- A change of style or substance?
- Maintaining the status quo or revitalization?
- A policy that, upon closer scrutiny, seems to be fundamentally flawed and without consistent direction
Few will find fault with the conclusion that U.S.-Latin American policy has long been a problem area and that in the recent past, Washington at best has turned in an indifferent performance in conceptualizing and then carrying out a coherent regional policy. In fact, its policy has usually been close to dysfunctional in its reliability. Of course, most of the blame for this policy of malign and occasionally benign neglect towards Latin America in recent years can be attributed to the Bush White House, which rather than exhibiting good judgment, offered poor decision-making and near indifference when its shriekers was not leading a Jacobin charge against hemispheric political and economic dissidence. This meant that the administration’s Latin America policy in practice turned out to be a strategy mainly targeted at Cuba and Fidel Castro, rather than maintaining a balanced treatment towards the region.
Inter-American relations under Bush’s two Secretaries of State were more a matter of domestic than foreign policymaking. It was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who either mandated that the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs carry on its egregious hands-on policy of those nominally working under her predecessor, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or at least dictated that the Bureau would maintain a White House-generated antagonistic stance towards Cuba and Venezuela. Under the venerable Powell, rightwing ideologues like Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, who from their battle stations as successive Assistant Secretaries of State for Hemisphere Affairs, had been given de facto free reign in Latin America. Earlier, they had been forced upon the Department by Jeb Bush’s intercession with the White House and, after overwhelming a thoroughly befuddled Secretary of State Powell, were allowed to spread mayhem throughout the region.
The question now remains, what is the role of the recently appointed Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who replaced Powell’s gum shoe boys – namely Reich and Noriega – after they had been eased out of their respective positions, once they came to be seen as a liability. Shannon’s initial challenge, engrossed with the State Department’s imprimatur, was to re-introduce a spirit of professionalism to the bureau. This did not necessarily call for a dramatic change for the State Department’s regional unit, which had been gutted by the ruinous policies of ideological extremists like Reich and Noriega, whose venomous tactics were being guided from Miami, once removed.
Grounds for Cautious Optimism
Shannon’s appointment to the regional post at first projected a sense of promise, but soon enough his presence turned out to be seen as more of the same – more a matter of altered stratagems rather than invoking greater substance. While the sizzle seemed to be different, the steak appeared all too familiar. The emphasis on rhetoric rather than transformative change was corroborated during a speech at the Council of the Americas on December 12, where Shannon remarked that Washington has to improve its communication with the region. Others felt it was more a question of fundamental philosophy towards Latin America than “communication.”
Shannon’s vision of a “year of engagement” in 2007 will hopefully reveal a fundamental overhaul of regional policy, but the claims in his Council speech of being willing to “work with anybody who wants to work with us” have yet to be seen. Rather, they managed to conjure up memories of Washington’s recent meddling in the domestic political affairs of Nicaragua and Venezuela – in fact, in almost every Latin American nation. In paraphrasing Secretary of State Rice, Shannon emphasized that for their part Latin American governments must be “committed to investing in their own people and creating the capacity necessary to take advantage of economic opportunity,” thus qualifying his previous invitation by setting up criteria for cooperation.
Early assuaging remarks made by Shannon regarding the leftist governments of Bolivia, and more recently, Venezuela, hinted that a policy of constructive engagement could be arranged as Washington’s first conciliatory line of defense against the challenges posed by the pink tide mobilization of New Deal-inclined South American reformist nations. These include Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, as well as Bolivia. Meanwhile, it took a relatively long time for even mildly moderate words to be mustered for what the Bush administration saw as the hard left stance being lead by Venezuela. However, any early optimism that Shannon’s appointment could make a difference has by now been blown off, due to the persistence of antagonistic White House policies towards Chávez throughout most of his tenure, producing no little confusion in the minds of his counterparts in Caracas, as to when the hostile thrust of U.S. policy towards Venezuela would begin to abate.
On its merits, Shannon’s commitment to what he determinedly designates as “tangible results,” takes into account that the failures associated with the Washington Consensus development model can not be mended by rhetoric alone. Certainly, Shannon is knowledgeable enough to contemplate that the inspiration behind the rise of the pink tide governments was reason enough to shake Washington’s confidence that its regional policies were based upon an accurate reading of the area’s concerns and instincts. A key reason for the emergence of left-leaning governments throughout the hemisphere in the first place is likely to be that the benefits of association with the U.S. are anything but self-evident for many Latin Americans.
The concomitant carry-over of U.S. parochialism towards the region raises the question why Shannon has had only a limited sway over the policy predilections of some of the more ideological officials making up the Bush administration’s foreign policy team, particularly its Latin Americanists. At best, it may be that the main utility of Shannon’s present regional role is his readiness, on at least selected occasions, to project an element of moderation where none may have previously existed. Thus, he likely constitutes a firewall of affability separating Bush’s senior demagogues and bewildered Latin American governments, most of which find grievous faults with U.S. hemispheric stands, once incongruities between their realities and Washington’s aspirations become clear.
An Evolving Policy
Although Shannon was not very well known to the bureaucracy prior to his appointment as assistant secretary, his ascent to the leadership ranks of the State Department was greeted with some expectation that U.S.-Latin America policy would at long last operate on a more professional level. It was also anticipated that Secretary Rice would employ more traditional tools of statecraft to improve the deteriorating ties between the Bush administration and its regional neighbors. Whether this has been the case or not is at the crux of assessing Shannon’s impact on this country’s regional ties.
Bush confidante and head of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, recently announced the birth of a “major Western Hemisphere initiative.” This may in fact be only more of the spin doctoring for which she is justly famous. As for Shannon, it is reasonable for him to be seeking an overarching slogan to provide focus on whatever he may be trying to do in the region, particularly since he is not likely to have much success in real terms.
In terms of restoring the bureau to some largely mythological past golden era, Shannon’s performance up to now has been wanting, although he certainly has brought a different brand of tonic to the table than that of his predecessors. Yet it was on his watch that U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, repeatedly, though eventually unsuccessfully, intervened in the domestic affairs of that country, trying to block Daniel Ortega’s return to power. Statements made by Shannon indicating a more measured approach to inter-American affairs have until now turned out to be scarcely more than window dressing, perhaps because they were not at all congruent with the White House’s almost organic rightwing regional orientation on any number of issues.
When it came to Venezuela, Rice spoke more like a neo-con, and not as someone with a measured comprehension of the region, who was prepared to devolve a good deal of authority to Shannon to encourage genuine, rather than faux, democracy to thrive throughout the region. The question remains whether this apparent lack of consensus within the administration regarding key hemispheric issues is a matter of his superiors’ outright indifference to Shannon’s visions, or if his views on enlightened policy guidelines were not deeply held convictions on his part in the first place. Another unanswered question is how big a role is being staked out for Shannon in the so-called major Latin America “engagement” initiative being discussed by Hughes.
Perhaps providing some insights into the pushes and pulls now motivating U.S. regional policy, the signs that have pointed toward a significant disparity between Shannon and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on their contrasting approach to regional security issues, should not be ignored. Shannon was likely the main architect behind the relatively non-confrontational relationship between Washington and the Bolivian president Evo Morales. Rumsfeld had called the results of the Bolivian election “worrisome,” delaying the possibility of an incipient thaw between Washington and La Paz. Despite these counterproductive musings by Rumsfeld, La Paz appears to welcome a constructive relationship with the State Department.
During an interview with COHA, Bolivian ambassador to the White House Sr. Gustavo Guzmán Saldaña deemed Shannon as manning an ”open door” for communication. According to Guzmán, Shannon’s appointment has resulted in an improved relationship between La Paz and Washington, focusing on “common interests.” A similar internal discrepancy arose more recently with Shannon’s attempt to tone down Washington’s perceptions of the dangers allegedly posed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, by denoting him as “a challenge to regional consensus.” After that rather lukewarm indictment, Rumsfeld subsequently voiced concern that arms purchased by Caracas could end up in the hands of guerrillas in neighboring countries. The delay in the implementation of Shannon’s more reflective, albeit still vague and possibly conciliatory strategy may eventually be seen as more of an attempt to soften countermanding instructions to maintain a hard line coming, from a more senior level of authority within the U.S. bureaucracy, possibly from Rice herself.
Vague Intimations and Continued Antagonism
The major weakness in Shannon’s revealed vision for U.S. relations with Latin America may be his incessant calls for economic liberalization, while concomitantly asserting the need for more robust democratic institutions to prevent the distorting accumulation of wealth and political power by oligarchic elites. In September, he indicated that the neo-liberal approach championed by Washington has to produce improved “outcomes” for the bottom tiers of the hemisphere’s population, but he has come up with next to nothing on how to avoid the failed neo-liberal projects that characterized the 1980s and 1990s. This is perhaps best illustrated with his assertion that a failure to deliver the “necessary results” will reinforce authoritarian regimes and movements, and that coming up with such results will require tough decisions. But he rarely identifies the nature and time table for such decisions to be mediated. Nor does Shannon clarify what constitutes “necessary results” and as such, provides little more than extraneous musings rather than hard policy read-outs.
Shannon Forges a Mixed Bag of Policies
In remarks in May of this year at the Washington Conference of the Council of the Americas – a group of U.S.-based multinational businesses – Shannon claimed that ideology has no bearing on Washington’s relations with Latin America, while acknowledging that U.S. engagement in the region is based upon Latin American governments embracing an economic model which conforms with the White House’s capitalist criteria.
The importance of economic policy, as well as its attendant ideology in the White House’s lexicography – explicit or obscured – is made evident in the minatory manner in which the Bush administration continues to approach the two most left-leaning political and economic countries in the region. Intelligence czar and arch rightist John Negroponte’s completely unwarranted creation of a new CIA unit in August to oversee U.S. intelligence initiatives in Venezuela and Cuba indicates a continued unwillingness to constructively engage in diplomatic initiatives with those two countries. The longevity of the U.S.’s ever-strained relationship with the Castro regime was reaffirmed in October, when the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, an intra-agency task force of administration Castro-bashers established by the Bush White House, announced new punitive measures to clamp down on those found trying to evade prohibitions against tourism and trade to the island.
Moreover, the U.S. Interest Section in Havana under Career Foreign Service Officer Michael Parmly has in recent months been at the center of a jejune row over the bumptious display of anti-Castro propaganda on electronic billboards hanging from the façade of the U.S. facility located in downtown Havana. Also involved were illustrated messages referring to the contested number of political prisoners now serving time in Cuban jails. In June, electrical service supplied to Parmly’s Havana office was mysteriously cut off for a week, which generated new claims of sabotage coming from U.S. officials. Such juvenile attempts at ideologically-driven diplomacy would seem to undermine any new approach that Shannon would wish to ordain, or was it he who ordered the Havana contretemps in the first place?
At a December 13 press conference with members of the Washington-based Latin American press corps, Shannon answered an inquiry on how Washington intends to relate to the de facto Cuban president, Rául Castro, in the wake of Fidel’s ailing health. He proceeded to list a variety of short-term goals for a political transition in Cuba, including the freeing of political prisoners, guaranteeing human rights, allowing non-state organizations to exist and eventually staging elections. At his press conference, Shannon appeared disinclined to engage with Rául Castro unless all of Washington’s goals were met, thus apparently ruling out any incremental path for the restoration of revised Washington-Havana relations.
Shannon’s all-or-nothing approach to engagement with Cuba seems to be somewhat incongruous with the current worldwide wave of pro-democracy activism professedly being engaged in by the Bush administration and other liberal democracies attempting to relate to North Korea, Iran and Syria. These initiatives display few if any such standards as a pre-condition for negotiations, when it comes to such U.S. allies as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in which Washington already maintains important security arrangements with an array of such dastardly regimes. Thus the rhetoric utilized by Shannon towards Cuba – although a marked improvement from the zealotry ladled out by Reich and Noriega in their time – still conjures up a variant of doublespeak, particularly as a result of Washington’s longstanding disinclination to sanction any sizeable change in its Cuban policy.
Empowerment through Intervention
Whether Shannon may be a relatively marginalized figure in a somewhat isolated division of the State Department, or represents an important new factor in a change of faces and ideas now occurring in the Bush diplomatic corridors, is still uncertain. But he appears to have been galvanized into some action after he realized that Washington’s approach to regional policy at times appeared almost brain dead. For Shannon, the current populist movement being seen throughout much of Latin America is based upon a high degree of resentment towards the elites. Such an unusually shrewd observation shows, hands down, that Shannon, at the very least, is capable of a greater comprehension of recent transformative political developments in Latin America than any of his recent predecessors, yet perhaps that is still not enough.
Shannon’s acknowledgement of class struggle as a central element in the rise of populism could serve as a basis for his views on achieving successful hemispheric policy goals while still preparing to neutralize Chávez, if need be. Yet, this could also be merely more of the same hollow Departmental language that has proved so tiresome, be it expended on Argentina or Iraq. While Shannon urgently advocates the “shaping of results” in order “to make people feel that they are full economic and social citizens,” he does so without precisely specifying what the “shaping of results” would entail.
Tactics and Strategies
On the surface, such discussions are at least encouraging, but Shannon’s continued insistence on neo-liberal economic models as being indispensable for establishing a new relationship is not necessarily a crowd pleaser when he inexorably spells out the particulars of Washington’s market integration schemes. But this doesn’t seem to mean that Washington’s unremitting, if uninvited intrusion onto the political scene throughout Latin America, including the recent presidential election in Nicaragua as well as earlier balloting initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, will halt under Shannon, just as it was aggressively mobilized under Reich and Noriega before him.
Shannon’s call for the reappraisal of current policies is to be welcomed, but such an initiative would be difficult to amalgamate with Washington’s ongoing and multiple instances of intervention already at work throughout Latin America and beyond. Included in this tableau should be the amplification of the Czech Republic’s dutiful covert work being done against Castro’s Cuba as a surrogate for Washington. State Department initiatives aimed to achieve empowerment on paper tend to eventually be defused by the Bush administration’s instinctual hegemonic projection of its leverage, which, if it does not watch out, can end up in self-repudiation as it reflects little regard for the sovereignty of independent states. Another key indicator of the direction of U.S.-Cuba policy can be seen in the performance of Senator Helm’s former military assistant, Caleb McCarry, who serves as the “Cuba Transition Coordinator. In fact, McCarry falls into the category of a White House-appointed, ill-performing ideologue, whose efforts have hardly justified his salary, as Cuba seldom has been less isolated while at the same time, the U.S. has been more isolated, which has been the case since McCarry took up his assignment.
The endorsement of conservative presidential candidates and governments throughout Latin America has remained under Shannon’s watch. The most ubiquitous display of such recent meddling occurred in Nicaragua, where the White House was determined to prevent its old foe, Daniel Ortega, from regaining the Nicaraguan presidency. During his June trip to Nicaragua, Shannon met with two of the country’s conservative presidential candidates, and calculatingly avoided having a meeting with the country’s left-leaning candidate, Ortega, who later wrapped up a stunning victory. The U.S. official even remarked, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the two right-wing candidates “represent the future of this country.” Meanwhile, his ambassador to Managua, Paul Trivelli, repeatedly spoke out throughout the campaign in brazen support of Ortega’s rivals.
Throughout the campaign, Shannon did nothing to mitigate the almost legendary reputation held by the U.S. for intervention in the domestic affairs of its sovereign neighbors. Shannon’s conduct here did not assist the credibility of his reassuring claims that the ideological orientation of a given Latin American government will not necessarily determine the character of U.S. bilateral engagement resulting from it. But observers were persuaded to conclude that Shannon’s visit to Nicaragua provides a good example of the prevailing contradiction which tends to negate his pluralism and affirms that in practice only rarely does such policy diffidence seem to spring to life. His meeting with Ortega after the Sandinista leader’s electoral victory does little to rectify the blatant interference in the electoral process of a sovereign nation as carried out by Trivelli on Shannon’s watch. Shannon’s conciliatory rhetoric to the contrary suggests a deliberate good cop-bad cop approach to hemispheric issues, utilizing his Oxonian good cheer to mitigate the harshness of Bush’s policies once they are being put to a test in a given Latin American country.
The Tricky Chávez Issue
This apparent incongruity between rhetoric and reality also applies to the policy cocktail served up by Washington to Venezuela’s ever controversial President Chávez. In Shannon’s speeches, Chávez may be depicted in various ways, but always as the main burr underneath the saddle of hemispheric economic liberalization. However, in direct contrast to the near automatically denunciatory anti-Chávez rhetoric spouted by Secretary of State Rice or her Under Secretary of Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, Shannon does the job by carefully reasoning that Caracas’ lavished antagonism towards the FTAA and similar trade initiatives should not be viewed as a political threat. Rather, Hugo Chávez’s divergence with the administration’s orientation on a multitude of subjects should, according to Shannon, be seen as “a challenge of ideas and vision,” and be argued against on these terms.
Shannon strays from the Bush administration’s banal knee-jerk repudiation of the “despotic” Chávez regime oeuvre. Rather, his claims – that although democratically-elected, the Venezuelan president uses undemocratic methods of governance – are now being embraced by Rice and her circle. This represents a slight retrenchment of Bush administration allegations that a fully-fledged dictatorship in Caracas is now coming into being. To complement the Bush administration’s doublespeak concerning Chávez, and not create too much of a dissonant silhouette on the issue, Shannon’s “take” on the matter was expressed at the aforementioned December 13 press conference. This includes reservations regarding certain elements of the Venezuelan electoral process, although international monitoring missions have established that the country’s string of balloting were entirely legitimate.
Shannon has expressed praise for Venezuelan opposition candidate Manuel Rosales for providing genuine opposition to Chávez and thus for constituting the de facto foundation for political interaction between the Venezuelan incumbent and the rather dubious distinction as being the country’s loyal opposition. Although Shannon’s rhetoric is guarded (it sometimes rises up to being even courteous) there is little doubt about the underlying U.S. enmity towards the Venezuelan leader, which somewhat undermines Shannon’s own insistence that the White House’s engagement is based upon prospects for democratic outcomes rather than solely on ideological fulminations.
Shannon sometimes portrays the populist view championed by Chávez as a means of channeling class conflict, while in the same breath acknowledging that the leftist movements stem from the underlying social problems experienced throughout South America. He emphasizes that the grass-roots populist mobilization cannot be effectively addressed entirely by way of rhetoric and instead asserts that a constructive antidote to the leftist movement is a matter of capitalism “delivering the goods.” The underlying social problems, which are at the root of the anti-liberal sentiments that are being witnessed in the region, must, according to Shannon, be solved by producing positive results that improve the basic living conditions of the region’s different populations. Consequently, in his remarks on December 12, Shannon appeared very optimistic about the directions being taken by the victors of the different elections throughout Latin America, which he deems to be “coalescing around a center which is really committed to democracy.” He considers the many new governments “capable of facing up to the social agenda that this region faces, especially in terms of battling poverty, battling inequality and battling social exclusion,” whether these lean to the left or the right. Only then, can the proven condition of Chávez’s mesmeric sway be substituted fully by Washington’s preferred hemispheric arrangement of trade arrangements packaged in the generalities of an enhanced democratic ambience.
Who Is to Blame?
The Bush administration has never shied away from distorting reality to achieve policy objectives, but its instances of inaptness usually involve jiggling information in order to better support preordained policy prejudices, exemplified by the debacle over alleged WMDs in Iraq. However, the case of Shannon seems to represent something different. His appointment never appeared to resonate with the administration’s previous ideological orientation or its crude impositions of misguided regional strategies based on its wielding a rhetorical blunder-buss; thus, what appears to be an ambiguous disparity between policy preferences has ensued. But there may be less here than meets the eye. First of all, the region is vastly unimportant to at least this White House, except as the target of occasional speeches at unexceptional junctures. At best, the latter provide uneventful perches on which to hang low-grade rhetoric.
Shannon’s tenure as the State Department’s chief Latin Americanist, whatever his benevolent intentions might be, leaves the position with an aura of near irrelevance, while carrying little borrowed weight of its own. In effect, he has up to now served as a shill for a Bush administration which has had a sparse learning curve when it comes to the region. Consequently, Shannon’s performance has amounted to a matter of style more than substance, leaving the unacceptable situation in which the boorish antics of the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana and his counterpart, McCarry, in Washington seem to be more consonant with the deepest jingoist instincts of the Bush administration than its well-prepared Assistant Secretary of State of Western Hemisphere Affairs.