and particularly the United States – that its role is to lead rather than collaborate with others. It’s ironic because, in present times, it’s been Latin American nations, particularly Venezuela, that have broken with the worst of the past, taken the initiative, and literally stepped out in front of the US in that leadership process on behalf of the principles – democracy and human rights – that the United States claims as sacrosanct.
Obama similarly used the same matrix to describe Cuba:
“Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy. This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century – of elections that are anything but free or fair; of dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth. I won’t stand for this injustice, you won’t stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba.”
No mention of the equal-and-opposite set of facts: that for his entire lifetime (and let’s face it, particularly in recent years) neither have the people of the United States or any other American nation known authentic freedom or democracy. It was 99 miles from the coast of Cuba, in Florida, where a US presidential election was stolen through fraud and voter suppression only eight years ago. And as Obama framed his discourse around the “four freedoms” of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which include “freedom from want,” Cuba’s superiority in health care and medical research advancement, free public education from pre-school to college, prenatal care and so many other social programs, of course were not mentioned in front of the audience of Cuban-American exiles and their kin in Miami.
As Obama criticized “the easy thing to do for American politicians,” he was doing plenty of that easy stuff as well.
Obama’s break with US policies and in favor of easing certain aspects of the embargo toward Cuba were bracketed by the blanket statement: “I will maintain the embargo.” Equal to his Republican rival, John McCain, this statement was at odds with past statements by both men, years ago, indicating that the embargo had failed and it was time to move on.
Likewise, regarding US policy toward the Hispaniola island nation of Haiti, Obama’s statement that, “The Haitian people have suffered too long under governments that cared more about their own power than their peoples’ progress and prosperity. It’s time to press Haiti’s leaders to bridge the divides between them,” provides a gloss of legitimacy to the current Haitian regime that took power by coup d’etat.
The same hand of false legitimacy was extended to Latin America’s most brutally repressive regime, that of the government of Alvaro Uribe in Colombia:
“For the people of Colombia – who have suffered at the hands of killers of every sort – that means battling all sources of violence. When I am President, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges. We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC. We’ll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia’s right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation, and – if need be – strong sanctions. It must not stand.”
The reference to the Colombian regime’s “right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders” is the most unfortunate phrase in all of Obama’s discourse. It’s a direct reference to the incident earlier this spring when the Colombian army crossed into Ecuador and committed a massacre of an alleged guerrilla encampment when the inhabitants – including civilian observers from Mexico’s national university – were asleep. That massacre set off a geopolitical crisis in South America that did not burst into war between nations only because of the restraint of the governments of Ecuador and the very Venezuelan administration that Obama criticized.
The pledge to continue the “Andean Counter-Drug Program” euphemizes support for the Clinton-Bush misadventure better known as Plan Colombia: a multi-billion dollar military intervention that has brought the opposite of its stated goals: Colombia now exports more cocaine to the United States than before the Plan was approved in 2000, and the number of regions in Colombia where the coca plant is cultivated for illicit cocaine production has doubled, thanks to bungled US policy. The side consequences have been even worse. Vast swathes of Amazon rainforest have been defoliated by Plan Colombia’s aerial herbicide spray component. The Colombian military and police forces – now better funded and equipped – are deployed not merely against guerrillas or drug traffickers, but also against peaceful social and indigenous movements, unions, and their leaders.
The pledge to “work with the government to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries” is akin to a promise to work with a mob boss to end the natural activities of his capo regimes. The current Colombian president, Uribe, former mayor of Medellin, came to power fully part of the narco-paramilitary political structure and is the single biggest obstacle to the goal of ending them.
The war-on-terrorism matrix created by George W. Bush is alive and propagated by the language utilized by his political opponent, Obama, in the language that brands the Colombian guerrillas – engaged in a five decade civil war – as “terrorists,” which in North American-speak portrays them as the moral equivalent of Osama bin Laden. There is a degree of projection of US pursuit of stateless terror organizations into states like Pakistan upon a very different set of realities in Latin America where armed insurgencies by native citizens against their own repressive governments sprang up precisely because the authoritarian form of “democracy” of those nations had shut the door on peaceful participation in political struggle. The equation of one with the other is bogus and counterproductive and will only lead to continuance of the same circumstances that bolster Colombia’s national dysfunction in particular.
Obama similarly provided a stamp of legitimacy upon the Mexican regime of Felipe Calderón, installed through the thoroughly documented electoral fraud of 2006:
Thousands of Central American gang members have been arrested across the United States, including here in south Florida. There are national emergencies facing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Mexican drug cartels are terrorizing cities and towns. President Calderon was right to say that enough is enough. We must support Mexico’s effort to crack down.
Obama went even further to call for the expansion of Plan Mexico (what the simulators call “the Merida Initiative”), which replicates the awful experience of Plan Colombia into the neighboring country of the United States, in a manner that will frankly cause a heavier influx of Mexican immigrants into the US because of the repressive tools that it will provide to the Calderón regime. And yet Obama said: “the Merida Initiative does not invest enough in Central America,” when its investments in Mexico are going to cause many more problems of the kinds it purports to combat.
His language about maintaining the most boneheaded yardsticks of progress in the US-imposed “war on drugs” in the hemisphere is not any more reassuring: “we’ll tie our support to clear benchmarks for drug seizures, corruption prosecutions, crime reduction, and kingpins busted.” Tying support to benchmarks on, say, human rights, or fair and free elections was not considered nor mentioned.
While speaking about energy policy, Obama opened a whole ‘nother can of worms: “We’ll assess the opportunities and risks of nuclear power in the hemisphere by sitting down with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile.” Brazilian leaders, including those in the military of President Lula da Silva, are regularly cited as advocating that country’s development of nuclear weapons from nuclear power technology.
Take those statements from Obama’s address all lined up together and he offered the same tired fare regarding US-Latin America policy as that served up by his predecessors in the White House, offering failed policies, and myth-based rhetoric, doomed to more failure (and replicating more misery, imposition and authoritarianism upon Latin American peoples) over and over and over again.
If the words above replicated and perpetuated some of the most problematic parts of 28 years of Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush policy and propaganda toward Latin America, significant and substantive parts of the rest of Obama’s speech broke decisively with other, just as destructive, doctrines.
Obama’s policy break that the news media focused on most was his repeated vow to ease the US embargo of Cuba, in two ways with which Obama has now driven a stake through the GOP’s dominance of Cuban-American votes in Florida and elsewhere.
Until very recently, a small group of the most right-wing elders of the South Florida Cuban-American community delivered its votes in a bloc to whichever candidates offered the most bellicose policy prescriptions toward the island of Cuba. They were the political bosses and they spoke with one voice on behalf of the votes they could deliver.
A big part of the US-Latin America time bomb referred to above has been stoked by that interest group’s all-powerful control of Cuban-American votes in the important electoral state of Florida. Fear of losing the “swing state” (one that can’t be relied upon by either party and where presidential elections have been close in recent contests) with the largest cachet of electoral votes kept Democrats and Republicans that had run for president in the past fighting the Cold War long after the Berlin Wall had fallen. And in the US Congress, the three Cuban-American dominated districts from Florida have produced entrenched Republican incumbents obsessed with fighting what they call communism in all of Latin America, a fixation that poisoned other US policies regarding the rest of the hemisphere, too.
Returning to the time bomb metaphor: To pry political discourse in the United States toward Latin America away from obsolete domino theories that became dogma when the Soviet Union existed, the first wire that needs to be cut on that destructive device is the right-wing stranglehold, via Cuban-American bloc voting, over Florida’s electoral votes. That’s why Obama went to Miami to deliver this address.
Mostly unnoticed by the US news media, a generational rift has percolated among Cuban-Americans that Obama was able to hear and speak to before his elder rivals for the US presidency were apparently aware of it. Members of the younger generations have concluded – along with most other Americans – that the US embargo on Cuba is an utterly stupid policy, in part because it is particularly restrictive upon them: Under current law, they’re prohibited from visiting their relatives on the island, and from sending money to them. Obama’s call to end that prohibition – in which he was opposed first by his main Democratic rival Senator Hillary Clinton and now by his Republican opponent McCain – has struck deep resonance in that community in South Florida, and provoked the beginnings of an abandonment of its most reactionary and harmful leaders by younger generations of Cuban-Americans.
(In a sense, this phenomenon runs parallel to what Obama’s campaign has accomplished across most demographic groups in the United States and his Democratic Party: he has drowned the worst of the old guard under a wave of millions of younger voters, and rekindled the multi-racial alliances that fueled the Civil Rights movements and that have long been the recipe for the country’s periodic progressive advances.)
The gusano faction of elder political bosses that once spoke with one voice for the entire ethnic group of two million Cuban-Americans in the United States is now, itself, divided, with some – like many of the 900 community leaders who gathered under the banner of the Cuban-American National Foundation to hear Obama – also breaking from the pro-embargo orthodoxy, if only out of pragmatic awareness that nobody’s going to have much clout at all in the near future without the support and participation of their own adult children and grandchildren.
Obama’s charge into territory the Democratic Party had previously written off – which began last summer with a Miami Herald op ed column and a speech in Miami’s Little Havana in which he called for easing the embargo – has also stoked the candidacies of three Cuban-American Democrats that share his view within reach of defeating extreme right wing Republicans members of Congress. Among them: Joe Garcia, a progressive Democrat that is challenging US Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (R-Florida). The previous equation had created safe seats for Diaz-Balart and his brother, US Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Florida), who is challenged now by another Democrat: former Hialleah Mayor Raul Martinez. The brothers are descendants of a Cuban political dynasty. US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinin (R-Florida) also faces electoral opposition by Democrat Annette Taddeo this year.
These three Republican members of the US Congress, beyond serving as wardens for the US embargo, have had a corrosive effect on political discourse in Congress regarding all of Latin America. They see Soviet communism behind any form of societal progress – be it social democracy or human rights – and have been the leading cheerleaders of policies that demonize Venezuela and Bolivia while bolstering repressive regimes in Colombia and Mexico.
As with the changes throughout Latin America, Obama can’t take credit for causing the demographic shift in the Cuban-American community, but he did something that national US politicians seldom do: He listened beyond the noise machine and heard those rumblings from below, a skill that has served him, a former community organizer, in other ways during this campaign. In this sense, the senator’s speech on Friday didn’t just tell us some things about him; it showed us other qualities. Since his August 2007 call for easing the embargo, Obama’s candidacy has become a rallying point for a newly progressive movement among Cuban-Americans to challenge the old guard. That penchant for listening to what is happening below the radar of outmoded “conventional wisdom” is precisely what has been lacking from most US politicians, and the quality that will be most needed to be able to cut the remaining wires on the US-Latin America time bomb.
The next wire to be cut is that of trade policy. The imposition that other nations sign “treaties” based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deal that, since 1994, has destroyed the livelihood of millions of workers and farmers on both sides of the US-Mexico border but has been a bonanza for multinational corporations, has determined US policy on all other matters. This particular round of continental bullying went into overdrive once President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993. The drug war, US economic and military aid and other levers of pressure and power have been wielded toward Latin American nations all with the singular goal of forcing them into a new generation of trade agreements. The reluctance of many countries to sign up for the Mexican-style destruction of their economies and sovereignty has driven, more than any other factor, the hostilities of Washington toward Venezuela and other nations that have moved, via the ballot box, to the Left over the past ten years.
The big push by the Bush administration this year has been to seek Congressional approval of a US-Colombia “free trade” agreement. In Miami, on Friday, Obama blasted the deal’s lack of worker protections, and insisted that the manner in which wealth is distributed, “not just the corporate bottom line,” would be the foundation of future trade negotiations under his administration:
“I strongly reject the Bush-McCain view that any trade deal is a good deal. We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom. It’s time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries. Like Central America’s bishops, I opposed CAFTA because the needs of workers were not adequately addressed. I supported the Peru Free Trade Agreement because there were binding labor and environmental provisions. That’s the kind of trade we need – trade that lifts up workers, not just a corporate bottom line.
“There’s nothing protectionist about demanding that trade spreads the benefits of globalization, instead of steering them to special interests while we short-change workers at home and abroad.”
While we might presume that Obama’s stated support for Plan Colombia, the legitimacy he bestows upon the Uribe regime and endorsement of its violation of Ecuadorian territory would cause Uribe a great sigh of relief, the Colombian commander-in-chief has voiced a near-hysterical fear of an Obama administration. In fact, last month Uribe attacked Obama publicly over his opposition to the trade deal. Across-the-border meddling in a US presidential campaign by a foreign head of state is an extreme measure, as it breaks generally accepted norms of diplomatic protocol.
Last month, US President Bush called a panicked televised press conference when Democrats in Congress balked at fast-tracking the Colombia trade deal:
“If Congress fails to approve this agreement it will not only abandon a great ally, it will send a message across the region that America cannot be counted on to support its friends.”
“The stakes are high in Latin America,” said Bush, citing Colombia’s “strategic location” and insisting that passage of the trade deal was necessary to deliver “a powerful rebuke to dictators and demagogues in our back yard.”
The excerpts of Obama’s speech regarding Colombia granted virtually the entire store to the Uribe regime except for the trade deal that – according to Uribe and his US backers – is their highest priority to be able to consolidate more permanent right wing control of Colombia.
That snip you hear is the sound of the second wire being cut: Colombia, now the renegade nation in South America, its last remaining right-wing regime in a region where, only ten years ago, all nations were governed by the authoritarian Right, is drifting toward a self-inflicted isolation from its neighbors. Its subservience to Washington makes it the lone hold-out that refuses to incorporate into the South American Defense Council being formed by the 11 remaining governments on the continent. Obama’s opposition to the trade deal that is Uribe’s holy grail sends a powerful signal not only to the Colombian people, but to the rest of the region, that the blank check previously extended by the Clinton and Bush administrations to Colombia should no longer be considered absolute.
In the context of Obama’s announcement last summer, in an interview with conservative columnist Andres Oppenheimer, who wrote that Obama told him that “he would not only sit down with the Venezuelan president ‘under certain conditions’ but would travel to leftist-ruled Bolivia—Venezuela’s closest ally in South America—at the start of his presidency,” the message to the majority of South American nations is clear: no longer will US policy toward an entire region be determined by just one country’s government. (In that interview, Obama also voiced his desire to visit Brazil, Argentina and Chile during his first year in office.) That – and not his stated continuance of other US policies toward Colombia – has already rearranged the furniture of the hemisphere.
The legitimate complaint that Latin American nations and peoples have long had toward the United States has been its “do as you are told” policies of imposition and disrespect toward the democratic decisions and yearnings of all its countries. Obama, in his Miami speech, moved the carpet even further:
“It’s time for a new alliance of the Americas. After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future. After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up. So my policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States.”
When was the last time – if there ever was one – that a US presidential nominee spoke in terms of a “top down” versus “bottom up” dialectic regarding democracy in the Americas? That listening ear of Obama’s is revealed once again. The very concept of democracy, in recent years, has been advanced in parts of Latin America. One is reminded of the appearance by Bolivian President Evo Morales on The Daily Show in New York last September, in which host Jon Stewart expressed utter amazement that Morales had succeeded in nationalizing the gas industry, redistributed land through agrarian reform and called a constitutional convention all in his first eight months of office.
The great unacknowledged American story of recent years is that Latin America has become, at the insistence of its peoples, an advanced laboratory developing more progressive, indeed, more democratic (“bottom up,” in Obama’s words), forms of democracy. This, at the very same hour when, in the United States, executive power has concentrated dangerously and turned the clock back on the most American of liberties and constitutional rights.
If only the time bomb of Cold War rhetoric out of Washington would stop ticking so loudly so as to trigger all sides into a panicked polarization, the real story of Latin America – the one that this newspaper has been reporting so intensely during these years – might be heard not as something threatening, but as innovations that could be applied to improve the lives of a majority of US citizens, too. A capacity to ignore the media-fed noise and listen, if it were to ever exist in the ears of the occupant of the Oval Office, to what is coming from the “bottom up” offers perhaps its greatest possibilities not merely in US foreign policy, but domestically as well. While advances in democracy have rolled to a complete stop in the United States and, frankly, atrophied, other regions of the hemisphere have picked up the ball dropped by their neighbor to the North.
The signature of Obama’s campaign has been his stated belief that “the system” in Washington is broken. In that context, these next words from his Miami speech are interesting:
“For far too long, Washington has engaged in outdated debates and stuck to tired blueprints on drugs and trade, on democracy and development — even though they won’t meet the tests of the future.”
The disconnect between Obama’s acknowledgement that the blueprints “on drugs and trade and democracy and development” are “tired” and “won’t meet the tests of the future” with the previously stated affirmations of some of the worst of those existing policies regarding Plan Colombia, Plan Mexico and an unhealthy fixation on (and misreading of) Venezuela’s democracy in the Chávez era, will, should Obama become president, set up a fascinating set of creative tensions. It’s that loud, deafening, ticking sound – ever bringing the saber rattling ultimatums and impositions by Washington down upon this half of the earth – that has to be lessened in order for progress to occur.
The time bomb ticks the loudest along the fault-line of US-Venezuela policy: the trip wire of the explosive device. Chávez has parlayed his country’s economic wealth as an oil producing nation to fund a massive advance in anti-poverty and social programs of the kind that – if the ticking sound weren’t quite as loud – Democrats in the United States would seek to learn from. Some are: Former US Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and his Citizen Energy Corps., among others, have struck agreements with Citgo, the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, to provide low cost heating oil to poor and middle class families in the United States.
After his first election in 1998, Chávez moved quickly to redistribute his nation’s wealth, causing absolute fright in the oligarch class that had for so many generations looted their own country, leaving the great majority of Venezuelans in destitute poverty. The corporate media – inside and outside of Venezuela – led the first propaganda campaigns against Chávez. One of the leading cheerleaders in the smear jobs that painted Chávez as both a dangerous authoritarian and simultaneously an inept buffoon (as if one could be both) was then-NY Times correspondent in South America, Larry Rohter (now, ironically, covering the US presidential campaign for that newspaper). By the time, in April of 2002, the Venezuelan media and military conspired in a coup d’etat, kidnapping the democratically elected president while at the same time broadcasting the falsehood that he had “resigned,” the unchecked “reporting” by Rohter and others had caused such mass hysteria in the US news media that his newspaper, the Times, published an editorial praising the coup d’etat. (The Times, in the face of enormous public outrage, later apologized for its editorial and denounced it.)
For those unfamiliar with those events of April 2002 that cast the die for all US-Venezuela tensions since, please do read our summary published days after the coup had risen and fallen: Three Days that Shook the Media: Online Journalism’s Finest Hour Exposed and Reversed a Coup. It is impossible to understand how relations between the Bush and Chávez administrations have spiraled into such name-calling dysfunction without studying that key moment in the history of this young century.
Obama, should he reach the White House and begin to implement even a small part of the systemic changes in “how Washington does business” that he’s advocated in this campaign, will find that the leader he called “demagogue” on Friday has drawn the only successful present day roadmap for how a democratically-elected president survives the onslaught when entrenched special interests push back.
As this reporter discovered two months after that failed coup, when he followed, as a reporter, Chávez through a two-day whirlwind of diverse meetings and events, the Venezuelan leader – far from being the “buffoon” that the simulators of corporate media tried to portray him to be – is an extremely well read and thoughtful political leader and strategist, with a photographic memory of policy and history down to the minute details that most heads of state leave to their staffs.
One of the campaign pledges Obama has made that has drawn the most fire, first from his Democratic rival Clinton, now from President Bush and Republican presidential candidate McCain, is his expressed willingness to meet face-to-face with Chávez and other world leaders that were shunned by previous US administrations. That particular meeting, should it come to be, may be both nations’ only and last chance to defuse the time bomb. Further ratcheting-up of US-Venezuela tensions, especially given that so much of the scarce resource called oil is at stake, could fall down the slippery slope to greater hostilities, including war. Any attempt by the United States to bully Venezuela militarily or economically would naturally lead to a cut-off of the oil from that region upon which the US economy has become dependent.
One could imagine that a hypothetical meeting between Bush and Chávez, or Senators Clinton or McCain and Chávez, would probably explode into dysfunction in the first few minutes, with geopolitical consequences for all. Those characters rail against Obama’s stated willingness to conduct such a meeting precisely because they are – on an ego and personality level – poorly equipped to disarm the hard feelings already caused sufficiently to bring the relationship between the two historically friendly nations back into one of mutual respect. Each of them – Bush, McCain and Clinton – suffer the tin ear that plagues most US politicians. Obama, conversely, sees opportunity in speaking face to face instead of merely shouting at each other through the international media.
It is a theme Obama returned to in his Friday speech in Miami regarding his parallel willingness to meet with Raul Castro and/or other Cuban leaders, turning the stick on McCain and making his expressed unwillingness to sustain such a meeting a weakness for him:
“John McCain’s been going around the country talking about how much I want to meet with Raul Castro, as if I’m looking for a social gathering. That’s never what I’ve said, and John McCain knows it. After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions. There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda. And as President, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.
“I will never, ever, compromise the cause of liberty. And unlike John McCain, I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty. We’ve heard enough empty promises from politicians like George Bush and John McCain. I will turn the page.”
And the 900 Cuban-American leaders in the hall – those that politicians long presumed would staunchly oppose direct talks with Cuba – applauded. Two days later, another of those organizations, Women in White, family members of those they call political prisoners in Cuba, issued a statement endorsing and praising Obama’s proposal:
The founder of Women in White, Miriam Leiva, and her recently freed dissident husband, Oscar Chepe, also wrote an open letter to Barak Obama.
They applauded his offer to allow Cuban Americans to freely visit relatives here.
They also wrote that a more creative policy could help the transition towards democracy and that the current confrontation is used by the authorities in Havana to justify their repression.
The Cuban government denies that there are any political prisoners on the island, calling them all mercenaries in the pay of the United States.
There are, no doubt, sticky wickets that will make such direct talks difficult: Cuba argues that the people referred to as “political prisoners” were in fact spies conducting paid espionage or destabilizing provocation on the part of the US government. Given that the Central Intelligence Agency has directed considerable attention to Cuba, including multiple assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, it’s highly probable that many of those prisoners were spies. The US, likewise, has Cubans in prison convicted of the same exact offense. Both sides deny the charges. Espionage is a crime in both countries, and yet neither admit to conducting it against the other in any specific circumstance. And yet that fact also points to a way out that many nations have utilized throughout history: a trade of one group of prisoners for the other.
But, snip, can you hear in that scenario the sound of the wire cutters on the time bomb?
Disarming the sixty years of tensions between the US and Cuba, at this point in history when Fidel Castro has just stepped down, is probably not as hard a challenge as other messes the next US president will inherit in relations with other countries. The biggest one regarding US-Latin American relations is that of Venezuela. And yet, with a listening ear instead of an endlessly-running mouth in the White House, such a shift would be plausible.
Which brings us to the problem of rhetoric and propaganda, which has plagued US-Latin American relations throughout history. The tick, tick, tick of the time bomb can be heard with each macho gesture across the Caribbean and the vestiges of Cold War language that create divisions even where natural alliances reside. The polarization is fed by racism and bigotry, too, toward all Latin American peoples, and most sharply toward immigrants from those countries in the United States.
Obama, who vocally opposed the US war in Iraq from the beginning, should he become president, will inherit that mess and those made in Latin America that he did not create. His frequent statement about Iraq – “we have to be as careful getting out as they were careless going in” – likely applies to his approach to US-Latin America relations as well.
Those who seek change in US foreign policy in this hemisphere are likely to have mixed reactions to Obama’s speech on the topic. And yet compared to his waning Democratic Party rival, Senator Clinton, and his likely GOP opponent, Senator McCain, the differences he has pushed – for direct eye-to-eye diplomacy with Venezuelan and Cuban leaders, for easing the Cuba embargo, for stopping the US-Colombia trade deal, and his overall penchant for breaking with past policy – an Obama presidency would dramatically shake up the status quo in the Western Hemisphere.
(Notable in the differences between Obama and McCain is a news story that appeared in the daily El Mercurio of Chile on Sunday: McCain’s top advisor on Latin American affairs turns out to be none other than Otto Reich, who as part of the Reagan and both Bush administrations was architect of the dirty Contra war against Nicaragua, a protector of violent anti-Castro terrorists, and was a key player in bolstering the 2002 coup in Venezuela. The contrasts that do exist between Obama and McCain on Latin America policy are as night and day.)
Obama ended his policy speech on Friday using a very different kind of language that signaled respect where historically there has been an expectation of submission. And with three words – “Todos Somos Americanos” – which means, “We Are All Americans” – he spoke across the wall being constructed between Americas much in the same manner as when President John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner” along the Berlin Wall. That’s a phrase that’s going to be repeated a lot in the coming days and months throughout Latin America:
“And we must tap the vast resource of our own immigrant population to advance each part of our agenda. One of the troubling aspects of our recent politics has been the anti-immigrant sentiment that has flared up, and been exploited by politicians come election time. We need to understand that immigration – when done legally – is a source of strength for this country. Our diversity is a source of strength for this country. When we join together – black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and native American – there is nothing that we can’t accomplish. Todos somos Americanos!”
He spoke of the need to “leave the bluster behind” in the rhetoric between Americas:
“Every moment is critical. And this must be our moment. Freedom. Opportunity. Dignity. These are not just the values of the United States – they are the values of the Americas. They were the cause of Washington’s infantry and Bolivar’s cavalry; of Marti’s pen and Hidalgo’s church bells.
“That legacy is our inheritance. That must be our cause. And now must be the time that we turn the page to a new chapter in the story of the Americas.”
So, depending on one’s tendencies, one can see, in Obama’s doctrine regarding US-Latin America relations, a glass half empty, or a glass half full, or maybe it’s not a glass at all. Maybe it’s a wire cutter.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism