Bolivia: Hillary Clinton and James Steinberg “Talk Tough” on Latin America

Published by Red Bolivia Internacional
By April Howard

While President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their appointees emphasize a return to diplomacy in foreign relations, so far they show little inclination to be diplomatic toward leftist governments in Latin America. In fact, recent comments by Obama, Clinton and recent appointees show a continuation of an antiquated analysis and a lack of understanding of recent Latin American social movements and regional integration. On a visit to the State Department on January 23, Clinton promised “I will do all that I can, working with you, to make it abundantly clear that robust diplomacy and effective development are the best long-term tools for securing America’s future.” Obama made similar assertions in a speech to diplomats, and ‘diplomacy’, symbolizing a return to international peace and prosperity, was the word of the week.

Most recently, however, newly appointed Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, boldly stated that “Our friends and partners in Latin America are looking to the United States to provide strong and sustained leadership in the region, as a counterweight to governments like those currently in power in Venezuela and Bolivia which pursue policies which do not serve the interests of their people or the region.” This begs the question of exactly who “our friends and partners in Latin America” are, as many Latin American countries are happily accepting funding for humanitarian projects from Venezuela, and Bolivia is hardly in an economic position to pull strings around the continent. These and other comments by Clinton show that the Obama administration intends to continue a foreign policy in Latin America based on corporate benefit and a misplaced fear of Latin American nationalism.

Taking the Field Back From Chavez in Venezuela

According to Steinberg, the US’s relationship with Venezuela “should be designed to serve our national interest . .. Those interests include ending Venezuela’s ties to the FARC and cooperating on counter-narcotics. For too long, we have ceded the playing field to Chavez. .. We intend to play a more active role in Latin America with a positive approach that avoids giving undue prominence to President Chavez’ theatrical attempts to dominate the regional agenda.”

Clinton herself, in replying to questions by Senator Kerry during her nomination, said that Chavez has tried to take advantage of a lack of US attention in Latin America “to advance out-moded and anti-American ideologies.” Clinton and Steinberg echoed each other about the dangers of “ceding the playing field” to Chavez and leaders “whose actions and visions for the region do not serve his citizens or people,” but Clinton showed less bravado by adding that “While we should be concerned about Chavez’s actions and posture, we should not exaggerate the threat he poses.”

Protecting Fear Mongering Politicians in Bolivia

While President Evo Morales and members of his administration have consistently expressed hope about prospects for better relations with the new US president since last November, during a positive visit to the US and meetings several senators, recent comments by Clinton make this possibility obscure, if not unlikely.

In her first appearance in the senate, Clinton also defended former Bolivian Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who was expelled from Bolivia in September of 2008 by Morales, who accused Goldberg of interfering in affairs of national sovereignty. In turn, the Bush Administration expelled Bolivian ambassador, Gustavo Guzman. Without cause, the Bush Administration then proceeded to accuse Morales’ government of failing to fulfill commitments to international drug control and withheld Bolivian benefits under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA). Morales responded by accusing the U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of spying and interfering in national politics in favor of opposition leaders, and expelled the DEA.

Clinton described Goldberg’s expulsion as another “unjustified” act along with others taken against personnel of the US mission and aid programs by the Bolivian Government. It begs the question, Clinton said, “If Bolivia wants a constructive bilateral relationship.” Also included is Mike Hammer, a political and economic advisor to the US in Bolivia who worked with Goldberg. Hammer was recruited as White House Spokesperson for matters of National Security, but will later return to Bolivia.

Last week, Clinton continued the trend of lumping together the drastically different countries and governments of Venezuela and Bolivia and characterizing them both as negative influences on the continent. She called for the U. S. to fill what she referred to as “that void” of US attention “with strong and sustained US leadership in the region, and tough and direct diplomacy with Venezuela and Bolivia. We should have a positive agenda for the hemisphere in response to the fear-mongering propagated by Chavez and Evo Morales.”

As Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network writes, “Although the new Secretary of State’s reply received scant attention in the United States, it was front-page news in Bolivia, and was easily open to interpretation as a deliberate rebuff of the Bolivian government’s repeated expressions of readiness to engage the new U. S. administration.” Yet, Clinton also stated that the administration believes that “bilateral cooperation with Venezuela and Bolivia on a range of issues would be in the mutual interest of our respective countries – for example, counterterrorism, counter narcotics, energy, and commerce,” and Ledebur reports that “Clinton’s testimony was also hailed by Bolivia’s Vice Foreign Minister, Hugo Fernandez, as signaling that the Obama administration shared Bolivia’s desire for closer relations.”

Other Obama complicated administration ties to Bolivia include political adviser Gregory Craig, who, despite a record for defending human rights in Latin America, has been criticized for his work defending Latin American leaders accused of human rights abuses. According to Politico.com blogger Ben Smith, Craig is a “muscular counsel” whose top deputies and stature suggest that “office will play a larger role in policy — on an already muscular White House staff — than in previous administrations.”

Currently Craig is representing ousted Bolivian President Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada and former Minister of Defense Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, a fact which, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), “has raised legitimate doubts regarding his moral commitment to Latin America.” Both men are indicted in the United States for their participation ordering soldiers to open-fire on protesters in El Alto, Bolivia, in 2003, and uncontestable fact that caused the death of over 60 citizens. In June of 2007, both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were granted political asylum in the US while awaiting trial in Miami under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Over 20 people marched against the action in Bolivia, and the Bolivian ambassador Gustavo Guzman prepared a case for extradition of the politicians before he was expelled.

While COHA Research Associates Michael Katz and Chris Sweeney defend Craig as a politician dedicated to human rights, they write that “The Bush administration’s decision to protect these powerful figures has sent a disconcerting message of American elitism to the Bolivian citizenry. Human rights advocates believe that Craig’s continued representation of Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín demonstrates his readiness to defend the interests of the rich and famous against the poor. Admittedly, such charges complicate his reputation in Latin America, and for some bring into question his true commitment to regional solidarity.”

According to Ledebur, “The new Obama administration and Congress could help repair some of the damage done to the U. S. reputation in Latin America in recent years by taking a flexible, respectful approach toward Bolivia, in cooperation with Bolivia’s neighbor democracies and the international community. The Obama administration would also do well to recognize that Bolivia’s political dynamics, demands for profound reform, and jealous defense of national sovereignty and self-determination have emerged from the country’s own history, and have not been somehow foisted upon it by outside powers against the democratic wishes of the Bolivian people.”

Successful Failures in Plan Colombia

In his questions for the record prepared for Clinton’s nomination as Secretary of State, John Kerry cited a GOA report from fall 2008 that concluded that Plan Colombia “has not significantly reduced the amount of illicit drugs entering the United States.” Steinberg showed a lack of understanding of the accepted failures of Plan Colombia by referring to “counternarcotics successes in Colombia.”

Clinton showed a lack of nuanced understanding of government connections to paramilitaries by stating that the administration will “fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC, and work with the government to end the reign of terror from the right wing paramilitaries.” She did show recognition of the need to change Plan Colombia strategies by mentioning the need to work “here at home to reduce demand.”

In terms of trade agreements, Clinton attempted to remain neutral, saying that “It is essential that trade spread the benefits of globalization,” but she added that “without adequate labor protections, trade cannot do that,” and that “continued violence and impunity in Colombia directed at labor and other civic leaders makes labor protections impossible to guarantee in Colombia today.”

No Timeline for Change in Cuba

Clinton spoke for Obama on Cuba, reiterating that Obama “believes that it makes both moral and strategic sense to lift the restrictions on family visits and family cash remittances to Cuba,” but added that the administration does not have a timeline for this action. Contrary to the experience of the past 50 years, she also communicated that Obama “believes that it is not the time to lift the embargo on Cuba, especially since it provides an important source of leverage for further change on the island.”

Big Business in Brazil

Kerry expressed concern with Brazil’s “leading role” in MERCOSUR, the Rio Group and the Union of South American Nations “which have at times been at odds with U. S. interests in the region.”

Clinton’s reply focused on business opportunities in the increasingly destructive agro-export sector. “We look forward to ensuring that continued U. S.-Brazil energy cooperation is environmentally sustainable and spreads the benefits of alternative fuels. The expansion of renewable energy production throughout the Americas that promotes self-sufficiency and creates more markets for US green-energy manufacturers and producers is vitally important,” she said.

Consistent with other members of the Obama administration, Clinton emphasized the agrofuel industry and did not address top scientist’s continued criticisms that agrofuels are not only unsustainable and do not create a net reduction in greenhouse gasses, but that the carcinogenic spread of crops grown for animal feed and agrofuels is dangerous to farmers and has contributed to an international food crisis. When later asked about the international food crisis, Clinton asserted that the U. S. has a “moral responsibility” and a “practical interest in doing its part to address a food crisis.” She categorized the causes of the food crisis as “cyclical and structural,” citing “poor harvests in key-grain producing nations, sharply higher oil prices, and a surge in demand for meat in high-growth Asian countries.” Many of the transgenic and genetically modified grains and crops grown in Latin America are destined as much for feed for meat animals in Europe and China as for agrofuels, but Clinton did not make that link.

Clinton identified “long-term factors include[ing] inadequate investment in enhanced agricultural productivity, inappropriate trade and subsidy programs, and climate change.” If ‘inadequate investment’ includes “hundreds of millions of dollars in U. S. Department of Energy grants aimed at jump-starting the evolution to fuels made from such non-corn feedstocks as switchgrass, wheat straw and wood chips” given to several privately held firms, then more of the same problems are to be expected. Similarly, if agrofuel crops are emphasized, as Clinton indicates a U. S. interest in doing in Brazil, then issues related to climate change can only be expected to intensify.

While one could hope that Clinton’s plans to “work with partners in the international community to address immediate humanitarian needs and make seeds and fertilizers available in critically affected nations, . .. put more focus on efforts to enhance agricultural productivity . .. including agricultural research and development, and investment in improved seeds and irrigation methods,” will not involve multinational pesticide and GM seed giant Monsanto, or processors Cargill, Bunge and Syngenta. Without accepting the present dangers of the agrofuel and agro-export situation in Latin America, change in the current trajectory under an Obama administration is unlikely.

Spreading Democracy

Though both Candidates ran on campaigns of change to the Bush Administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and Clinton’s recent comments show little to indicate that the US will change it’s now more than century old policy of foreign intervention under the vestige of “democracy promotion.” Clinton urged the senate “not [to] allow the war in Iraq to continue to give democracy promotion a bad name. Supporting democracy, economic development, and the rule of law is critical for U. S. interests around the world. Democracies are our best trading partners, our most valuable allies, and the nations with which we share our deepest values.” Clinton seems to urge a return to covert actions of regime change and support for opposition parties in her assertion that “democracy must be nurtured with moderates on the inside by building democratic institutions; it cannot be imposed by force from the outside.”

Still, “America,” she said, “must renew its effort to bring security and development to the disconnected corners of our interconnected world.” Like past members of past administrations, Clinton does not seem to grasp the idea that US involvement is not always necessary or welcome in all parts of the globe, and furthermore, involvement that refuses to recognize peoples’ rights to defend access to natural resources, preserve their human rights, and act out of self determination cannot solve past problems and will only exacerbate future conflicts.

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April Howard is a instructor of Latin American Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and an editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email April. M.Howard(at) gmail(dot) com

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