Obama in Cartagena: No Change, Dwindling Hope Print
Alexander Main
Al Jazeera English, April 12, 2012

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When President Obama arrives in Cartagena, Colombia on April 14th to attend the Sixth Summit of the Americas, he may well feel a pang of nostalgia as he recalls the heartwarming welcome that he received three years earlier at the Fifth Summit’s in Trinidad and Tobago. On that happy occasion, which marked Obama’s first encounter with most of the region’s heads of state, he was greeted with smiles and warm handshakes at every turn. For the U.S. media, the takeaway moment was a brief instant when Obama and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela were exchanged pleasantries and broad grins. For Latin America’s leaders, the most memorable sight may have been that of Obama patiently sitting through the long speeches of other presidents, studiously taking notes with a look of intense concentration. In his own speech, Obama would speak of the need for “equal partnerships” and “a new chapter of engagement” with the countries of the region.

The words and style of the new president stood in stark contrast with the coarse, inflexible approach of President George W. Bush who, at the previous Americas Summit in Argentina had lectured his counterparts on the benefits of “free trade,” while massive protests against his administration’s policies raged outside. With Obama now in the White House, expectations were high that a particularly unpleasant chapter of U.S. foreign policy had finally come to a close.

But that was three years ago. Today, talk of “partnership,” “equality” and “mutual respect” is bound to be greeted with skepticism by Latin America’s leaders. The “new chapter” has turned out to be “business as usual” with Obama continuing to implement the Bush administration’s Latin America agenda in various key policy areas. Whether on Cuba policy, “free trade,” the “war on drugs” or relations with left wing governments in South America, the administration’s current policies are nearly indistinguishable from those of Bush. As a result, Obama’s reception in Cartagena is likely to be lukewarm at best; and the Summit of the Americas itself may well be seen as increasingly irrelevant by most of Latin America and the Caribbean. 

Trinidad: Obama Breathes New Life into the Summit of the Americas

In Trinidad, Obama’s promising overtures and openness provided the Summit of the Americas with a much-needed shot in the arm. Well before 2009, the Summits had lost much of their luster and sense of purpose.

First launched by Bill Clinton in 1994, the Summit of the Americas – bringing together the leaders of every government in the hemisphere except for Cuba – had been created to advance the U.S.’ regional “free trade” offensive. They had started out promisingly from the U.S. government point of view with leaders at the first summit in Miami agreeing in principle to the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). But, by the 2000’s, the Summits began to drift perilously off course. In 2001, discussions at the Third Summit in Quebec were eclipsed by spectacular civil society protests and police repression. At the Fourth Summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, the anti-FTAA rebellion spread to the Summit itself. Five countries firmly objected to the agreement terms set by the U.S., forcing Bush to concede defeat. In a nearby soccer stadium, Hugo Chávez joined thousands of Latin American protesters and correctly pronounced the FTAA “buried”.

At the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, there were fewer protests, mainly because the FTAA was no longer on the agenda. Instead, with a strong contingent of the region’s governments now solidly on the left, the big focus was on the U.S.’s refusal to allow Cuba to participate. The argument that Cuba first had to meet “democratic” benchmarks was received with incredulity given the U.S.’s cozy relationships with various dictatorships around the world. Many participants expressed their discontent, including President Lula of Brazil.

In response, the White House made Cuba policy a central part of its charm offensive in Trinidad. Though refusing to relent on Cuba’s exclusion, Obama announced, only days before the Summit, the easing of restrictions on travel and remittances to the island for Cuban-Americans. In Trinidad, Obama declared his administration would promote a “new beginning” in its Cuba relations, and seek high-level engagement with the Raúl Castro government. These gestures of good will, seen by many as a positive first toward correcting the U.S’s absurd and unjust Cuba policy, undoubtedly helped placate the administration’s strongest Latin American critics.

All Talk, No Walk?

Three years have passed since the Trinidad Summit – more than enough time for Obama to implement significant reforms to U.S. Latin America policy. But it’s difficult to discern even any minor changes.

The limited easing of travel restrictions to Cuba wasn’t followed by any meaningful reform. The current administration remains unwilling to ease the trade embargo against Cuba, let alone remove it altogether.

But it’s not just on Cuba that President Obama’s actions have been disappointing to Latin Americans. In several key policy areas, he has continued the path set by the Bush administration.: an aggressive “free trade” agenda, which has taken on new forms since the FTAA’s demise; militarization as a response to the so-called “war on drugs”, especially in Central America; and regional diplomacy rooted in an outdated Cold War paradigm that seeks to isolate and contain left governments.

Free Trade” By Any Means Possible

When the FTAA foundered in 2005, the Bush administration began to focus on bilateral “free trade” agreements (FTAs) with individual Latin American governments more disposed to the U.S. corporate trade agenda. A Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Peru was approved by the U.S. Congress in December 2007.

Bush also signed FTAs with Colombia (2006) and Panama (2007), but was unable to get these through Congress before the end of his term. When Obama took office in 2009, he didn’t shelve these agreements, even though this was what his labor allies and many Democrats demanded. Instead, Obama presented them for congressional approval, together with the U.S.-Korea FTA, in late 2011. Though most Democrats in the House opposed the FTAs, the trade deals were approved thanks to the backing of a majority of Republicans.

Especially troubling was Obama’s enthusiastic support for the Colombia FTA. During the presidential campaign, Obama said he opposed an FTA with Colombia and, in his last televised debate against John McCain, proclaimed: “we have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights.”

But in April 2011, Obama received Colombian president Santos at the White House and announced he would present the U.S.-Colombia FTA to Congress. In order to garner the support of progressive congressional Democrats, Obama submitted a “Labor Action Plan” that Colombia agreed to implement as a precondition. But, as human rights defenders pointed out, the Action Plan had no teeth; it required Colombia to create institutions and programs nominally dedicated to protecting union activists, but established no benchmarks for reducing the killings.

Obama is now expected to announce Colombia’s compliance with the Labor Action Plan –possibly during the Cartagena Summit itself – despite the fact that killings of trade unionists continue (at least 30 in 2011 and four so far this year) and over the strong opposition of the AFL-CIO, the U.S.’s largest trade union federation.

Although Obama remains dedicated to keeping the “free trade” agenda sputtering along, interest in U.S.-backed trade agreements has waned in Latin America. These agreements, designed in concert with major U.S. corporations, prioritize corporate “rights” above public services and labor and environmental concerns. FTAs’ require reducing or eliminating protections for various developing country manufacturing and agricultural industries – giving larger multinational companies a clear advantage – while invariably enacting costly protections for intellectual property and highly-paid professionals (again, U.S.- and multinational businesses disproportionately benefit). Latin American countries with FTAs have seen little benefit from them; few have experienced strong economic growth or experienced marked social progress. In fact, many of these countries are faring worse than their neighbors.

Meanwhile, the South American trade bloc MERCOSUR is gaining popularity. It includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela as full members (with Venezuela’s entry awaiting the Paraguayan legislature’s approval) and Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as “associate members” exploring the possibility of full membership. With an end goal of creating a common market among member countries, MERCOSUR takes into account asymmetries within the group and allows members to pursue trade integration at varying paces. Though there are significant economic disparities within MERCOSUR, they are much less stark than between MERCOSUR countries and the U.S., and provide burgeoning South American industries a more level playing field upon which to compete. These factors make it a more enticing option for many countries than rigid FTAs with the economic giant in the North.

The U.S.’s Regional Security Agenda: Exporting Colombia

As anyone who reads the news is aware, Central America and Mexico aren’t only suffering economically. They are also reeling from the devastating impact of surging levels of organized crime and gang violence resulting primarily from the trafficking of drugs to the U.S. In his 2009 Trinidad speech, Obama recognized that, as the world’s biggest consumer of drugs, the U.S. had greatly contributed to record levels of violence south of the border, and promised the U.S. would “take aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs, and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash across our borders.”

Three years later, it’s clear that the demand-side approach to drug trafficking has been relegated to the back burner while the long-standing militarized approach has been ramped up.

The Obama administration has aggressively touted Mexico’s Plan Mérida and Plan Colombia as “models” for Central America. Both of these plans involve heavy deployment of local military forces to address crime, with the U.S. providing training, equipment and direct funding. In Mexico, violent crime has intensified since the launch of Plan Mérida, with over 12 thousand homicides in just the first nine months of 2011. This hasn’t prevented the Obama administration from continuing to support Plan Mérida and extending it to Mexico’s southern neighbors as the Central America Regional Initiative (CARSI). Since CARSI’s initiation in 2008, violent crime has risen steadily throughout most of Central America.

The main “success” model for these initiatives is Plan Colombia, into which the U.S. has poured more than 8 billion dollars over 13 years. Initially designed to target drug-trafficking, Plan Colombia’s mission soon involved supporting the Colombian military’s counter-insurgency campaigns against the FARC and ELN guerrilla groups. Plan Colombia may have successfully eliminated some illicit coca cultivations and contributed to a fall in violent crime in some areas, but has been accompanied by massive human rights abuses carried out by Colombia’s armed forces and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Afro-Colombians caught in the middle of the conflict.

Nevertheless, William Brownfield, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, recently told a Congressional Committee that Colombia should be viewed as “an exporter of regional security.” He went on to explain that “Colombia’s participation in improving security and reducing instability throughout the hemisphere by providing needed training is an enormous return on our investment in that country, and is precisely the type of regional approach to security promoted by Secretary Clinton.”

To the casual observer, it’s difficult to understand why the U.S. clings to a militarized approach to regional security issues given the results so far. One explanation could be an underlying motivation to perpetuate the Cold War policy of close relations and involvement with Latin American militaries, including those with bloody human rights records.

Whatever the case, U.S.-led militarization is increasingly unwelcome in South America, where many governments have recently rejected the presence and influence of the U.S. military. The left-leaning government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador recently shut down a key U.S. military base near the city of Manta. Over the last few years, several countries have stopped sending troops to the U.S.-based Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Formerly known as the School of the Americas, WHINSEC is a Cold War-era military school designed to strengthen ties with Latin American military cadre and help them be more effective against perceived security threats. In reality, WHINSEC/SOA graduates have targeted nuns, priests, labor organizers, and campesinos and have perpetrated numerous coups d’Etat, such as, most recently, in Honduras.

Even in Colombia, the U.S. has seen a major reversal of its military goals. In June 2009, reports emerged that the U.S. had signed an agreement that would give it unprecedented access to seven military bases in key strategic locations. A U.S. Air Force document stated the deal would allow the U.S. military to conduct “full spectrum” interventions throughout the region, including against “anti-U.S. governments.” Needless to say, other South American countries all but unanimously opposed the plan, especially as Colombia had illegally invaded and bombed neighboring Ecuador only a year earlier. When Juan Manuel Santos assumed the Colombian presidency soon after the scandal broke, he quietly shelved the agreement, preferring improved relations with neighboring countries to placating the U.S.

The Obama Containment Strategy: the Case of Honduras

Another central aspect of Bush’s Latin American policy that Obama has fully embraced is the effort to isolate and roll back left-leaning political movements. Under Bush, heavy-handed tactics were used to try to advance this strategy. In 2002, the White House supported a short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and in 2004, it helped execute a successful coup that forced Haiti’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, into exile. But these and other interventions failed to curb the rise of left governments throughout the region and only stoked resentment against the U.S. In late 2005, the administration engaged in a change of personnel and tactics and from then on a seemingly “softer” approach prevailed under the guidance of experienced diplomat Thomas Shannon. However, the U.S. government’s sights remained locked on enemy no.1 – Venezuela – and countries most closely allied with it, such as, Bolivia and Ecuador.

As confidential State Department cables released by Wikileaks revealed, there was a broad diplomatic effort underway in the last years of Bush’s presidency to try to drive a wedge between Venezuela and other governments in the region. A cable by then U.S. Ambassador in Chile, Craig Kelly, called for using “public diplomacy” to fight “a battle of ideas and visions.” In language reminiscent of the Cold War, Kelly recommended “strengthen[ing] ties to those military leaders in the region who share our concern over Chavez.” He suggested increased funding for “critical programs such as International Military Education and Training (IMET)” and for maintaining other programs such as Foreign Military Financing.

The first major litmus test for Obama’s Latin America policy was the June 2009 military coup d’Etat in Honduras. A left-leaning, democratically-elected president, Manuel Zelaya, had been forced into exile at gunpoint by the Honduran military. Zelaya had close ties to Venezuela and other left wing leaders and his country hosted the Palmerola U.S. military base. Despite this, the U.S. at first officially objected to the coup and joined every other member country of the OAS in suspending Honduras’ membership in the regional group.

As time passed, however it became clear that the U.S. was reluctant to take measures to reverse the coup. The White House and State Department engaged in stalling tactics to prevent Zelaya from returning to the country, with Assistant Secretary of State Craig Kelly and presidential advisor Dan Restrepo mediating long, fruitless negotiations with the coup regime. The administration’s true intentions became apparent when Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon announced in early November 2009 that the U.S. would recognize Honduras’ national elections that month even if democracy was not first restored. This removed incentive for the coup regime to allow Zelaya’s restoration, and clashed with the position of nearly every other country in the region: the elections couldn’t be considered legitimate if they were held under a coup government.

Following the flawed elections – carried out in a context of media censorship and state-sponsored repression – the U.S. lobbied the rest of the region to recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo, despite the presence of coup perpetrators in his government and ongoing killings and attacks against opposition activists, journalists, campesinos, union leaders, human rights defenders, and members of the LGBTQI community. The homicide rate in Honduras is now the highest in the world, and human rights abuses -- often perpetrated by state security forces -- are rampant. 94 members of Congress recently called on Obama to cut military and police assistance to Honduras, but instead, the White House, in its Executive Budget Proposal, asked for a major increase in financing to the Honduran military.

Obama has also perpetuated an anti-democratic agenda in Haiti. The administration provided key political and financial support to Haiti’s 2010 presidential and legislative elections, even though these excluded the country’s most popular political party, Fanmi Lavalas. Then, following the elections’ first round, the State Department applied intense pressure – including the threat of suspending aid – to modify the results, despite having no legitimate grounds to do so. Obama himself also actively sought to prevent Aristide’s return from forced exile in South Africa, personally calling South African President Zuma in an effort to convince him to prevent Aristide’s departure, even though this would have been a blatant violation of Aristide’s rights. (Zuma refused to give in, and in March 2011 Aristide returned to his home in Port-au-Prince.)

These are just two of the more flagrant examples of how Obama has perpetuated his predecessor’s disastrous regional policy instead of initiating a “new chapter” in relations with the region. Despite his promise to promote relations of “mutual respect and equality” with Latin American and Caribbean neighbors, the administration has maintained a policy of hostility toward left-leaning countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. The rest of the region, however, has significantly evolved, progressively charting an independent course.

The Summit of the Americas vs. CELAC

In April 2009, Obama brought a seductive, fresh style and inspiring words to a nearly moribund hemispheric summit. In Cartagena, he is widely expected to revert to the Bush playbook and extol the virtues of the Colombia and Panama FTAs. He will have nothing to offer in the way of further reform of Cuba policy and will have to deflect renewed calls for Cuba to be allowed to participate in future summits. At least one country, Ecuador, will boycott the event to protest Cuba’s exclusion.

Obama will also face an unprecedented revolt by Central American governments. Overwhelmed by escalating violence in their countries, and increasingly skeptical of the U.S.’s militarized approach to crime prevention, several governments – led by right wing Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina – are calling for a debate on the merits of drug legalization. This is tricky terrain for a U.S. president facing a tough reelection battle.

More than anything, the sentiment that the Summit of the Americas has become an archaic instrument of U.S. policy – is likely to grow as the Cartagena summit unfolds. The U.S. regional agenda has barely budged over the last decade, whereas Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced profound political and economic change with far-reaching implications for hemispheric relations. Unlike ten years ago, the majority of Latin American governments now lean to the left. They support state-led responses to poverty and social exclusion that clash with neoliberal policies promoted by the U.S. Furthermore, both left- and right-of-center governments champion alternative regional groupings that exclude the U.S.

In addition to MERCOSUR, several regional political alliances have recently emerged that don’t include the U.S. or Canada as members. These include the Bolivarian Alliance for Our America – Spanish acronym ALBA – which first appeared in 2004 as an alternative to the FTAA and now includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and several Caribbean nations. The group promotes health and education programs targeting the poor, energy cooperation, and financial integration mechanisms such as the unified system of regional compensation, or SUCRE. It also has defended positions as a bloc at multilateral fora such as the WTO and UN Climate Change Conferences.

Another group that has recently emerged is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which includes all of the independent states of South America and has a number of working groups focused on key areas where its members wish to deepen integration or cooperation, such as energy, infrastructure, social policies, regional finance and defense. Officially launched in 2008, the organization has played an instrumental role in resolving regional political crises, such as in Bolivia and following Colombia’s military incursion into Ecuador. It has also developed electoral monitoring teams, and is set to supplant the OAS in carrying out observation missions in South American elections.

The latest and perhaps most significant hemispheric organization to emerge is the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) which, as the name suggests, includes every country in the hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada. Officially launched in Venezuela in December 2011, it has received the enthusiastic backing of right wing governments such as Mexico, Chile and Colombia, and many observers believe it will soon displace the U.S.-based OAS. At the first official CELAC summit in Caracas, heads of state agreed on a number of issues that would never have made it to the agenda at the Summit of the Americas, including plans for a “new financial architecture,” support for coca-chewing in Bolivia and rejection of the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

While the Obama administration continues to promote a stale policy agenda of “free trade”, militarization and containment at the Summit of the Americas, a genuinely “new chapter of engagement” between Latin American and Caribbean countries moves inexorably forward – through ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC – bringing the region progressively closer to the 200-year old dream of a united Latin America.


Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.