I was pleased to join 12 past presidents and more than 200 members of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in signing a letter to Barack Obama urging him, as president, to respect and support the movements for progressive change in Latin America. We also called on him to dramatically reform U.S. policies toward the region.

Why were we so concerned? For most of the 20th century, the United States was the preponderant power in Latin America; after the end of the Cold War, it was the sole power. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States pushed and prodded Latin America to the adoption of what was called “the Washington Consensus” — namely, free markets and neoliberalism. In most countries, the result was a further concentration of wealth in an already severely unequal region and frequent financial crises — but disappointing economic growth.

At the same time, however, Latin America’s democracies were becoming more robust. Gradually, movements representing indigenous peoples and the poor began to help elect leftist leaders who sought to develop alternative economic models: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998; Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005; Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2006; and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2008. A particular goal was to secure the benefits of natural-resource wealth for citizens. Additionally, presidents such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile didn’t reject neoliberalism outright but were much more committed than their predecessors to anti-poverty initiatives, political and social inclusion, and diverse global alliances.

So it should come as no surprise that the association wrote this letter to the new president shortly before his election. Founded in 1967 amid a U.S. obsession with communism that abetted the rise of repressive military regimes in many Latin American countries, and focused on a region with the world’s most severe inequalities, LASA has long been committed to a progressive agenda. Most recently, for example, the association decided to hold its congresses outside of the United States in good part because of U.S. restrictions against scholarly exchange with Cuba.

The key goal of our letter was to encourage President-elect Obama to consider the “new Left” in Latin America as part and parcel of the movement for change in the United States. As we point out in the letter, Latin America’s grassroots are rejecting its traditional elites for the same reasons that the U.S. “Main Street” is rejecting its “Wall Street.”

2002 Coup Attempt

Unfortunately, as the letter states, “Washington’s tendency to fight against hope and change has been especially prominent in recent U.S. responses to the democratically elected governments of Venezuela and Bolivia;” for most Latin Americanists, the nadir of Bush administration policy toward the region was its welcoming of the 2002 coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez. There had been no question for the Organization of American States, the Carter Center, or any other set of international observers that Chávez had been freely and fairly elected, and so Washington’s support for a coup was blatantly hypocritical and odious. In both Venezuela and Bolivia, the Bush administration has allied with government opponents, many of whom have not been committed to the democratic rules of the game.

Does Obama recognize the parallel between the movements for a just and fair society in the United States and in Latin America? It seems clear that he does. In his book The Audacity of Hope, he writes of his experiences in Indonesia, where General Suharto had unleashed a massive purge of leftists just as the six-year-old Obama arrived. Obama writes of Suharto’s harshly repressive rule, the International Monetary Fund’s insistence on draconian measures hurting the poor during the country’s 1997 financial collapse, and the worsening gap between rich and poor (pp. 271-279). He also criticizes U.S. foreign policy in general for its “tireless promotion of American-style capitalism and multinational corporations” and its “tolerance and occasional encouragement of tyranny, corruption, and environmental degradation when it served our interests” (p. 279).

Also, in Obama’s comments about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the proposed free trade agreement with Colombia, he has made clear that he seeks to protect workers’ rights not only in the United States but around the globe. Obama has been passionate in his call for a dramatic increase in U.S. aid for “bottom-up development,” which would emphasize microfinance, vocational training, and the Millennium Development Goals, as well as debt cancellation for impoverished countries and reforms to the International Monetary Fund. In his campaign speeches, Obama called for change first in localities and then the United States and finally the world and ended with the pledge: “We can change the world.”

Yet — and this is the premise of LASA’s letter — if President Obama is to act on his recognition of the parallel between the two movements, it’s almost certain the encouragement, and indeed the prodding, of LASA and the spectrum of progressive groups will be needed. Latin America won’t be Obama’s top foreign-policy priority. There are only 24 hours in every day with which to counter well-financed, entrenched interests such as the arms industry, investors and exporters seeking unregulated markets, the Cuban American National Foundation, the farm lobbies, and the National Rifle Association.


In the campaign, Obama’s positions on Latin America were many times more progressive than Republican nominee John McCain’s, but for us at LASA they still fell short. Whereas McCain excoriated Chávez as a dictator and ridiculed Obama’s openness to dialogue with him, Obama said that “it’s important for us not to over-react to Chávez….we are interested in having a respectful dialogue with everybody in Latin America in terms of figuring out how we can improve the day to day lives of people.” Yet, in September, Obama’s national security spokesperson Wendy Morigi said that Obama was “very concerned” about President Evo Morales’ decision to expel U.S. Ambassador Phillip Goldberg from Bolivia and suggested that Morales was “attempting to lay blame on outsiders.” She also said that Obama was “profoundly troubled by President Hugo Chávez’s unprovoked expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy.”

With respect to U.S. policy toward Cuba, Obama but not McCain supported unlimited family travel and remittances to Cuba (which was in fact U.S. policy prior to George W. Bush’s presidency). During the primaries, Obama indicated he would meet with Cuban president Raúl Castro, but then conditioned this offer upon the freeing of political prisoners in Cuba. Obama has said he will maintain the U.S. embargo against Cuba “to provide us with the [necessary] leverage” — even though there has been no evidence of any such leverage for almost 50 years. Nor has Obama promised to renew U.S. scholarly exchange with the island, which was severely limited under the George W. Bush administration. Previously, most policy analysts and LASA had expected that, given that there was no longer an alliance between Cuba and the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration would replace the long-standing policy of U.S. isolation of Cuba with a policy of engagement. This expectation was dashed amid the Republican takeover of congress in 1994 and the even tighter restrictions on trade and investment in Cuba in the 1996 Helms-Burton legislation.

In contrast to McCain, Obama supported comprehensive immigration reform that included strict employer and border enforcement but also support for equitable development in Mexico and a pathway to citizenship. Obama has cited his father’s coming to the United States in search of opportunity to show his understanding of immigration. However, Obama doesn’t acknowledge that, in recent years in many Latin American countries, the process for securing visas to the United States has become extremely onerous and only applicants with bank accounts in the $10,000 range are accepted. Many applicants are treated arrogantly by overworked U.S. embassy staff. Today, it’s unlikely that his father (or other smart and ambitious young people lacking significant resources such as Alejandro Toledo, who became president of Peru) would have been granted a visa for study in the U.S.

Obama’s signals have been particularly mixed on the issues of the “war on drugs” and security. Obama has emphasized that “we have to do our part” in the “war on drugs,” and called in particular for greater U.S. efforts to reduce the demand for drugs, and to stop the southbound flow of guns and gangs. But Obama has supported both Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico (a newer and similar initiative), although he has questioned the “mix” of military and development components. Many of us at LASA believe that the “war on drugs” is hopeless and has worsened violence in the region. We would opt for the decriminalization of some drugs and focus on treatment and education. Interestingly, a recent Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue survey suggested that roughly half of U.S voters might also consider such an approach.

Perhaps most worrisome for us at LASA was Obama’s enthusiastic approval of Colombia’s 2008 military incursion against Colombian guerrillas in a camp in Ecuador, without approval of the Ecuadorian government. On the one hand, given Obama’s support for a similar U.S. military incursion against Osama bin Laden, it would have been hypocritical for him to repudiate the Colombian government’s action. Yet, Obama’s comments were unusually one-sided, showing little concern for international law.

In key respects, U.S. policy toward Latin America has changed little since the late 1980s. Interests, lobbies, and bureaucracies are deeply entrenched. Yet, Obama’s promise to change the world has excited LASA and millions of people around the globe. Our letter is the association’s effort to signal to the president-elect the urgency of change and our willingness to work with him to fulfill and, indeed, extend his promises.

Cynthia McClintock, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. She served as President of the Latin American Studies Association from 1994 to 1995.

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