Latin America and the U.S. Presidential Campaign: Nikolas Kosloff on John McCain

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This is an adapted extract from a longer article written by COHA Senior Research Fellow Nikolas Kosloff, published on February 26, 2008.

In the event that John McCain is elected president, the stage could be set for a confrontation with the present Dominica leadership if it continues to follow an independent road regarding its relation with Hugo Chávez’ Venezuela. The vehicle for the presumptive Republican candidate could be his ties to a relatively questionable body based in Washington. The Arizona Senator has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI, with its millions of dollars of taxpayer funding, has served as an instrument to advance and promote a far-right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research and education group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most anti-democratic movements in the Third World.

In Haiti, the IRI aggressively funded anti-Aristide groups with their medley of dirty tricks, while in Venezuela, the IRI generously financed anti-Chávez civil society operations. When Venezuelan opposition politicians, union and community leaders went to Washington on a private mission to meet with U.S. officials just weeks before the failed April 2002 coup, the IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the country’s notoriously corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup). The IRI also arranged for Súmate, together with other participants in the coup (whose director just happened to be at the presidential palace in Caracas after Chávez had temporarily been removed from power), to be one of those coming to the U.S. to meet with U.S. officials.

McCain at the Helm
For more than a decade, IRI Chairman McCain has taken a personal interest in the IRI’s Cuba work and vigorously praised the IRI-funded anti-Castro island opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba “a national security threat,” adding that “as president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship…The Cuban people have waited long enough.” Meanwhile, McCain’s most influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban-Americans from Florida, including far-right Congressional legends such as House legislators Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.

McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba almost as a matter of religious conviction. He does this by encouraging a U.S. partnership with rightist regimes abroad that support American-style free trade and despise Havana. This would include countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. Concerned about growing ties between Cuba and Venezuela, McCain has said “He [Chávez] aspires to be this generation’s [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a thing.”

To make matters worse, the chair of the IRI has sought to promote ill-reputed neo-conservative figures from the Bush regime such as John Bolton, who had staked out an exceedingly hard line position on U.S.-Latin America relations. During the latter’s confirmation hearings in the Senate to be Bush’s UN ambassador, McCain, even though Bolton previously had refused to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding some false charges that he had made, urged his Democratic colleagues to hurriedly approve the diplomat’s nomination as UN ambassador. Bolton has been a super-hawk not only on Iran but also regarding Venezuela. At the time, McCain, who has referred to Chávez as a “wacko,” said that it was important to confirm Bolton, and that with him there, the U.S. would be able to talk back to “two-bit dictators” like the Venezuelan leader. With his long history of taking a combative stance against the Latin American left, McCain might seek to isolate or put pressure on the highly respected Dominica government of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit to sever its ties to nearby Venezuela and to drop out of the Venezuela-led foreign policy pact ALBA as well as PetroCaribe, an arrangement to ship subsidized oil to Caribbean-area nations. Just as President Reagan sought to make an example of Grenada back in 1983, demonstrating that the U.S. would not brook an independent foreign and economic policy operating so close to its shores, McCain might seek to take the offensive against such Chávez initiatives as ALBA and PetroCaribe (both involving Dominica). The prospect of a tough operator like McCain taking command in Washington must genuinely worry those committed to a new emphasis on regional self-determination and constructive engagement throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. With the grim fate of Grenada and Chile under Salvador Allende in mind, tiny Dominica has good reason to be apprehensive over its approaching destiny if McCain is elected to the presidency. Meanwhile, a growing number of Latin Americans are becoming aware of the pressure that the fabled island and its distinguished Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, may soon be facing if McCain decides to purge the region of governments which he sees as pro-Cuban and pro-Venezuelan.