The stage was set for a showdown. Hugo Chávez and Barack Obama exchanged another round of insults before getting on their planes to head to Trinidad and Tobago. Many countries came prepared for an all-court press to admit Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS) and demand lifting the U.S. embargo against the island. Five nations that form part of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, vowed not to sign the official declaration of a Cuba-less OAS.

Those expecting blood were not only disappointed but disoriented by what happened at the recent Fifth Summit of the Americas. What happened at the summit wasn’t exactly a lovefest, but it was a far cry from the last meeting in Mar del Plata in 2005.

At that summit, the Bush strategy fell to pieces as nations divided over creating a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The Bush-driven fiasco at Mar del Plata launched an era of more innovative, independent national, and regional development efforts in many Latin American countries. But it also marked the beginning of a U.S. government strategy to drive a stake through the heart of the continent. Washington rewarded the “good” nations that accepted the neoliberal model with aid and bilateral trade agreements — a dubious prize for all but the national elite — and punished the “bad” nations with economic retaliation and “democracy promotion” programs.

The Trinidad and Tobago Summit ended with more smiles and backslapping than anyone expected, even considering the region’s positive response to Obama’s election. The U.S. president brought a new face and a new message to the gathering of 34 heads of state.

Obama’s face made headlines across the continent. But it’s his message that potentially marks a before and after in U.S. foreign policy — and not just in Latin America.

Obama’s Message

Obama rode in on the good will generated by the defeat of Bush politics. Latin Americans didn’t expect a blazing revolutionary or even someone who completely understood their nations and their politics. They hoped for a new era of tolerance, and dialogue over imposition.

The new U.S. president began by recognizing the hurdles of mistrust to be overcome. “I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time,” he said. “While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.” He added “There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.”

That in itself is a sea change from Bush-era pretensions to impose its military and economic might in what it considered its backyard. The language echoes FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, a comparison not lost on nations that still recall when U.S. policy took a turn for the better.

Obama went on to list a series of new orientations for U.S. policy in the region. On the economic crisis, he stated:
We recognize that we have a special responsibility, as one of the world’s financial centers, to work with partners around the globe to reform a failed regulatory system — so that we can prevent the kinds of financial abuses that led to this current crisis from ever happening again, and achieve an economic expansion, not just in the United States but all across the hemisphere that is built not on bubbles, but on sustainable economic growth.

There were also some new messages on security. Although the president reaffirmed the failed “war on drugs” model in Mexico, he also recognized it was important “in our interactions not just here in the hemisphere but around the world, that we recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very practical, concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary persons as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy.” Mexican media had “leaked” that Obama would present a hemisphere-wide security measure, but instead the president vowed to focus on reduction of drug demand and gunrunning in the United States.

When asked how he would describe the “Obama doctrine,” Obama recognized the special status of the United States, but stated that global problems “can’t be solved just by one country. ” He pledged to listen, and impressed leaders at the summit by doing just that. While defending U.S. interests, he noted that “other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them.”

Here he was willing to incur the domestic political price of being friendly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. At the opening ceremony, Obama crossed the room for the historic handshake with Chávez, a move that threw the right into a tizzy. When asked about it at the press conference he replied, “Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.” This is a far cry from the Bush administration’s demonization of the Venezuelan leader.

Obama also stated that the United States must be an example by “practicing what we preach, and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.”

Words and Deeds

President Obama was fresh from a pit-stop in Mexico, where he confirmed trade and security policies championed by the Bush administration and repudiated by most of the nations of the hemisphere. While there he reiterated his support for the free-trade model and the militarized “war on drugs” embodied in the Mérida Initiative. The vague statements and whitewashed publicity events in Mexico looked like more of the same.

His summit appearance, however, dispelled fears that nothing new would happen. Yet the juxtaposition of the old with the new leaves questions that can only be answered in deeds.

Obama offered some actions to back up his words. In committing to “combating inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up,” he noted his request to Congress for $448 million in immediate assistance for nations pummeled by the crisis.

He also announced a new Microfinance Growth Fund for the hemisphere, saying “this is not charity,” and a commitment to increase lending from the Inter-American Development Bank and study the need for its recapitalization. At the press conference he acknowledged the need to create a “set of international financial institutions that provide additional flexibility, provide more voice and vote to developing countries.”

Playing the Cuba Card

Cuba, the only country absent since being expelled from the OAS, took top billing at the summit. The ALBA nations — Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela — met before the summit and announced they wouldn’t sign the final declaration because “it unjustifiably excludes Cuba, without mentioning the general consensus that exists in the region to condemn the embargo and the attempts at isolation to which its people and its government have been incessantly and criminally subjected.”

Since Obama’s election, leaders of the region stated that readmission of Cuba and an end to the embargo would be the standard by which “change” would be measured. Speakers at the summit, including Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, repeated the demand.

The Obama administration played its Cuba card before the summit by announcing the lifting of Bush restrictions on family travel and sending remittances to the island. Obama’s gesture was held forth as an olive branch to Latin America. “The crack in the door Mr. Obama had opened for new engagement with Cuba felt more like unlocking a floodgate,” reported The New York Times. “For the first time, some diplomats said, the question being asked was when — not whether — the next move will be made.”

At the ALBA conference before the summit, Raúl Castro responded to the Obama administration’s overtures by saying, “We’ve told the North American government, in private and in public, that we are prepared, wherever they want, to discuss everything — human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything, everything, everything that they want to discuss.”

Both sides are still holding on to their bargaining chips though. At the press conference on Cuba, Obama called on the country to make specific moves to advance relations: “They could release political prisoners. They could reduce charges on remittances to match up with the policies that we have put in place to allow Cuban-American families to send remittances.”

Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy, a former diplomat and longtime analyst of U.S. relations with the island, noted that Obama may, in fact, have overplayed his hand on the Cuba issue. Although the move to remove restrictions on remittances was considered a positive step, he warned, placing conditions on Cuba would not be. Sure enough, on April 21, Fidel Castro claimed that it’s the United States, not Cuba, that should take steps toward thawing relations.

Much depends on the follow-up to the summit. Smith noted that the announced changes in Cuba policy haven’t yet been implemented. If Obama isn’t just grandstanding to gain the good will of other Latin American countries and truly seeks reform, the United States must move in all three branches of government to bring its policies into accordance with international law and the OAS consensus. Symbolic gestures might work for a summit, but not for a long-term relationship.

Warning Signs: Mexico and Colombia

Obama’s visit to Mexico was a message that U.S. military allies on the right will remain just that, even with renewed good relations in the rest of the hemisphere. Pluralism is fine, but the basis of the relationship with the Mexican and Colombian right-wing governments poses a threat to the expressed strategy of non-intervention. Under Plan Colombia and Plan Mérida, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have established a level of intervention and influence in sovereign affairs that contradicts the promise of “equal partners” Obama presented at the summit.

These two nations also receive the lion’s share of U.S. aid, most of it military. In addition, the U.S. government has traditionally overlooked grave human rights violations in these countries in order to preserve special alliances, while severely punishing perceived violations in countries less ideologically aligned. To be consistent with the “new era” announced at the summit, aid and alliances must be based on transparent and equitable criteria.

During the summit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe to discuss the proposed free-trade agreement (FTA) between the two nations. Obama has objected to the agreement based on Colombia’s record of assassination of union leaders. Conceding to an FTA with Colombia would violate both the commitment to human rights in the hemisphere and to “bottom-up development,” supported by thousands of indigenous and poor Colombians who oppose the agreement.

The Obama administration has a chance to build solid and truly beneficial relations with both countries. But the foundation of the relationships would need to shift to be consistent with the values the president expressed at the summit. This depends on both the Obama administration’s next moves, and the mobilization of U.S. and Colombian civil society groups.

Rhetoric or Reality

There are many skeptics among U.S. progressives, who argue that all this is empty rhetoric. But here, perhaps, we have something to learn from the right. When President George W. Bush announced his new national security doctrine, who among the hawks and neocons complained that it was mere posturing and that Bush would never really carry out the plan to project the United States as a global hegemon, defending the use of unilateral action, first-strikes, and torture? Very few, as they would have been shooting themselves in the foot. Instead, by providing Bush with meticulously thought-out documents and organizing public opinion, they converted a president who entered the office saying the United States would play a more modest role on the international scene into an unabashed champion of planetary empire.

Progressive forces are far from the compact group of powerful interests and economic elites that created the disastrous Bush era. And it goes without saying that no principled person would advocate employing the lies and manipulation of tragedy that went into selling the Bush Doctrine.

But with an immensely popular president, backed up by mobilized new sectors of the population throughout the country willing to work for change, it’s sensible to begin by taking him at his word.

Barack Obama’s words at the Summit of the Americas charted a new course for U.S. foreign policy. They reflected, in many ways, the directions progressives have been trying to move in for years.

Next Steps

If we really want to see the country move in these directions, it makes much more sense to push for follow-through than to sit back and speculate on what the administration will do. Taking Obama at his word does not mean we should be complacent. A few examples from his speech illustrate ways in which we can take action:

  • Bottom-up development: Free-trade agreements don’t create bottom-up development. This is why the poor are nearly unanimously opposed to them, as seen in Colombian “minga” demonstrations against the free trade agreement and the Mexican 2006 elections. U.S. citizens should oppose the Colombian FTA based not only on labor rights but also because it’s the wrong kind of development, particularly in times of crisis. NAFTA should be renegotiated to create a more equitable distribution of wealth in Mexico and enhance labor rights, and a moratorium on free trade agreements should be established, pending a full review of impact and reforms of the NAFTA model.
  • Reform multilateral financial organizations: If these institutions are recapitalized as major actors in confronting the crisis, they must be reformed to prevent the errors of the past. Fixing problems of skewed representation, conditionality, and negative lending priorities will be a huge task. U.S. citizen groups can join with Latin American organizations to make a difference.
  • Regulation: The Obama government didn’t emerge as a champion of regulation at the recent G-20 meeting. U.S. citizens must organize to insist on regulation to avert future crises and curtail illicit fortunes made off speculation. One place to start is by regulating commodity speculation that led to the food crisis.

The Fifth Summit of the Americas showed a tenuous coming to terms among nations in a new political and economic context, reflected in the fact that the obsolete declaration was signed only by the host country. But Latin American countries were willing to give the new U.S. president the benefit of the doubt, and prepare to engage in tough political negotiation and dialogue. Their response to this “new era” in hemispheric relations serves as a good lesson in strategy for advocates of U.S. foreign policy reform in the United States.

It’s important to remember too that timing is a crucial part of politics. Most of the reforms proposed are vague, fall short of what is needed, or are even counter-productive. At a time of economic crisis in the United States, this doesn’t mean abandoning pressure for needed reforms, but we do need to understand the support among the public is an essential aspect of reform. That is a job for the citizen groups that have so long fought for a new U.S. foreign policy.

These actions would form a much more constructive strategy than naysaying and sterile debates over whether or not the three-month-old Obama administration is sincere.

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