Barack Obama has done little to quell the mistrust sweeping across Latin America, which harbours deep suspicions about the U.S.’s hegemonic intentions
Wrapping up a lightning tour of Latin America — the first of his second term and his sixth overall — United States President Barack Obama this week summed up his views on the hemisphere in fond reflections about the 50th anniversary of former President John F. Kennedy’s vision for the region.
Addressing business leaders in San Jose, Costa Rica, Mr. Obama said: “President Kennedy visited 50 years ago and ... recognised at that time the enormous potential for the private sector as a critical ingredient in progress and development for the hemisphere as a whole; that when you combine good government with a thriving free market, then that was an extraordinary recipe for opportunity for all people.”
He went on to add that visiting half-a-century later he could personally see “how much progress has been made” in the region and in terms of ties with Washington, and this “indicates that President Kennedy’s vision was sound.”
In truth, Mr. Obama could neither have picked a worse time to make blithe remarks about his administration’s benevolent intentions towards Latin America nor chosen a more irony-laden example of benign international cooperation.
Back in 1961 Kennedy, it will be recalled, was driven far more by strategic insecurity over communist expansionism in the region than genuine concern for the well-being of the Latino community when he forged his famous Alianza para el Progreso, or Alliance for Progress. For that reason, the programme itself ultimately foundered and was dissolved by the Organisation of American States in 1973.
Today, at the heart of Latin America’s disenchantment with its northern cousin is a toxic mix of Washington’s tacit acceptance of human rights violations in immigration and border enforcement; the unbridled violence associated with the cross-border drugs-and-guns trade; and deep suspicions surrounding the U.S. regional hegemonic intentions.
The U.S.’ 44th President has done little to quell the epidemic of mistrust sweeping across the hemisphere.
First consider the case of Bolivia. Last week President Evo Morales called for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, to leave his country, flinging scathing words at the agency’s “meddling.” He said: “They might think that they can manipulate us economically and politically here, but that is no longer the case.”
While U.S. officialdom was quick to paint the allegations as baseless, numerous observers have cited clandestine U.S. efforts to destabilise the government in La Paz, and USAID’s ejection is by no means the first such action by the independent-thinking Mr. Morales.
In 2008 U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and several other officials were expelled from Bolivia and, in retaliation, Washington dismissed Bolivia’s Ambassador Gustavo Guzman. The countries have still not mutually resumed ambassadorial posts.
But the malaise with the U.S.-Bolivia relationship runs deeper and Washington’s floundering attempts to tackle the burgeoning drug wars are very much a core issue. In 2011, with his country pushed into a diplomatic corner owing to the obstinacy of the U.N. system, Mr. Morales was left with no option but to announce that Bolivia would exit the 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
This action came after the intense diplomatic bullying of Bolivia by the U.S. and other advanced nations in a bid to get the country to surrender the culturally important coca leaf — as important as the betel nut is to India — as a banned substance under the Convention.
At the time a report based on a U.S. study sought the coca leaf’s inclusion in the list, despite the Council on Hemispheric Affairs underscoring the shoddy underlying analysis and final conclusions based on “poor methodology, racist connotations, and cultural insensitivity.”
Even though Mr. Morales explained the biochemical composition of the coca leaf and emphasised that a cocaine-related alkaloid in the plant “amounts to less than one-tenth of a per cent of the leaf,” Washington appeared consumed by its burning desire to offshore its drug wars rather than focus on securing its own borders from drug inflows or adopting anti-drug policies to curb domestic consumption.
However Mr. Morales’ act of diplomatic civil disobedience succeeded and this year Bolivia will be rejoining the Convention sans the coca-ban. Negating this positive outcome, the fracas with USAID and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark that Latin America was the “backyard” of the U.S. have again led to spiking tensions.
Vis-á-vis an aggrieved neighbour-state, Venezuela, it would appear that the usually glib Mr. Obama has developed an inexplicable case of foot-in-mouth disease. Following a torrent of harsh, undignified U.S. vitriol heaped upon the legacy and persona of late President Hugo Chávez after his death in March, Mr. Obama fanned the flames by refusing to recognise current President Nicolas Maduro as a legitimate leader.
Even as he prepared to embark on his hemispheric junket, Mr. Obama waded deeper into controversy after labelling as “ridiculous” the charges that Caracas is bringing against jailed American filmmaker Tim Tracy. Mr. Maduro’s government says that following surveillance of Mr. Tracy, it has over 500 videos and email exchanges with opposition activists as evidence of his attempts to carry out politically destabilising plots with militant anti-government factions.
While the specifics of the Tracy case are still emerging and it would be unwise to pre-empt his prosecution, what is clear is that the allegation that an American channelled secret U.S. money to student protesters and instigated violent protests in the wake of the presidential election ought not to come as a surprise to Washington.
Even a cursory glance at 20th-century history shows the insidious role of U.S. intelligence agencies in backing regional coups. In the case of Venezuela, a U.S. embassy cable disclosed by WikiLeaks hints that the U.S.’ political objectives in the country in 2004 included “penetrating Chávez’s political base” and “dividing Chavismo.”
For all their troubles with the U.S., however, neither Bolivia nor Venezuela is as much a slave to the caprices of U.S policies as Mexico is. Not only is the U.S. Mexico’s largest trading partner, providing the country with a $500 billion trade volume in 2012, it is also the home of 11 million migrants, of whom approximately 6 million are said to be undocumented.
Given this relationship of unequal dependence based on asymmetric economic clout, it was disingenuous of Mr. Obama to keep his dialogue with Mexican President Pena Nieto principally within the framework of economic integration and growth opportunities.
Even though comprehensive immigration reform, still being hotly debated in the U.S. Congress, was discussed, there was little indication that Mr. Obama conveyed how hard this proposed reform will crack down on border enforcement.
Yes, the path to legalisation that Mr. Obama has proposed for undocumented aliens in the U.S. is a welcome improvement on a draconian previous regime. However the reform package’s steady creep towards prioritising economic contributors over the needs of families that need to be unified across borders is not something that got much mention on the Lat-Am tour.
Slipping even further into the background was the disturbing matter of gun proliferation and the violence it has fuelled through the drug trade. While the string of shootings across the U.S. has evoked a strong move towards gun control domestically, Mr. Obama did not appear to show remorse for the catastrophic “Fast and Furious” gun-walking programme.
Although in his speech at Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología he admitted that “most of the guns used to commit violence here in Mexico come from the U.S.,” he clearly decided to skip mentioning the fact that more than 2,000 firearms that his Department of Justice “walked” across the Mexican border under a failed sting operation were subsequently connected to the deaths of at least 300 Mexicans and one U.S. Border Patrol Agent.
In a world of hemispheric hypocrisy and half-truths the man who was initially welcomed as a committed internationalist and pre-emptively awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has failed to deliver the region from his predecessor’s belligerent paradigm. Stay at home next time, Mr. Obama.