Brazil Could Play Key Role in US-Latam Thaw

By Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, Mar 20 (IPS) – Relations between the United States and left-leaning governments in South and Central America are likely to improve under the administration of President Barack Obama, according to some foreign policy analysts here.

“I think there will be a positive change in U.S. policy,” said Lilly Briger, who works with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), an independent think tank that examines Washington’s policies and their impact on economic and political life in Latin America.

Some observers say the new U.S. policy towards Latin America has already begun to take shape, evident from the fact that the White House remained studiously neutral during last week’s elections in El Salvador, which pitted the country’s ultraconservative ARENA party – the traditional U.S. ally – against the leftist FMLN former guerrillas, who ultimately emerged victorious.

“I think that ideology is no longer dictating our policy,” said Briger, who said she hopes that the Obama administration would reject the past approach of blanket endorsement of right-wing political forces in Latin America.

In the past few years, the populations of many countries in Latin America have elected leaders who oppose the neoliberal economic model, embrace movements for social justice, and are challenging U.S. hegemony in the region.

Last weekend, during his hour-long meeting with Obama, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula Da Salva warned that the U.S. must stop treating Cuba and other socialist-leaning countries in Latin America with hostility.

During the last days of the George W. Bush presidency, both Bolivia and Venezuela severed their diplomatic ties with the U.S. amid accusations that U.S. officials were involved in illegal activities aimed at overthrowing the elected government of Evo Morales in Bolivia.

The U.S. has also been accused of funding anti-government elements in and outside Cuba. In the past, Washington publicly acknowledged its intention of overthrowing the communist government in Havana.

Lula, who is the first leader from Latin America to meet Obama in the White House, called for lifting the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The decades-long sanctions have badly hurt Cuban economy and caused hardship for its citizens.

After his visit to the White House, Lula said he had called for Obama to build a relationship of “trust, not interference” with Latin America. He said he hoped that Obama would forge “closer ties with Venezuela, closer ties with Cuba, closer ties with Bolivia.”

COHA president Larry Birns thinks that the Obama administration could at least significantly ease the sanctions, if not remove them altogether. “It’s a possibility,” he told IPS. “But I don’t see it happening in the near future.”

Birns noted, however, that “a major policy review” was already underway, and that some Republicans now also seemed to be supportive of calls to end the embargo.

Noting that the new administration is currently overwhelmed with the financial turmoil and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Briger said that the increasing need for diverse sources of energy could still compel the U.S. to move quickly to build stronger ties with resource-rich Latin American nations.

Not every Latin America expert fully shares this view.

“The Obama administration hasn’t quite made up its mind,” said Mark Weisbrot, president of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CERP), a Washington-based think tank whose board members include Nobel Prize-winning economists Robert Solow and Joseph Stiglitz. “I think it’s divided.”

Weisbrot thinks that overall the U.S. policy on Latin America is going to be “a continuity” of the past, although there will be differences among the advisors. “I don’t think they are going to improve relations with Venezuela. I think they are not going to be friendly with Bolivia either,” he told IPS.

However, he believes that certain factors could greatly contribute to building friendly ties with many governments of the region if there is enough pressure from progressive forces at home and abroad. “I don’t want to be pessimistic. Lula can provide Obama with some information, which his advisors would not provide him,” he said.

“I am glad Lula is putting some pressure,” added Weisbrot regarding the Brazilian leader’s remarks on a thaw with Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela.

Birns, who sees Brazil as a regional superpower, agrees. In his analysis, Brazil has the potential to bring the U.S. closer to Latin American nations with whom it has hostile relations, including Cuba.

“There was paralysis during the Bush administration,” he said, emphasising the need for revamping U.S. policy towards Latin America. “There are centre-left governments all over the continent. I think the Cuban embargo is a dead duck. It has no future.”