Hillary Clinton Visits Latin America: A Renewed Opportunity for Regional Cooperation or an Intensification of the kind of Neo–Cold War Rhetoric that has Categorized U.S Latin American Policy to Date?

-The Obama Administration’s Latin American Policy to this point has been outdated and based on Cold War rhetoric

– Hillary Clinton has the potential to either continue the status quo or to drastically alter the way in which the U.S handles Latin American foreign affairs

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Lima on Sunday, June 6th for a four day Latin America and Caribbean tour, with further scheduled stops in Ecuador, Colombia, and Barbados.  Clinton plans to attend the Organization of American States (OAS) 40th General Assembly in Peru and a meeting with members of CARICOM, the regional Caribbean organization in Barbados. She will also visit the current chair of the Union of South American States (UNASUR) in Ecuador to discuss drug-trafficking problems in Colombia. Essentially, Clinton’s visit has been planned so that the U.S. can demonstrate its belated concern for Latin American issues, personalities and favored political activities and to effectively protect its interests and gain cooperation in its foreign policy initiatives.  So far, her approach to Latin American policy has been described as too similar to the Bush administration’s approach, which many of her critics emphatically feel leaves much to be desired.  For too long, the U.S. has ignored what would be in the interest of Latin America as an entity and, instead, has focused on how to further U.S. interests, as is evidenced by several free trade agreements (FTAs) now in effect.  Hopefully, Clinton’s visit on Monday will demonstrate that the U.S. has become more enlightened when it comes to Latin American foreign policy, and will allow the U.S. stand on various key issues to become more flexible.

OAS Cooperation

The OAS General Assembly to be held from June 6th to June 8th includes discussion of many pertinent issues.  The OAS was founded in 1948 and its member states consist of South American, Central American, and North American nations. Cuba and Honduras are observers and cannot vote on procedural matters, the former as a result of a skillful maneuver on Clinton’s part to prevent Havana from being fully restored to its seat, and the latter because of the consequences of the extra-constitutional overthrow of left-leaning President Zelaya. He was ousted for his pro-Chavez politics and the manufactured charge that he aspired to be a dictator.The OAS was established to achieve “an order of peace and justice, to promote their solidarity, to strengthen their collaboration, and to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence” among its member states, as stated in Article 1 of its Charter. Clinton’s decision to visit Lima first is significant because the OAS has long been a forum for the protection of the almost unqualified U.S. influence on economic and political developments in Latin America.

Clinton’s visit at the OAS before she addresses UNASUR shows the U.S. intention to prevent UNASUR from gaining paramountcy over the OAS despite UNASUR’s growing importance as a platform for intra-regional cooperation.  UNASUR was established largely as a defense and security organization, similar to NATO, but could potentially be used to form international agreements, overlapping with the OAS’ jurisdiction. Garcia Belaunde, an established Peruvian lawyer and columnist, maintains that the OAS remains an effective, vital organization, saying that “Clinton’s visit ensures the backing of the United States for the OAS, the inter-American forum for dialogue on the interests of the countries that are there and also the support for the agenda proposed by Peru regarding security and peace.”

OAS Meeting Agenda – Is there Hope for a Modestly Respected Organization’s Overloaded Agenda?

Thus, it is appropriate that the themes for the OAS 40th General Assembly are peace, cooperation, and security, even though past experience indicates that discussion of these issues has been largely unproductive. In particular, the agenda includes the disputed Malvinas Falkland islands, climate change, engaging youth, drug trafficking prevention, criminal gang prevention, environmental protection, and disaster response.  Given the recent occurrence of the spectacular sinkhole in Guatemala and Haiti’s continuing struggle to recover from the devastating January 12th 2010 earthquake, responses to environmental disasters should be an especially important priority for all OAS member states, particularly those in the Caribbean, which are repeatedly vulnerable.  In addition, the OAS agenda has a long laundry list of 105 items including the renewal of the hemispheric commitment to fight poverty in the region, free trade and investment in the hemisphere, gender equality measures, promotion of corporate social responsibility, and human trafficking prevention.

Although all of these issues are important in themselves, it is expected that Clinton has key issues she would like to discuss, and these have not been unlimbered as of yet. Specifically, she will likely focus on drug-trafficking prevention, criminal gang prevention, responses to natural disasters, and making sure that U.S. security concerns are heard in Latin America despite the exclusion of the U.S. as a charter UNASUR member state. The U.S. remains concerned about drug-trafficking and criminal gangs because Mexico is its neighbor and is facing those problems right now; these issues are threatening daily to spill over the border even more than they already have.  Responses to natural disasters are also a major concern due to the large amounts of aid the U.S. provides to disaster-stricken areas. The U.S. wants to ascertain that such aid is used effectively and for appropriate purposes and also to increase transparency and lessen corruption. Some would hope that Clinton should depart from Washington’s longstanding neglect of Cuba, and, instead of using outdated formulas and inept policies, Washington should attempt to reform its travel policy so that all Americans can travel there instead of limiting the right to Cuban-Americans, which is strangely devoid of reason.

Equally importantly, Clinton should turn to the argument that the U.S. is not crowded out of Latin America by UNASUR. It is also imperative that bilateral ties between the U.S. and Ecuador be strong, given Ecuador’s chairmanship of this new regional body.  Ecuador has become a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), started by Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro in 2004.  The aim of ALBA is to provide a regional organization emphasizing economic union and left-leaning politics. According to scholars Larry Catá Backer and Augusto I. Molina in their article “Globalizing Cuba: ALBA and the Construction of Socialist Global Trade Systems,” the U.S. has suggested that ALBA is a “…nexus for radical populist movements” rather than a trade agreement. Despite the U.S.’s strained relations with Cuba and Venezuela, it is important for U.S. foreign policy to keep up to date on these countries’ developments by maintaining close ties with Ecuador. The Correa government may not be adverse to normalizing ties between the two countries because, in spite of the abrasive rhetoric, neither side seems inclined to break old bonds.

Visit to Colombia

After visiting Ecuador, Secretary Clinton will travel to Colombia to meet with President Álvaro Uribe and Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez. In particular, they will address an agenda that emphasizes political, security, and commercial issues, as well as narcotics trafficking and terrorism. According to the State Department, the U.S. is Colombia’s leading trading partner and Colombia is the U.S.’ fourth largest trading partner in Latin America (behind Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela). Colombian officials are looking forward to receiving Secretary Clinton, who has emphasized that her visit will convey a “message of support” between to the two nations. Colombia is generally considered to be Washington’s closest friend in the hemisphere.

U.S.-Colombia Bilateral Agenda and Plan Colombia

The U.S.–Colombia bilateral agenda for the visit covers peace and security issues, economic and trade interests, human rights, U.S. assistance initiatives to Colombia, issues of democratic governance and election practices, the environment, and an action plan on racial and ethnic equality. One of the major connective tissues between the U.S. and Colombia is trade. The two countries signed the U.S.–Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) on November 22, 2006, which provides opportunities for U.S. exporters to invest. The agreement effectively eliminates tariffs and other trade barriers on goods and services between the two countries. Several concerns surround this pending trade agreement. The ratification of the treaty has been held up by a majority of congressional democrats who hold grave reservations regarding Uribe’s human rights policy and his treatment of Colombian trade unionists. Scores have been killed in the past year, and agitated U.S. trade union counterparts have been effectively blocking the vote on a free trade agreement with Colombia.

American multinational corporations have much to gain from this arrangement, but it is in the area of labor relations that Colombia presents a grave problem for the United States. Union leaders are targeted by paramilitaries, and thousands have died trying to obtain better wages, health benefits, and job security. Furthermore, the two nations participate in a defense cooperation agreement in which a limited number of U.S. military personnel are allowed access to some Colombian military bases. Secretary Clinton has stated that this initiative “does not create U.S. bases in Colombia.” Rather, it serves as a mechanism to militate against drug trafficking and terrorism in the country.

The U.S. has recently revived the 4th Fleet, a South Atlantic naval command in the Americas established during World War II to defend against raiders, blockade-runners, and enemy submarines. Since its reactivation in 2008, the unit serves not only to combat narcotics trafficking and provide humanitarian assistance, but also to impose U.S. presence. Colombia’s alliance with Washington threatens regional security between neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador. Washington’s influence has provoked leaders like Rafael Correa and Hugo Chávez and damaged their diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Plan Colombia: Successes and Challenges

Colombia and the U.S. promoted Plan Colombia in 1999 in order to combat drug trafficking, violence, and human rights abuses. The Embassy of Colombia estimates that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are responsible for over 90% of the cocaine that enters the United States. Throughout most of the past decade it has been the rightist vigilante group, the AUC, that has accounted for most of the drug sales.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), unemployment levels in Colombia have fallen from 14.5% in 2002 to 12% in 2009; but these figures still remain high. Opium poppy cultivation decreased by 25% between 2006 and 2007 and Plan Colombia has been able to weaken the country’s leftist guerrilla groups, the FARC and the much smaller ELN. Colombian authorities claim that thousands of guerrillas have been killed, wounded, or demobilized, both by force and voluntarily. However, Colombia still faces many challenges. It must continue to focus its efforts on obstacles like racial and ethnic inequality, narcotics trafficking, and underemployment. As of 2007, the CIA estimates there are 1.8 – 3.5 million internally displaced persons in Colombia as a result of conflicts between the government, armed groups, and drug traffickers. These figures make Colombia the country with one of the largest internally displaced populations in the world. Coca cultivation has increased by 6% over the previous year, with most Colombian heroin being destined for the U.S.

U.S. military assistance and arms sales to Colombia have increased in part due to the war on drug trafficking and terrorism. Not only is Colombia one of the largest recipients of 211 forms of U.S. military aid and economic assistance in the world after Israel and Egypt, but it also purchases large amounts of military equipment from other countries. Since 1999 the country has received $6.1 billion in military assistance. The BBC estimates that Colombia spent approximately $5.5 billion on military purchases in 2008 alone.

Expectations and the Future of Diplomatic Relations with Colombia

The U.S. and Colombia are certain to recommit themselves to enhance cooperative efforts and military assistance, but the commitment is not likely to stop there. Despite large amounts of military aid and economic assistance to Colombia, U.S. anti-drug policy has not made progress in reducing the amount and availability of cocaine in the United States. Furthermore, Colombia struggles with one of the most miserable human rights records in the hemisphere, and the arms build-up is inadvertently fueling numerous violent conflicts. Rather than the largely wasteful flow of funds, it is crucial that more be directed towards economic and social programs and supplemented with dialogue and transparency initiatives to increase equality and citizen security in Colombia.

Final Stop: Bridgetown

To conclude her trip south, Clinton will pay a visit to the small independent nation Barbados, where she will meet with leaders of the Caribbean community. The American Embassy in Bridgetown is a hub for U.S. diplomatic activity in the region, serving twelve surrounding island states, including six further members of the Caribbean community economic partnership CARICOM. In light of the Caribbean’s most recent economic and security developments in the areas of drugs and criminal gangs, Clinton is likely to focus on common goals like reducing drug violence, promoting free trade, and encouraging development. Nevertheless, political and ideological tensions may also surface.

Caribbean Security and Tightening Law Enforcement

As a direct follow-up to the Christopher Coke scandal in Jamaica and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) meeting on May 27th, 2010 in Washington DC, the Barbados meeting at which Clinton will appear is certain to place widespread issues of drug gangs and corruption in the spotlight. While Jamaica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines are major Marijuana producers, other illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, are transported through the region from Latin America to the United States as well as through Africa to Europe. To make up for the lack of attention the region has received in the shadow of Mexico’s war on drugs, the Obama administration has called for $79 million toward CBSI, more than double this year’s budget, but still a sum which is by no means adequate. At the Washington meeting, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder struck up a familiar dialogue: he encouraged escalating law enforcement to continue “…courageously battling drug cartels, gangs and other criminal networks throughout the Americas.”

While corruption was briefly addressed, the important underlying roles of U.S. domestic policies—such as loose gun control—and of U.S. drug purchases by common citizens, as well as the need for gang youth intervention programs, remained largely untouched. The 1996 Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) substantially increased U.S. deportations to Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies, contributing no small amount of violence to these regions. Many of the hardcore deported are convicted teenagers who grew up in the U.S. and have never been south of the border, a reason why Barbados Senator David Durant, according to a Nation News Barbados article, called for social assistance and reintegration programs for these youths. Durant and other regional leaders are concerned about these disoriented deportees because of their contribution to the gang problem across the Caribbean, which they fear could escalate up to Jamaica’s high level of crime. During her time in Barbados, Clinton will have an opportunity to engage these crucial policy and prevention issues, which have been pushed aside by previous administrations.

CARICOM – Economic and Ideological Concerns

The indisputable connection between security and economic development will not escape discussion during the Clinton trip. Devastation in Haiti and unemployment across the region remain rampant. While leaders such as Barbadian Minister of Economic Affairs, Patrick Todd, have encouraged local entrepreneurship, regional and global economic integration are still being primarily emphasized. CARICOM’s Single Market & Economy (SME) plan, part of the Grand Anse Declaration in 1989, resembles the European Union model and includes the participation of all fifteen member states. Although there is free trade between the islands, the main industry supporting their economies is still tourism, making them unhealthily dependent on developed countries.

Bananas had been a crucial export of the region until the World Trade Organization’s recent declaration that European preferences for Caribbean bananas, along with other agricultural produce of most former colonies, violated international trade regulations specified under the Lomé Agreement. Neither bananas nor Caribbean sugar have since been competitive enough to sustain the region, and the tourism industry is now threatened by violence and increasing environmental concerns. A continuation of the 1984 Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), the 2000 Passage of U.S.-Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBTPA), has given trade preferences to eight original CBI beneficiaries. All of the participants had to qualify on the basis of WTO cooperation, maintenance of most favored preferences for U.S. goods, workers’ rights, and a non-Communist government, among equally fustian and, often antique, stipulations.

The final factor may become touchy with the recent expansion of ALBA to include CARICOM members Dominica, Antigua & Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, all countries that are not current CBTPA beneficiaries. Some CARICOM leaders have worried that this small, left-leaning economic alliance, now proposing its own transnational currency, might conflict with interests of the islands’ SME plan. Moreover, membership in ALBA by a few Caribbean states, while implying connections with the Venezuela-Cuba political camp that favors a strong social welfare state, may, in actuality, mean far less—something like guaranteeing a chief source for energy and low interest loans. Still not past Cold War controversies and concerned with their authoritarian governments, the U.S. maintains a negative attitude toward both of these countries, with Cuba’s trade and travel restrictions being the most extreme example of an insufficient response by U.S. authorities to contemporary challenges.

Policy Recommendations

Some of Latin America has been telling Secretary of State Clinton that Washington has brought little new to the table and that its attention has been too centered on Colombia, famed for violence, corruption, and pro-Americanism. Clinton’s excess focus on this country may have detracted from more balanced diplomacy and progressive initiatives in the region. With some island states joining ALBA and others choosing quasi-free trade with the U.S., a danger of forming two hemispheric camps becomes an ominous possibility. Clinton’s challenge when addressing economic coalitions on the islands will be to confront ideological controversies by assuring genuine U.S. concern for poverty and the absence of substantive democracy in the Caribbean and Latin America, while emphasizing a cooperative and comprehensive hemispheric approach to solving the region’s social problems.