The great debate on how much – or how little — Barack Obama would change our disastrous U.S. foreign policy usually focuses on the Middle East. That makes sense. Nowhere has the price of the Bush national security strategy been higher, as the violent deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers and 93,000 Iraqis attest.

But a smaller, no less passionate, debate exists over Latin America policy. Although the Western Hemisphere isn’t a headline-grabber these days, the debate raises matters that deeply affect people south of our border and the millions of Americans with family ties to the region. U.S. relations with Latin America can no longer be seen as a regional foreign policy box. In an increasingly integrated world, they have become part of fundamental U.S. debates on trade, employment, immigration, and transnational crime.

In this context, Barack Obama heads to Denver this month to become the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency. Opinion divides sharply on whether his platform for U.S. policy in Latin America is really a “Change We Can Believe in.”

The campaign following the nomination will inevitably include some pandering to the Latino vote, especially in swing states like Florida and New Mexico, which will muddy the picture of what can be expected if the candidate becomes the chief executive.

But electoral posturing aside, the cards have been laid out for a first reading on the hemispheric future. Obama’s approach, more than the policies themselves, gives us much to work with in turning disaster into a genuine good neighbor policy for the region.

Obama’s “Partnership for the Americas”

The first card was played at the gathering of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami on May 23. With the primary race still raging, Obama sought to win over the politically powerful group in the state that has previously sunk democratic hopes. He offered the crowd a mix of tough talk and new policies.

Shortly after the speech to the Cuban-Americans, the campaign released “A New Partnership for the Americas.” The 13-page document laid out the approach to regional foreign policy under three main headings: political freedom/democracy, freedom from fear (security), and freedom from want (poverty). These “freedoms” harked back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt´s Four Freedoms.

The speech and the platform immediately provoked volleys of punditry and emails. Chicano and progressive listservs buzzed and political blogs argued over whether the positions were net positive, net negative, or merely electoral blather. Author Greg Grandin concludes that “the Obama Doctrine” will not represent a clean break from the Monroe Doctrine of U.S. hegemony in the region. Tom Hayden more optimistically calls it a “mixed blessing” and a “brave beginning,” And many others attribute Obama’s comments to the requirements of election-year rhetoric.

Something can be said for all three evaluations. On first read, the position paper feels a little green. Some ideas pop up as though they occurred to someone at the moment rather than as a result of thought-out policy proposals. To give a few examples: the proposal to extend the Merida Initiative to all of Latin America shows no recognition that the mostly military initiative embodies widely repudiated Bush policies and would be vehemently rejected by other nations in the hemisphere. Also, the emphasis on cap-and-trade markets as a panacea for environmental threats falls short of a comprehensive program.

Without question, however, Obama’s platform marks a major departure from continuing Bush policy in the region. When John McCain’s tapped Otto Reich as his Latin America adviser he signaled his intention to continue the very worst of the past policy. This has made blood boil in Latin American countries. Reich alienated Central Americans for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. He infuriated the Venezuelans by supporting the 2002 coup and angered the Cubans by protecting Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles, convicted of anti-Cuba terrorist attacks. Everywhere he´s gone he´s left a trail of human rights violations and murky political manipulations a mile wide.

Obama’s foreign policy team, on the other hand, mixes crusty veterans with new thinkers and appears to be in flux. This shows in the Latin America policy proposal, where, for example, hardline support for Plan Colombia stands alongside opposition to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

But the paper demonstrates a new perspective on the region that holds out hope for real change.

The political freedom section focuses on Cuban policy, calling to lift travel restrictions and free up remittances, while “holding back” on relaxation of the trade embargo as a negotiating tool in a post-Fidel transition. Backtracking on his previous commitment to lift the embargo is a lily-livered electoral move, but the text indicates it’s a question of timing rather than principle.

Other breaks with Bush policy include the section on “democracy begins at home” that advocates ending torture, extraordinary rendition and indefinite detentions, restoring habeas corpus and closing Guantanamo. These concrete commitments not only change lives but send a clear message to Latin American partners who have long held that U.S. foreign policy in their region too often follows a double standard.

The “freedom from want” section calls for increased U.S. aid for “bottom-up development by concentrating on micro-finance, vocational training and community development programs.” It notes the need to develop benchmarks and fight corruption, leading by example with “merit-based and transparent” contracting decisions. Other objectives include achieving the Millennium Development Goals; reducing the education deficit, especially for girls and women; supporting 100% debt cancellation for Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, and St. Lucia; and reforms to the IMF and World Bank.

These proposals in particular go considerably beyond the standard fare for democratic candidates. Debt cancellation and reforming international financial institutions are demands that broad citizen movements have been pressing for years. That these issues have been incorporated into Obama’s Latin America plan indicates he’s listening to new voices and is ready to place the kind of emphasis on social justice issues like poverty alleviation that previously was reserved for corporate investment, trade liberalization and ideological-based regime change programs. Some of the proposals have already been backed up by actions, like the Obama-sponsored Global Poverty Act to support achievement of the Millennium Goals.

In regional economic integration, Obama’s platform cracks the paradigm by calling for “fair trade” (rather vaguely defined), amendment of NAFTA, opposition to the US-Colombia agreement, and a path to earned citizenship for undocumented workers and their families.

Even the security section, which has been most heavily criticized for mimicking Bush policies, introduces ideas considered heretic according to Bush-McCain dogma. These include a far greater willingness to assume shared responsibility, take on domestic challenges in drug control and arms trafficking, and create measurable benchmarks, while emphasizing many non-military alternatives. The inclusion of a “Northbound and Southbound Strategy” recognizes U.S. responsibilities and failings in its own territory and seems to break with the sanctimonious declarations that place the onus for transnational security threats on the south and have been used to justify U.S. intervention.

The energy partnership proposal is one of the sections that needs work. It promotes new markets for green technologies, and puts stock in cap-and-trade mandates to offset emissions without mentioning the need to demand clean industry in the United States or change consumption patterns. It also relies on carbon sequestration incentives to discourage deforestation, while ignoring the role that U.S. corporations play and the possibility of international regulation. But again, citizen discussions find their way into the thinking on the issues. So, for instance, while the paper promotes biofuels it does recognize the conflict between food and fuel.

Missteps and Leaps of Faith

By far the most controversial of Obama’s Latin America positions concern security policy. These have provoked the most outcry among progressive Latinos, Latin Americans, and regional policy analysts.
Obama issued his platform just weeks after the Colombian attack on a guerrilla camp in Ecuador. Most nations on the continent, with the exception of Colombia backed up by the United States, condemned the incursion on the grounds that it violated international law and the guerrillas were attacked not in self-defense but while asleep.

The military incursion was the opportunity to show that international law trumps ideological alliances and Obama did just the opposite. Not only did he justify the Uribe government’s attack, he vowed “to continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges. We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC. We’ll work with the government to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries. We will support Colombia’s right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation, and – if need be – strong sanctions.”

The enthusiastic endorsement of the Uribe government in its war against the FARC was clearly not for the benefit of the Colombian government. Uribe has publicly maligned Obama for his opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and orchestrated the recent McCain visit to throw support for a Republican administration in 2009. With no love lost between those two, the real question is: who is Obama appeasing with the tough language and one-sided policy outlined here?

The other long section on security is dedicated to Mexico. The Obama Latin America plan supports Plan Mexico, dubbed the Merida Initiative by the Bush administration. This plan proposes a new security initiative with Latin America that embraces countries beyond Central America.”

Mexico and Colombia are the only large nations ruled by far-right governments in Latin America. Support for the military/police models embodied in Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia, and the temptation to equate regional cooperation with U.S. military involvement, clearly contradicts the FDR principles invoked in the rest of the document. Perhaps the “new security initiative” referred to would modify and not merely extend Plan Mexico. But if that’s the case, the Obama team should develop a critique of the Bush plan.

And if, like the Bush administration, an Obama administration plans to drive a wedge through the heart of Latin America by rewarding ideological allies and punishing perceived enemies, then we have a real problem.

That doesn’t seem to be the case though. The tough talk on crime and violence is balanced by non-military solutions and a commitment to engagement with Venezuela, Cuba, and the rest of the region. The anti-Chavez rhetoric, rightly criticized by many as divisive and inaccurate, is not so disturbing in context. Both sides tend to get blustery in the U.S.-Venezuela relationship, and yet no one seems to be getting out the sticks and stones yet. While progressive political analysts raged against Obama’s uninformed and unjustified stabs at Hugo Chavez, few recalled that Obama was among the first and only politicians to announce his willingness to meet with Chavez, and he has reiterated, not retracted, that offer.

This is where the leap of faith comes in.

Subjectivity factors high in the debate over Obama’s Latin America platform. Nobody really believes that campaign rhetoric is the same as applied policy, so the discussion hinges on whether the candidate will move toward the progressive or conservative side of his platform after election. Like Biblical prophets, everyone’s watching for signs.

One side believes his “instincts are good” for building a more humane foreign policy, and the more conservative positions are electoral posturing. Among progressive non-believers there are three positions. Obama skeptics believe that his progressive positions are the posturing and once in office the status quo will win out. Electoral skeptics argue that the two-party electoral system in the United States will never produce real change — their beef is not so much with Obama as with anyone who comes out of the political system and claims to change it. And the system-izers believe that the international system trumps the power of any president – even of the world’s most powerful capitalist nation — to make fundamental changes even if he or she wanted to. These are generalizations, of course, and all have a grain of truth. But they serve to characterize important if latent debates surrounding the Obama candidacy.

Three Reasons to Make the Leap

In 2004 I wrote that the main expectation of Latin American governments and societies closely watching the U.S. elections was to keep things from getting worse. A good neighbor policy seemed too much to ask, and John Kerry failed to make even a rhetorical break with “democracy promotion” programs, or military intervention under the thinly disguised wars on terrorism and drugs. In other areas, the Democratic candidate got the discourse right but the policy proposals repeated the tired formulas of the past.

So why feel any differently now?

The first reason is that Obama’s policy toward the region — beyond the specific policies — reflects a significant change in perspective. The best way to illustrate this is the following phrase from his Miami speech: “It’s time for a new alliance of the Americas. After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future. After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up. So my policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States.”

“What’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States” is nothing short of a total inversion of U.S. history in the region. And Latin America today shows that the formulation is not based on altruism but a careful reading of reality. Most threats to human security, economic well-being, and democratic freedom have arisen precisely because a succession of governments and the policies of the U.S. government and international financial institutions have made it impossible to do “what´s good for the people.” The result is that Latin America suffers the greatest inequality of any region in the world, and poverty engulfs over half the population.

This perspective also seems to recognize that Latin America has come of age and validates in principle the reform experiments in the region that the Bush administration has vilified.

It’s also no accident that Obama´s Latin America program takes off from the Rooseveltian model. Lately the candidate, Progressives for Obama, think tanks, and citizen groups have been picking up the language of FDR to adopt the principles of the Good Neighbor policy of the 1930s, and also to demonstrate to the U.S. public that significant change in our foreign policy is possible.

For Latin America — the staging area for the original good neighbor policy — the analogy is especially relevant. Today many popular movements and new left-leaning governments espouse social programs much closer to FDR’s New Deal than to the “Washington Consensus.” The Bush administration perceived that as a threat rather than recognizing the growing rumblings in Latin America as a call to re-examine the current economic integration model and adopt greater flexibility.

This is the other reason Latin America policy is important today. Free of widespread conflict, ruled by democracies, and in the midst of major redefinitions of policy for the public good, Latin America is the testing ground for change in a globalized world. And that’s exactly what many nations there have been doing over the past years.

Second, there are reasons to suspect that Obama, the human being, does have good instincts. His background, his organizing experience, and his previous stances in political life set him off from most politicians, and his position in the African-American community gives him greater sensitivity to the historically excluded.

“Matching rhetoric with deeds”, the phrase used in the Latin America paper, will be a big challenge. Obama will have to make good on the promise to seek “what’s good for Main Street, not Wall Street” by insisting that corporations obey international law and sacrifice some of the mega-profits they’ve made off natural resources in Latin American countries. If that means telling Chevron it’s on its own in its legal battle with the Ecuadorean government over the destruction of thousands of acres of Amazon jungle, or Chiquita that it’s not okay to pay paramilitaries for protection in Colombia, so be it.

As in all aspects of foreign policy reform, the critical factor in defining a new regional policy is the ability to break the inertia in Washington that has limited vision and action for change. The Obama team will have to take with a grain of salt the policy recommendations of , say, the Council on Foreign relations, which in a recent report fell back on tired calls for more free trade and echoed Condoleezza Rice by deeming Latin American measures to redistribute national wealth a sign of “resurgent resource nationalism.” He must be willing to stick to policy promises even when interest lobbies put the pressure on, or pollsters and politicos warn they might not be mainstream.

The most important reason to take change seriously is that the Obama campaign is bigger than the candidate. This is its saving grace. Through the media, the public has been taught to be skeptical of real change. The incipient movement to buck that socialization is the grandest achievement of the Obama campaign so far. Relations of mutual respect in the hemisphere don´t depend just on presidential elections; they depend on a reactivation of civil society in the Americas at a critical moment for the region.

In the debate over change in foreign policy, it’s not a matter of sitting back to wait to see who’s right: those who believed it could be done or those who said it couldn’t. We can’t allow either extreme: the optimistic scenario that Obama, once ordained, will single-handedly usher in a new era in U.S.-Latin America relations; or the pessimistic scenario that, frozen by the inertia of the system, he will preside over the same old practices. Neither allows for an active role of the citizenry in shaping a new foreign policy.

If the Obama campaign continues to build a grassroots base, incorporating parts of the population that had been distanced from democratic participation — especially youth — we have the raw material for making change. This change ultimately won’t depend so much on policy prescriptions as a new collective self-image that, as Roosevelt said, respects itself in order to respect the rights of others.

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