Hillary Clinton’s “Damage Control” Trip to Latin America

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Mark Weisbrot
The Guardian Unlimited, March 5, 2010
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Hillary Clinton’s Latin America tour is turning out to be about as successful as George W. Bush’s visit in 2005, when he ended up leaving Argentina a day ahead of schedule just to get the hell out of town. The main difference is that she is not being greeted with protests and riots. For that she can thank the positive media image that her boss, President Obama, has managed to maintain in the region, despite his continuation of his predecessor’s policies.

But she has been even more diplomatically clumsy that Bush, who at least recognized that there were serious problems and knew what not to say. "The Honduras crisis has been managed to a successful conclusion," Clinton said in Buenos Aires, adding that “it was done without violence.”

This is rubbing salt into her hosts’ wounds, as they see the military overthrow of President Mel Zelaya last June, and the United States’ subsequent efforts to legitimize the dictatorship there, as not only a failure but a threat to democracy throughout the region.

It is also an outrageous thing to say, given the political killings, beatings, mass arrests and torture that the coup government used in order to maintain power and repress the pro-democracy movement. The worst part is that they are still committing these crimes.

Today nine members of the U.S. Congress – including some Democrats in Congressional leadership positions - wrote to Secretary Clinton and to the White House about this violence. They wrote:

“Since President Lobo's inauguration, several prominent opponents of the coup have been attacked. On February 3rd, Vanessa Zepeda, a nurse and union organizer who had previously received death threats linked to her activism in the resistance movement, was strangled and her body dumped from a vehicle in Tegucigalpa. On February 15th, Julio Funes Benitez, a member of the SITRASANAA trade union and an active member of the national resistance movement, was shot and killed by unknown gunmen on a motorcycle outside his home. Most recently, Claudia Brizuela, an opposition activist, was murdered in her home on February 24th. Unfortunately these are only three of the numerous attacks against activists and their families ...”

Secretary Clinton will meet Friday with “Pepe” Lobo of Honduras, who was elected president after a campaign marked by media shutdowns and police repression of dissent. The Organization of American States and European Union refused to send official observers to the election.

The Members of Congress also asked that Clinton, in her meeting with Lobo, “send a strong unambiguous message that the human rights situation in Honduras will be a critical component of upcoming decisions regarding the further normalizations of relations, as well as the resumption of financial assistance.”

This was the third letter that Clinton received from Congress on human rights in Honduras. On Aug. 7 and Sept. 25, Members of Congress from Hillary Clinton’s own Democratic Party wrote to her to complain of the ongoing human rights abuses in Honduras and impossibility of holding free elections under these conditions. They did not even get a perfunctory reply until Jan. 28, more than four months after the second letter was sent. This is an unusual level of disrespect for the elected representatives of one’s own political party.

For these New Cold Warriors, it seems that all that has mattered is that they got rid of one social democratic president of one small, poor country.

In Brazil, Clinton continued her Cold War strategy by throwing in some gratuitous insults toward Venezuela. This is a bit like going to a party and telling the host how much you don’t like his friends. After ritual denunciations of Venezuela, Clinton said, "We wish Venezuela were looking more to its south and looking at Brazil and looking at Chile and other models of a successful country."

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim responded with diplomacy, but there was no mistaking his strong rebuff to her insults: He said that he agreed with “one point” that Clinton made, “that Venezuela should look southwards more ... that is why we have invited Venezuela to join MERCOSUR as a full member country." Ms. Clinton’s right wing allies in Paraguay’s legislature – the remnants of that country’s dictatorship and 60 years of one-party rule – are currently holding up Venezuela’s membership in the South American trade block. This is not what she wanted to hear from Brazil.

The Brazilians also rejected Clinton’s rather undiplomatic efforts to pressure them to join Washington in calling for new sanctions against Iran. "It is not prudent to push Iran against a wall," said Brazilian president Lula da Silva. "The prudent thing is to establish negotiations."

"We will not simply bow down to an evolving consensus if we do not agree," Amorim said at a press conference with Clinton.

Secretary Clinton made one concession to Argentina, calling for the U.K. to sit down with the Argentine government and discuss their dispute over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. But it seems unlikely that Washington will do anything to make this happen.

For now, the next crucial test will be Honduras: Will Clinton continue Washington’s efforts to whitewash the Honduran government’s repression? Or will she listen to the rest of the hemisphere as well as her own Democratic Members of Congress and insist on some concessions regarding human rights, including the return of Mel Zelaya to his country (as the Brazilians also emphasized)? This story may not get much U.S. media attention, but Latin America will be watching.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy