• More of the same boilerplate rhetoric vis-à-vis Latin America
• No constructive engagement when it comes to Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez
Committed Latin Americanists relished the unceremonious departure of right-wing ideologue Roger Noriega as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs and welcomed, by default, the promotion of Thomas A. Shannon Jr. to the post in October. The selection of a career diplomat with a lengthy curriculum vitae, including an Oxford Ph.D, offered some hope for a rational hemispheric dialogue after the monumental damage done to this country’s regional ties by Noriega and his predecessor, Otto Reich. But the first few months of Shannon’s tenure have at best brought continuity rather than reform, the same old anti-liberal boilerplate rather than a revisiting of traditional U.S. hemispheric initiatives and an inventory of which ones should be replaced due to their obsolescence and ineffectiveness, with profound disenchantment being the result.
Many had hoped that the arrival of a new face at the State Department’s most powerful Latin America policy position would be the basis of a new and constructive dialogue with the region which might bring to a halt and then later reverse the growing crescendo of vitriolic exchanges the Bush administration was having with Castro Cuba and now Venezuela. One can assume that newly victorious Evo Morales, who won Bolivia’s presidential ballot on Sunday, December 18 by a commanding margin, obviating the need for a congressional runoff, will receive similar treatment. This is leading some specialists to question whether the Bush administration is capable of conducting anything but harpoon diplomacy with a regional country that dares to question U.S. policy.
Shannon replaced a string of Bush appointees whose only qualifications were their ultra-conservative right-wing political ideology, their sponsorship by Miami’s radical circles and a shared odium for the Castro regime and those like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and now, if confirmed by a congressional vote next month, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who professes friendship for the Cuban leader. In 2001, Bush’s first appointee to the office of assistant secretary of state was the far-right Otto Reich, a Cuban-American who, as a member of Ronald Reagan’s Office of Public Diplomacy, became implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, which almost got him indicted. Reich’s personal history in office was so repugnant to those concerned with regional affairs that even the Republican-controlled Senate refused to confirm him, which President Bush circumvented by moving him into the position by a controversial recess appointment while Congress was not in session.
Reich and Noriega – Consummate Ideologues
Reich proceeded to further politicize the State Department’s Cuba policy, seeing this country’s Latin American relations almost exclusively through the prism of whether a country’s loyalty was perceived to lie with Washington or Havana. Meanwhile, professed friends of Castro, as Chávez and Morales, were unceremoniously cast into the cross-hairs of Washington’s targeted ire. Reich was in office when the short-lived April 2002 overthrow of President Chávez was mounted by Venezuela’s middle class opposition. He persuaded the Bush administration to have the U.S. be among the first countries to recognize the new government, hours after Chávez’s ouster, and then put Washington in the untenable position retracting its recognition after Chávez was able to survive the abortive coup. Following Reich’s one-year term, the White House moved the then-U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Roger Noriega, to the position that had been vacated by Reich.
Noriega, who had fawningly elevated himself up Washington’s career ladder, had never demonstrated any level of diplomatic accomplishment, but had more than tempered his credentials as a committed ideologue after becoming senior staff member to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s hard-core conservative chairman, Jesse Helms (R-NC). As the head of Latin America policy, Noriega managed to even further isolate the U.S. throughout the region by means of continuing Reich’s banal pronouncements and simple-minded formulations, including that Latin America leaders must be either with the U.S. or against it, be it regarding Iraq or Castro Cuba, or Hugo Chávez. Under Noriega, the U.S. ended up with only the rightwing corruptocracy of El Salvador as its only totally reliable regional ally. Noriega soon became well known for his stumbling performances before congressional committees, his anti-Chávez fulminations, and his abiding vendetta against the Castro regime. But in putting these traits into action, he was seriously handicapped by lacking any comprehension whatsoever as to what the real problems the hemisphere would be facing in the 21st century.
While he prated on about the sanctity of free elections and the transcendence of democratic governance, he played a major role in orchestrating the coup that toppled democratically-elected Haitian president Jean-Bértrand Aristide in February 2004. Noriega would later memorably tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his actions in Haiti “may eventually be considered my finest hour,” which could be translated into a person of meager vision voiding the will of the Haitian people by installing the Gerard Latortue interim government, one of the most incompetent, inept and dysfunctional regimes the hemisphere has witnessed in recent decades, thereby singularly helping to trash the reputation of the United States throughout the hemisphere.
Considering that U.S. regional diplomacy had reached its nadir under the aegis of his immediate predecessors, Tom Shannon would need to have achieved a running start to make even the most modest of progress in warming relations with our southern neighbors, for U.S. policy there to be called a success. But up to now, he has not even justified luke-warm applause, for his appointment has not noticeably improved U.S.-Latin American relations.
While Bush was trying to sedulously avoid Chávez at November’s Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, Shannon could have attempted to slip away with some Venezuelan officials to try and create some sort of elemental dialogue, as relations between the two countries currently are barely functioning. Instead, the summit will be remembered more for Chávez’ unfortunate statement that he would “bury the FTAA,” than for any sort of attempt by the Bush administration, as represented by Shannon, to take even the first infant steps toward a more mature diplomacy regarding Venezuela.
Shannon’s actions after Argentine president Néstor Kirchner spurned Bush at Mar del Plata reveals, though, that a residual capacity for diplomacy exists. Kirchner’s actions toward Bush were seen by many as a sign that relations between the U.S. and Argentina, which have been relatively amicable throughout much of the Bush presidency, were about to sour. In response, Shannon traveled to Buenos Aires in December to meet with high-ranking Argentine officials in an attempt to smooth over any bumps in the relationship. While it appears that the administration has sullenly decided to court Argentina’s feisty left-leaning president, it continues to turn its hostility on Caracas. On November 17, Shannon bared his teeth to Chávez before the House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, as he clearly indicated that he intended to continue Noriega’s crusade against the Venezuelan firebrand. But his indignation was selective: while both U.S. mainstay ally Colombia and the Haitian interim government, which was almost completely invented by U.S. officials, had attempted to pack their supreme courts, Shannon chose to only indict Venezuela for such a democratic lapse. Also, while Shannon is ever sensitive to tendencies and directions that are weakening Venezuelan democracy, he is hardly in a position to soundly denounce crimes that Chávez may commit in the future but is not guilty as of now.
At the November hearing, Shannon detailed Chávez’ ongoing “assault” on Venezuela’s threatened democratic institutions while quoting various rightwing civil-society groups such as Súmate, an organization which has received $31,000 in U.S. grants to dabble in Venezuela’s electoral politics. Súmate, which Shannon classified as an “electoral watch-dog NGO,” has highly questionable credentials that the assistant secretary mischievously overlooked. Súmate’s founder, Maria Corina Machado, was present at the swearing-in of the rump government that temporarily ousted Chávez in 2002, before loyal sectors of the military returned the democratically-elected president to power. Although Shannon avoided mentioning it, Súmate was also strongly criticized by the independent Carter Center and the OAS for producing false exit polls during the 2004 referendum on Chávez’ continued rule, in which he won over 60% of the vote. In response to Shannon’s House testimony, subcommittee head Dan Burton (R-IN) said that he hoped the U.S. could initiate some sort of constructive dialogue so that “if everything goes to hell…the world will see that the U.S. has gone the extra step…and then what has to be done will be done.”
While some of the complaints Shannon presents regarding Venezuela’s democracy are remotely valid, the country’s citizenry has affirmed and reaffirmed again and again their backing of the Venezuelan president, invariably by large margins. As recently as December 4, chavista parties swept the legislative elections after all five major opposition parties withdrew in order to avoid a humiliating defeat, against the advice of an OAS observer team in the country.
Shannon’s Case Against Venezuela
Indeed, Shannon’s suggestion that “our interest in the fate of Venezuela’s democracy is part of a larger hemispheric commitment to democracy made by leaders at the 2001 Quebec City Summit of the Americas,” rings somewhat hollow. If the U.S. was truly interested in bolstering those ideals, it could look many other places where political trends are heading away from democratic values, such as Haiti, where the U.S. has tacitly tolerated the attempts by the Latortue regime to ensure that upcoming elections are neither truly free nor fair. One can question, then, if Shannon’s putative concern about Venezuela’s democracy isn’t just a weak façade for deeper irritation that the country is “turning away from…free markets and economic integration;” in other words, refusing to accept Washington imposed trade models as incorporated in the FTAA, a U.S.-sponsored trade bloc which is ardently opposed by citizens throughout Latin America.
If Shannon or the House’s Burton truly wanted to initiate a responsible discussion with Venezuela, they would think twice before allowing the U.S. to continually interject itself into that country’s domestic affairs and internal dynamics such as by scheduling ex parte Congressional hearings to criticize Chávez’ policies and use the crypto-U.S. intelligence agency, the National Endowment for Democracy, to fund blatantly partisan Venezuelan groups who have demonstrated a propensity to support extra-legal measures as a way of bringing down a government they happen to despise. If Burton seeks a constructive dialogue with Venezuela, he should refrain from making such bellicose statements as “what has to be done will be done.”
Voices of Reason
Some members of Congress have a reputation of favoring a less confrontational approach when dealing with Venezuela. William Delahunt (D-MA) and José Serrano (D-NY), who also sit on the House’s Western Hemisphere subcommittee, have been positive voices in the U.S. foreign policy debate and their constructive approach has proven fruitful for their constituencies, who are receiving heating oil from the Venezuelan state corporation Citgo at a discounted rate. Instead of heralding the agreement, which, irresistibly, is no doubt also intended to slightly needle Bush, the administration has been too short-winded to show any sort of gratitude for this act of generosity which no other U.S. oil company has seen fit to duplicate. In addition to the House Democrats’ respectful dialogue with the Chavez administration, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has recently advocated a change in U.S. policy towards Venezuela. In an important comment that might have been overlooked by most U.S. news sources, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) said, “I am convinced that the relationship between the United States and Venezuela certainly requires improvement.”
But if Shannon may have been forced into standoffish relationships with Venezuela and Cuba by the legacy of his predecessors, Bolivia and new president-elect, Evo Morales offered him fresh diplomatic ground. However, in regards to the impoverished Andean nation, Shannon has proved no less adept than Reich or Noriega in launching supercilious diktats at free-thinking regional leaders. In an outright warning to Morales, Shannon noted to Chilean daily La Tercera that while he hoped to have a good relationship with Bolivia’s government, this would “depend on the type of relationship they want to have with the U.S.,” and remarked that “much will depend on the type of policies that are carried out, particularly economic, energetic and anti-narcotic policies.” This proclamation reeks of Washington’s attempt to coerce regional leaders into accepting its self-serving policies, such as the FTAA, while slyly threatening those who do not comply.
What Not to Do
Looking at the present wreckage of Washington’s relationship with most of Latin America, Bush’s regional policymakers need to hear and act upon what is being said by the more enlightened voices of officials like Lugar’s. As Washington’s regional ties are beset by strains, its standing with average citizens of the region continues to fall to record lows. During the Reich/Noriega era, Washington became infamous for its ideological rants, bully boy tactics and the vending of snake oil to Latin American leaders whose sophistication regarding their countries’ best self-interests significantly has grown. It is time for this administration to offer Venezuela an olive branch by initiating a dialogue based on rationality and respect, rather than depending upon self-serving patronizations. Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY) humbly points out that by “Showing that we truly cared for the people of Latin America and Venezuela then maybe the image of the United States, and this administration would be different.”
Instead of exhibiting its ideological spurs against governments that dare to express their dissatisfaction with Washington’s often cynical and nearly always self aggrandizing formulations, like its decades-old sterile embargo against Cuba, the White House might want to start listening to what legislators from both parties are saying and begin to change its tone to self-perceived foes like Venezuela. Such a step would reflect a recognition of a new Latin American reality that is different, but not necessarily inferior, to the brand that Washington is presently attempting to peddle elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.