Latin American Issues are Key to Kerry Victory

If John Kerry is to emerge as a triumphal alternative to George Bush and simultaneously fend off Ralph Nader’s challenge on his left, he must realize that his present tilt towards a Bush-lite platform on Latin American issues could cost him the election. There are hundreds-of-thousands of voters who will cast their ballots mainly on the basis of whether Kerry unfurls an enlightened regional agenda. Not only would this stance strengthen his foreign policy credentials deriving from his long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but it also could elevate his political tug at Latino and other American voters who are deeply concerned with hemispheric issues and who represent an increasingly important constituency in key swing states. Up to now, Kerry keeps swinging at pitches, seeming almost embarrassed by past enlightened stand on such matters, e.g., inaccurately claiming that he had voted for Helms—Burton, (an outrageous anti-Havana measure that even President Bush has refused to fully implement), as well as proudly recalling that for 20 years “I have never suggested lifting the embargo.”

Even though the President seldom misses an opportunity to confuse sterile banalities and hollow calls for democratization for prudent hemispheric initiatives, Kerry would be wise not to conclude that Nader supporters will automatically rush to the Democrat’s banner to prevent four more years of Bush. Voters with strong beliefs may not be prepared to put clothespins on their noses and back Kerry just because he is not Bush; in fact, many are prepared to punish him if need be, for his present Bush-style boiler plate rhetoric on Latin America.

The last three years have witnessed a singular deterioration in relations between the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors as Colin Powell’s rabid team of rightist ideologues—including Roger Noriega, John Bolton, Dan Fisk, and the soon to be departed Otto Reich—have demeaned, patronized, alienated or insulted virtually every regional figure. From San Salvador to Buenos Aires, U.S. policy makers have almost gone out of their way to offend, at the cost of Washington’s genuine regional interests.

From its onset, the administration worked at undermining the populist governments of Venezuela’s Cesar Chavez and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while relentlessly bashing Cuba. It openly campaigned against democratic-left parties in Bolivia, Nicaragua and El Salvador while strong-arming the region’s weaker states into joining its Iraqi coalition of the not-so-willing, and pursuing one-sided trade agreements.

Perhaps the administration’s most destructive initiative has been its sterile policy towards Cuba. It is almost 45 years since the inauguration of the moribund U.S. embargo against Havana, implemented in 1961 under JFK. Still, there have been no significant moves to review what is obviously a failed strategy. On the contrary, rather than repudiate an embargo which is universally denounced, Bush has tightened it along with increased travel restrictions, to better woo Miami’s anti-Castro forces for their political clout and campaign financing.

Yet, as America’s political process moves into fast forward for next November’s election, it remains unclear whether Latin American policy will even reach Kerry’s agenda. Thus far, his foreign policy attacks have been dominated by ongoing chaos in Iraq, the fraying of European alliances, and the embarrassment prompted by elusive WMDs and Osama bin Laden. But, as the campaign heats up, he would be wise to turn his attention to Latin America, where he could land some telling anti-Bush blows. As senator, Kerry amassed an impressive hemispheric record. He was among several Democratic primary aspirants capable of pressing for dialogue and conciliation, rather than just ape the conventional neoconservative mix of diktat, condescension and churlish rhetoric. Yet so far, he’s chosen not to highlight his considerable credentials on regional issues.

In addition to attacking the Bush administration’s dumbed-down policy on Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela, Kerry must also prove that he is capable of more than merely more of the same. In recent weeks, he has strongly denounced the current administration’s inept policy in Haiti. But this welcomed sortie was then obscured by his cliché-ridden endorsement of the Bush embargo, his cheap shot at the Venezuelan president, and the flip-flop over the ouster of Haiti’s Aristide.

As Kerry himself is wont to say, “We can do better.” If not, then in the tens of thousands, it’s off to Nader.