Latin America and the U.S. Presidential Campaign: COHA Research Associate Monica Shah on Barack Obama
In a February 2008 campaign rally in Alexandria, VA, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was applauded as he declared “Our Latin American policy can not just be ‘I oppose Castro’ and ‘I oppose Chavez.’” Even more applause was registered when he lamented the United States’ past neglect towards Latin America because, “We have been so obsessed with Iraq and the Middle East.” In his campaign strategy driven by ‘change’, Obama has strived for a different foreign policy towards Latin America in contrast to past presidents, and especially the catastrophic regional policies that were followed under the Bush administration’s Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, both of whom served as assistant secretary of state to Latin America, as well as a distempered John Bolton, a senior officer under Collin Powell.
In a 2007 statement to the Senate, Obama claimed, “As has been the case throughout the world, our standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush Administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by six years of neglect and mismanagement of relations,”—work that Obama has now pledged to engage in, including the matter of political prisoners in Cuba. The Illinois Senator and presidential contender also has a special interest in helping to revive stagnant aspects of the Mexican economy, which is among the primary causes of the influx of illegal immigrants to the United States.
Barack Obama believes that, “we ignore Latin America at our own peril”, and insists that Latin American countries are deserving of “mutual respect and dignity.” In contrast to President Bush and Hilary Clinton, Obama has stated that he would not need any “preconditions” before meeting with U.S.’s most bitter foes like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Cuba’s Raul Castro.
As Fidel Castro announced his resignation from office, Obama stated that it is, “the end of a dark era in Cuba’s history”. But in an effort to replace failed policies with effective ones, Obama has proposed to slowly ease the embargo that has existed for nearly five decades. He previously has voted twice against further funding of the U.S. anti-Castro television network, T.V. Marti, which relays propagandized news to Cuba. Furthermore, it costs tens of millions of dollars a year yet has only been able to reach a miniscule audience. In a 2007 Time Magazine article, Obama stated that, “A democratic opening in Cuba is, and should be, the foremost objective of our policy,” and later declared “I will grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.”
In terms of trade, Obama has stated that he doesn’t oppose free trade but wants it to be fair and, “reflect the interests of workers and not just corporate profits.” He stated in the recent Ohio debate that he wants to ensure that NAFTA and any other agreement the U.S. signs has labor, environmental, and safety standards “that are going to protect not just workers, but also consumers.”
While some of his critics argue his foreign policy stands are naïve, Obama has a focused and positive concept of constructive engagement as well as a tough revaluation of the troubled state of U.S. hemispheric ties for the first time in decades.
How Chávez Moves
A growing number of Latin American countries suspect that U.S. foreign policy in the region is still riveted with the callous interventionist goals of the Cold War. The new wave of socialism (or quasi-socialism) being called for throughout the region can largely be attributed to the area’s decision to take a more critical look at Western capitalism. Regional integration groups such as MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market), CAN (Andean Community of Nations) and ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for People of our America) are becoming increasingly popular models of development. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales are stirring examples of how regional leaders are trying to promote their own local networks in order to decrease their dependence on international loan agencies such as the World Bank and IMF. Chávez, the outspoken socialist president of Venezuela, is one of the major proponents of these interdependent initiatives being tested in the region today. The new Latin American attitude encourages nations to work amongst themselves to improve trade, social development, infrastructure, financial cooperation, and now defense. On January 27, 2008, Chávez called upon several of his left-leaning compañeros to join together and form something akin to a defensive alliance against U.S. expansionism. This alliance was suggested to counteract the perceived North American threat to South American unity. But some skeptics are asking whether Chávez’s recent efforts to form a regional alliance against the U.S is a legitimate act of national security or an overzealous blunder?
Changing the Winds to Blow Another Way
In 2003, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was proposed as an extension of NAFTA. However, in 2005, it was vigorously opposed by several local nations because it was seen as a means for U.S. multinationals to increase profits, rather than a tool to provide authentic benefits to the region. In the wake of the failed FTAA, the United States has been attempting to produce a series of individual bilateral free trade agreements with some of those same Latin American countries. The U.S. economic initiative is being viewed by some as a divider of South American unity. So far, Washington has instituted FTAs with Peru, Chile, and Central America, and is on the brink of waging a fierce legislative struggle to attain approval of a FTA with Panama and particularly Colombia. The drive for more FTAs is one of a number of Washington-bred issues that has aggravated U.S. – Venezuela relations. Chávez claims that Washington is deliberately trying to undermine regional integration by using Bogotá as a pawn for its economic, military, and diplomatic aspirations.
The Dawning of a New Organization
As an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) has emerged from Caracas. In an effort to flee the long reach of the U.S.-private-sector model, Chávez proposed this initiative to focus on “fair” rather than “free” trade. The ALBA nations include Venezuela as well as Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and most recently, Dominica.
A series of social and economic agreements were signed, at the conclusion of the 6th Summit of ALBA at the end of January. The initial financing of ALBA’s program was fixed at more than $1 billion, with a large proportion of its budget being underwritten by Venezuela. ALBA, unlike the IMF and the World Bank, will not impose loan conditions. In the terms of the accord, investment and trade are not exclusively seen as engines of growth, but instead, as instruments in attaining just and sustainable development. ALBA aims to strengthen the alliance from within and demonstrate its independence from the United States and resistance of the World Bank and the IMF development models.
Despite the soured relations Chávez has had with a number of Latin American countries, he has won the loyalty of many South Americans and Venezuelans by improving their living standards and reducing poverty through a number of special development programs aimed at economic growth. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, poverty in Venezuela has been cut in half from 55.1% to 27.5%, from 2003 to 2007. Chávez, along with some other Latin American leaders, are forcefully speaking out regarding the imperatives of economic prosperity and see it as a viable possibility if they can focus on inward-looking and area autonomous growth strategies. The overall goal is to gain economic independence from the United States. The newly created Bank of the South and the further institutionalization of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas indicate that there may be a market for this line of autonomous planning, where the U.S. will be excluded from playing a pivotal role.
At the most recent ALBA gathering, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega directly blamed the capitalist system for the global environmental crisis because of its unsustainable nature. At the same time, Chávez continues to make brash and questionable statements about the ill-intentions of the capitalistic model which Washington has chronically imposed on Latin America, and he insists that there are other economic models by which a nation can follow to prosper. Both leaders claim that the capitalistic model is solely concerned about profits and that it is negligent towards an entire range of unique social and economic problems facing the southern hemisphere.
During the ALBA summit, Chávez reminded the attendees of the current economic crisis in the United States and asked them to consider shifting their financial reserves and U.S.-related reserves out of U.S. financial institutions and into more socially responsible local institutions in the southern hemisphere. Chávez and his colleagues signed documents at the ALBA summit agreeing on policies for the promotion of education, healthcare, energy, and agriculture. Perhaps the most provocative of them is a document that has denounced the warlike attitude of the United States.
An Indecent Proposal?
On January 27, nearing the end of the ALBA summit, and in cooperation with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Chávez invited their countries as well as Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador to come together to create a regional “anti-imperialist” alliance. In his own words, Chávez stated that the aforementioned countries should “work to form a joint defense strategy and start joining armed forces, air forces, armies, navies, National Guards, and intelligence forces.” For Chávez “the enemy is the same: the empire of the United States.” Chávez warned that if the U.S. and Colombia decided to mount any major threat against Venezuela or its allies, members of the alliance could rush to repel it. Was the proposal for this new anti-imperialist military arrangement meant to be a plan with reliable mechanisms that could yield real consequences based on valid assumptions, or was it a passionate sales pitch to frazzle the U.S., and generate support for his cause?
Stormy Relations Generate Tense Reactions
There is no doubt that U.S. – Venezuela relations are becoming increasingly stressed as a result of growing ideological differences between the two. Both sides would like to see the other come to an embarrassing defeat and have gone to great lengths to woo prospective commercial and political partners. Particularly in Colombia, the United States has invested very large amounts of funds into President Uribe’s war on drugs and guerrillas (Plan Colombia), and Bogotá is now aggressively pursing a Free Trade Agreement with Washington. The continual improvement of U.S.-Colombia relations presents a serious threat to Chávez for a number of reasons.
At the same time, relations between Venezuela and Colombia have deteriorated since Álvaro Uribe, Washington’s closest ally in South America, withdrew his formal support for Chávez’s negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These negotiations with Colombia’s leftist guerrilla group were intended to achieve the release of several hostages being held by the group. To make relations worse, Chávez further angered Uribe when he asked world leaders to recognize that the FARC are “a real army that controls territory” instead of mechanically denominating them as “terrorists.” Since the hostage negotiations initially failed in November 2007, Chávez has been overtly critical of Uribe, even calling him a “pawn” of U.S. interests. In the event of a regional conflict, it has even been suggested on both sides that the FARC would possibly support Caracas militarily by offering it intelligence, tactical advice, and information. In a warning to Colombia, Chávez declared that he would not hesitate to cut off oil exports, should Colombia generate further tension or stir up conflict. Just as Bush launched a preemptive war against Iraq in 2003, Chávez seems to be insisting on launching a preemptive solution.
The problem is, however, that Chávez doesn’t benefit from Colombia being overtly hostile to his ALBA project. He also needs the ALBA coalition to deflect pressures from hostile outside actors such as Washington and Bogotá. If Colombia becomes an ally to Washington’s regional ideological goals, then its close proximity to Venezuela (the epicenter of ALBA) could pose a serious threat. Venezuela has the oil revenues that make funding of ALBA possible; this, in turn, means that if Venezuela is compromised, ALBA will likely fall apart. Chávez “warn[ed] the world” at the Summit in January that “The U.S. empire is creating the conditions to generate an armed conflict between Colombia and Venezuela.” Under these conditions, one can easily see why Chávez is so anxious to protect the security and stability of Venezuela and his allies.
On numerous occasions, Chávez has claimed that the Pentagon is planning to attack him. In April 2002, with considerable circumstantial evidence, he accused the United States of sanctioning a coup plot against him. The U.S. dismisses any past or present plans to attack Venezuela or assassinate Chávez. However, according to the website of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on January 29th, Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nicolas Maduro, confirmed reports that a war plan was being formulated by the United States and Colombia against the Venezuelan government. One may question the gravity of this assertion, considering that it came out two days after Chávez’s calling for a military alliance, but it does serve to show the intense distrust which exists between the two nations. But if the Colombia – U.S. alliance is intended to undermine Chávez’s mission, it is understandable that Chávez would welcome any justification to create an international anti-imperialist force.
Chávez has indicated that he is prepared to act upon any incoming threats from Colombia and the United States. Ortega ominously has warned that if the Colombians manifest any aggression against Venezuela in tandem with the United States, it will “set the region on fire.” Venezuela’s military is said to be on alert and has been described as conducting military exercises along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Additionally, the military purportedly is testing some of the equipment that Caracas recently purchased from abroad, including Russian-supplied fighter jets. Chávez also has entered into a number of arm deals during his recent visits to Spain, Iran, China, Syria, and other countries.
In response to his proposal to form a united military force against U.S. imperialism, Ecuador’s defense minister reported that his country would rather take the route of peace. While Nicaraguan President Ortega fully supported Chávez’s idea at the conference, the president of that country’s congress, Edwin Castro ruled out the likelihood that Nicaragua would join such an alliance because their constitution only allows the military to be used as an agent of defense. Bolivia circumvented the issue. Cesar Navarro, the Socialist party congressional leader from Bolivia agreed that a regional armed force has been a “long term aspiration” but also toned down the provocative tenor in which it was directed against the United States. Instead, “he stressed that it would be a ‘collective defense … against any aggressiveness from any country,’ rather than just ‘the empire’”.
So, was it a good idea?
The participating members at the ALBA summit eventually turned down the offer to create a regional defense force as it was both an implausible and unnecessary initiative on Chávez’s part. While ALBA participants are in the market for alternative development plans and are sufficiently disillusioned with the US blueprint, it is needlessly dangerous to cross waters with one of the world’s greatest hegemons, especially one that can be crucial to a nation’s survival. Apparently, most of Chávez’s allies are more attentive to this fact than Chávez himself. Venezuela is lucky that its primary export (oil) is a coveted one. Other countries do not have such good fortune and are therefore hesitant to put all of their security eggs in ALBA’s volatile basket.
There is some debate as to what might be some of the motives of Chávez’s comrades. In a paper entitled “Building a Global Southern Coalition: the competing approaches of Brazil’s Lula and Venezuela’s Chávez,” author and COHA research associate, Sean Burges asserts that “countries happily accept Venezuelan causes where it is pragmatic to do so, and even adopt some elements of the Bolivarian ALBA agenda. But all this is done only when it reflects the interests of the country in question.” This realization represents a formidable roadblock in Chávez’s attempt to position Venezuela as an international lender, a global decision maker, and as a countering force against the neoliberal global order. So many Latin American countries of the left find that they must practice a balancing act; they appeal as much as they can to Chávez without compromising what they otherwise consider to be vital relations with the United States. Bolivia’s Evo Morales relied on Chávez’s support to privatize his nation’s hydrocarbon assets but actively encourages foreign direct investment to assist in developing the country’s petrochemical and mining sector. Both Bolivia and Ecuador are energy exporters so Chávez’s main appeal to use oil as a weapon is somewhat of a moot point. They are in favor of the ideological framework that Chávez habitually utilizes but they also need the U.S. to renew the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act that keeps tariffs on their exports to the U.S. low enough to maintain a ready access to the U.S. market. Additionally, in his article, Burges refers to some analysts who suggest Cuba resorts to a relatively utilitarian history in its foreign policy positions and that the close cooperation with Venezuela will only continue as long as its leadership continues to see the benefits. Even Ortega, Chávez’s most outspoken supporter was caught exclaiming, “Long live the U.S. government” only a few days before the summit meeting, when he celebrated the opening of a new section of highway which was financed by the U.S. “empire.” From this standpoint, it appears that ALBA is being used by its participants as a governor that keeps social networks growing and allows countries the ability to reverse the colonialist tradition of turning ones back toward one’s neighbor. Successful independence from the U.S. is the goal, not necessarily self defense.
Washington Hangs In
Logically, if the United States is to bring down the Chávez government, it would play its moves in a more discrete and covert manner. But the U.S. already made its move to overthrow of Chávez in 2002 and it was very badly received by most Latin Americans. It would do the U.S. no better to incite an entirely new wave of ill will with the repeat of a Cold War interventionist policy. In fact, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric affairs, Thomas Shannon, has been fighting an uphill battle trying to convince Latin America that the delivering of a one-size-fits-all development strategy has been traded in for a new more pragmatic custom-tailored approach.
If Chávez wants to further his Bolivarian dream, the recommendation would not be to expend efforts on an international military force but rather, to work on mending his broken relations with Uribe. Currently, Venezuela and Colombia are carrying out cross-border trade valued at over $6 billion a year. Trade relations between Venezuela and the United States are also strong, seeing that Venezuela is currently the fourth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States.
Knowing very well that any retrenchment of Venezuela’s trade relations with Colombia and the United States could hurt all parties, would the U.S. and Colombia really allow themselves to be provoked into a conflict with Venezuela and its allies? As noble as the ideas of ALBA may turn out to be, the formation of an anti-U.S. military alliance is a flawed concept. It also might be futile at this time, both in concept and its ability to muster power. The United States and Venezuela should be careful when playing with fire: though, it looks as if flames on this candle are burning out quickly.