|Latin American Outlook logo 130|
No. 1, January 2010
The new year may turn out to be extraordinarily eventful and challenging for U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. Although Obama has yet to present a meaningful policy for the region, it appears 2010 will present new challenges and opportunities that will demand an agile and strategic response from the United States to prevent a further decline of U.S. influence in the region or, worse, a threat to peace in the Americas.
To begin, Obama must confront the Venezuela problem--growing internal instability, budding dictator Hugo Chávez's aggression against neighboring Colombia in particular and regional democracy in general, and Venezuela's troubling ties to the nuclear rogue Iran. Obama also must deal deftly with the upcoming transition in Brazil, which will hold presidential elections in October, to expand and deepen relations with that regional giant. He should consolidate a strategic partnership with Colombia by pushing through a trade agreement and demonstrating that the United States will stand by its allies, thereby preventing a cold war between Venezuela and Colombia from turning hot. Finally, he must move to provide more effective antidrug assistance to Mexico, which is making impressive strides to fight the drug cartels with little more than moral support from the United States.
A Year on the Learning Curve
Obama's first year presented a steep learning curve because he based his foreign policy on the notion that all he had to do to win the region over was not to be George W. Bush. Although most governments in the Americas were quite uncomfortable with Bush's tough antiterror tactics and the war in Iraq, his administration maintained positive relations with most governments across the political spectrum. For example, the warm ties with Brazil's president Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva were a product of Bush's personal diplomacy. The extraordinary progress in relations with Colombia was built on bipartisan policy initiated under President Bill Clinton. The unprecedented security cooperation with Mexico toward the end of Bush's tenure demonstrated the remarkable maturation of those sensitive bilateral relations. It says something that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell traveled more to the region in four years than his two predecessors had in eight. Bush doubled development aid to the region from $800 million to $1.6 billion, and he even paid off back dues the United States owed to the Organization of American States (OAS). The previous administration also negotiated free trade agreements with about half of the Latin American states, with the final two accords (with Colombia and Panama) pending in Congress and still awaiting a kind word from Obama. In short, Obama may find it difficult to improve ties in the region when he is, thus far, offering less than his predecessor.
Several events in 2009 created at least a measure of skepticism in the region about the new U.S. leader, who has not yet set foot in any Latin American country except Mexico. The boorish behavior of the leftist leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua at the April regional summit in Trinidad and Tobago was predictable. The fact that Obama sat silently through their outlandish, hostile speeches, however, was more of a surprise and suggested that he was not eager to spend his personal capital to defend the United States or its record in the region. Democratic activists in several countries where the rule of law and human rights are under siege might have concluded that they were on their own.
The following month, at the General Assembly of the OAS in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, virtually every country in the region brushed off the Obama administration's objections and signed on to a resolution that would have welcomed Communist Cuba back to the OAS without preconditions. Given a choice between the fresh-faced, charismatic U.S. leader with outstretched hand and a decrepit dictator with one foot in the grave, the entire region was perfectly willing to hand Obama a humiliating defeat early in his tenure. The assembly host, then-Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, went so far as to ridicule the groundbreaking Inter-American Democratic Charter for making respect for democracy and human rights a condition of Cuba's readmission. Tough diplomacy by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blocked consensus on the draft, but after her departure, the U.S. delegation agreed to a text that lifted Cuba's suspension in exchange for vague references to the region's democratic values. That proved just enough to provoke the irascible Fidel Castro to reject any notion that Cuba would take a chair in the OAS. The point here is not that the United States dodged a diplomatic bullet but that the rest of the hemisphere fired the salvo so readily.
The Obama team faced a third test late last June when Zelaya was ousted from office for trying to hold a referendum that, if passed, would allow him to stay in power. The referendum followed in the autocratic example of his handler, Chávez, and clearly violated the Honduran constitution. Ignoring that Zelaya forfeited his job according to the Honduran constitution, Venezuela and others stampeded the OAS into denouncing what they called a coup d'état. After months of running with the rabble roused by Chávez, the Obama administration waffled on whether it would accept the results of Honduras's November presidential election, which had been scheduled before Zelaya's ouster. Demonstrating that it had finally learned the limits of multilateralism, the Obama team wisely abandoned the OAS consensus in November by opting to recognize the newly elected president, Porfirio Lobo, who will take office January 27.
The Honduras episode represents an ongoing lesson for the Obama team as it assesses the toxicity of Chávez's role in the region. Authoritarian populists, who daily violate democracy and human rights at home, cynically trumpeted these values in pressing for Zelaya's restitution. Even before doing Chávez's bidding on behalf of Zelaya, the OAS forfeited all credibility as a defender of democracy by ignoring years of autocratic conduct by caudillos (strongmen) in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua; the OAS even deployed observers to whitewash Zelaya's unconstitutional referendum. Zelaya had no use for the Inter-American Democratic Charter in the case of Cuba, but he demanded that it be applied to restore him to power. Weeks after rolling out the welcome mat for the Cuban dictatorship, those same diplomats voted to oust Honduras for daring to uphold its own constitution against a rogue chief executive. Governments that shriek at any breach of sovereignty cheered Chávez as he intervened in Honduras's internal affairs, pushed that country to the constitutional brink, and threatened military action and mob violence on Zelaya's behalf.
A fourth test for the Obama administration came in July, when a routine agreement granting U.S. security aircraft and personnel access to several facilities in Colombia for antidrug missions drew harsh criticism from many South American governments. Chávez led the pack, calling the accord a "declaration of war." The overheated rebukes from chavista puppets in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere were hardly unexpected; however, the skeptical comments by responsible leaders in Brazil and Chile show that U.S. diplomacy has work to do in improving relationships in the region. In spite of compelling evidence of Chávez's massive military buildup and his material and political support to narcoterrorist groups waging an illegal proxy war against Colombia, the region's politicians blamed the victim and second-guessed the efforts Colombia must take to defend its people with the help of its ally, the United States. By the time the agreement was signed on October 30, Colombia had to placate critics by assuring them that the agreement was based on the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other nations.
In the meantime, a vital trade promotion agreement with Colombia, which essentially locks in the benefits of an existing antidrug-trade program, has been pending approval from the U.S. Congress for over two years. During his campaign, Obama professed some doubts about the accord, but he did not slam the door on the agreement. As president, however, he has deferred to congressional and union-member critics of Colombia's labor-rights record, who are blocking its ratification. While the treaty languishes in Congress, Colombia is hurting as several South American countries--its key trade partner, Venezuela, in particular--have cut back on trade to punish Colombia for its alliance with the United States. For several years, Chávez has sought to distract his beleaguered people by bringing Venezuela to the brink of war with Colombia, a historic rival.
Last year offered many lessons for the Obama administration. As a presidential candidate, Obama criticized Bush's "arrogance" and promised policy in the Americas based on mutual respect. By August 2009, Obama was blasting the "hypocrisy" of leaders in the region who faulted him for failing to impose Zelaya's return to power in Honduras. "The same critics who say the U.S. has not intervened in Honduras are the same people who say we are always intervening and [the] Yankees need to get out of Latin America," the frustrated president said. "You can't have it both ways." The president may have learned a thing or two about the region in 2009, but unless he employs a more effective and proactive policy in 2010, the sad fact is that Chávez will continue to have his way.
Will the United States Respond?
Critics of the United States' record in the Americas welcome the country's waning interest. In a recent article, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge G. Castañeda expressed contentment that the Obama administration could not manhandle Honduras. "For the first time in centuries, the United States doesn't seem to care much what happens in Latin America," he rejoiced. He generously downplays the need for "atonement or humility" on the part of the United States, but he argues that a less prominent role means that anti-U.S. caudillos can no longer blame their problems on Washington. Of course, Castañeda fully expects that U.S. economic aid, visas, or trade will be there when the people in the Americas need these benefits. He also worries that this wholesome policy of "benign neglect" might be undone if the United States is provoked by Chávez's rhetorical taunts or is forced to respond in the event that an authoritarian crackdown or an Iranian-Russian axis emerges in Venezuela.
Like many critics of U.S. policy, Castañeda does not recognize that there are very real consequences when the United States fails to speak up to defend representative democracy, human rights, or its security interests for fear of provoking an infantile rant from Chávez. Our reticence on these issues in the last several years has emboldened U.S. foes and demoralized U.S. allies.
As the United States seeks to recover a modicum of influence in the region and to execute a proactive agenda in the hemisphere, it will encounter bitter opposition from a cadre of states mobilized by Chávez's "Bolivarian" imperialism, from a number of allies wondering if the United States will defend its own interests let alone theirs, from influential states content with U.S. passivity, and from multilateral institutions (notably, the OAS) that cannot muster a consensus on the most essential issues because of Chávez's dictates. Arturo Valenzuela, an experienced and respected diplomat, was sworn in last November as the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. His nomination had been delayed for several months because U.S. senators objected to the State Department's handling of the Honduras crisis and had broader questions about the retrenchment of U.S. leadership in the region that began in the latter years of the Bush administration.
Castañeda concedes that Chávez's consolidating a dictatorship or offering Iran an outpost in this hemisphere would constitute genuine provocations that would require a U.S. response. What Castañeda fails to recognize is that these scenarios are playing out in Venezuela today. This begs the question that Valenzuela must now answer: will the United States respond effectively?
The Road Ahead
U.S. diplomats must be prepared for the opportunities and possible crises in the year ahead.
Venezuela Meltdown. This may be a very tough year for Chávez. Although he is second to none in managing chaos, the chronic nature of the troubles he is facing today cannot be undone by buying off critics, bullying political foes, or currying favor with the masses. Last year, Venezuela suffered four nationwide power failures, and the new year has brought a rationing of electricity; although the proximate cause is a crippling drought that has hampered hydroelectric generators, the energy sector requires $18 billion in immediate investment to catch up with current demand. Chávez has asked Venezuelans to limit their showers to three minutes to conserve water and energy. The Venezuelan government has not made a significant investment in the water system in Caracas in the past thirty years, during which time the capital city's population has grown by over 50 percent. Key bridges and thoroughfares are crumbling, and the degenerating infrastructure is strangling commerce and inconveniencing millions of citizens. The politicization of the police and courts has produced lawlessness and a spiraling murder rate--making Caracas the second most dangerous city in the hemisphere. According to one Venezuelan native, grieving family members seeking funeral services are told to "take a number and have a seat." Crooked chavista cronies who have been awarded sweetheart banking deals nearly caused the financial sector to collapse; the government has been forced to intervene in nearly a dozen banks in an attempt to mitigate the impact on millions of account holders. And the clumsy devaluation of the currency Chávez announced earlier this month will help his government but hurt his people and strangle the private economy.
Although the occasional food shortages or political crises can be addressed with short-run measures, the list of chronic problems may be catching up to Chávez, who is more famous for his profligate spending than his effective management. National assembly elections are scheduled to be held in September, and Chávez may begin to feel unprecedented political pressure. Mounting challenges may lead him to take drastic measures that may provoke a showdown with citizens and the military; both groups have grown weary of his careless belligerence. He may also step up his threats of war against Colombia. The Obama team may be pressed to make tough choices if a desperate Chávez uses deadly force to suppress opposition or provokes a conflict with Colombia.
Transition in Brazil. With Brazil's economy resuming steady growth after the global financial crisis, millions pulling themselves out of extreme poverty in recent years, and great optimism about continued economic and social progress, it is no surprise that Lula's approval ratings hover around 75 percent. It remains to be seen whether Lula will be able to transfer this political magic to Dilma Rousseff, his former chief of staff and the woman Lula has chosen to succeed him as nominee of the Workers' Party. José Serra, former minister of health and planning and current governor of the state of São Paulo, represents the opposition Social Democratic Party and holds a significant but shrinking lead in at least one December poll. The final outcome of the October election, which will require a runoff unless one candidate wins a first-round majority, is far from certain. Both candidates are expected to continue the balance of orthodox macroeconomic policies and antipoverty programs that have served Lula so well. Serra is clearly the more free-market oriented of the two front-runners, but he shares the very Brazilian view that the state should play a significant role in economic development.
As noted earlier, the Bush administration established remarkably positive relations with Brazil despite ideological differences and a long-running debate over agricultural subsidies and trade. As elections approach, Lula has emphasized his differences with the United States, even going so far as to invite Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil just as the international community was cornering the nuclear rogue. Deepening and broadening ties with the South American giant will require the Obama administration to employ intelligent and sensitive diplomacy. Establishing a special relationship with Brazil that features dialogue on fiscal reform and economic modernization, that offers permanent consultation on regional challenges, and that encourages economic integration between the two hemispheric powers would be well worth the effort.
Cuba's Transition. When Fidel Castro formally passed his power to his brother Raúl in July 2006, it put to the test the theory some Cuba analysts in the United States held that the new leader was a closet reformer. Rather than open up political and economic space, Raúl has consolidated the Stalinist apparatus he helped fashion in the service of Fidel's arbitrary rule. Moreover, Fidel keeps his brother on a short leash. The aged dictator's vindictive hand can be seen in Cuba's purge of twenty senior officials last February, including young leaders such as former first vice president Carlos Lage Dávila, whom Castro apologists have portrayed as a possible architect of generational change who might manage a soft landing to salvage the system. Raúl's failure to deliver any meaningful change in the thirty months he has been in office has surely dashed the hopes of Cubans desperate for change. The purges of young leaders and positioning of dinosaurs in Raúl's governing clique have also taken the slack out of the transition, making it even more likely that the regime is riding for a fall.
This is no time for the Obama administration to be experimenting with unilateral concessions that might buy the Castro brothers one more day in power. It is clear that the regime is in no mood to bargain, probably because the Castros know they cannot withstand any internal challenge. Knowledgeable policymakers note that Secretary of State Clinton is convinced nothing good will happen in Cuba while a Castro is in power. It is hoped that she can convince the president to preserve the U.S. embargo and the ban on tourism to use as leverage with a post-Castro transitional government. If the Obama team resists propping up the regime in a false bid for a stable transition, it may have the honor of normalizing ties with a free Cuba.
Consolidating Gains in Colombia. With substantial U.S. support, Colombians have made impressive strides in their battle against the illicit drug trade and narcoterrorist groups. Colombians' quality of life has improved substantially, and kidnapping and murder rates are in a steep decline. Even in the midst of the global crisis, Colombia's economy has returned to impressive growth rates. The work in Colombia is not finished, however. Although today the country is more capable of assuming the costs of its own economic development, continued U.S. security assistance is essential to consolidating a U.S. foreign-policy success story. Moreover, if Obama were to deliver a trade promotion agreement, it would not only help ensure a prosperous Colombia, it would also underscore Colombia's strategic relationship with the United States. Venezuelan generals may be dissuaded from launching an ill-conceived offensive against a U.S. ally.
Doing Our Part with Mexico. In October 2007, Bush and his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderón agreed under the Mérida Initiative to cooperate in the fight against the deadly drug cartels that are tormenting the Mexican people, undermining rule of law in Mexico, and delivering cocaine and other drugs to consumers in the United States. Congress has appropriated $1.12 billion to fight these activities in Mexico; however, according to a December report prepared by the Government Accountability Office, as of September 30, 2009, only $24 million (or 2 percent of the total) has been delivered. Administration officials cite congressional conditions, Mexico's institutional weaknesses, and the long lead time on acquiring big-ticket items, such as helicopters, for slowing the delivery of aid. It should be noted that Mexican authorities have pressed ahead in spite of bloodthirsty reprisals by criminal gangs, striking dramatic blows against the cartels, killing or capturing kingpins, and disrupting their illegal operations. The Obama administration must nonetheless redouble efforts to deliver critical support to Mexico.
Up to the Challenge?
Obama has yet to name a special envoy for the Americas, despite his campaign commitment to do so. Most observers would agree that Valenzuela has the stature to lead the Latin America team, but he might welcome the support of a political heavyweight to capture the attention and resources needed to confront the great challenges ahead.
A first step toward developing more effective policy for 2010 should be an exhaustive, interagency assessment of the threat Chávez poses to U.S. interests and an appraisal of whether the U.S. government has the development aid, security assistance, and intelligence assets required to meet this challenge. Although the United States is preoccupied with other acute threats, opportunities missed or threats ignored in our own neighborhood carry a very high price.
Roger F. Noriega (firstname.lastname@example.org), a senior State Department official from 2001 to 2005, is a visiting fellow at AEI and managing director of Vision Americas, LLC, which represents foreign and domestic clients.
1. Julianna Goldman and Kim Chipman, "Obama Pledges to Fight Poverty, Fends Off Criticism on Cuba," Bloomberg.com, April 18, 2009, available at www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=auvif2K3YP_s&refer=home (accessed January 11, 2010).
2. Candace Piette, "Leaders to Tackle U.S.-Colombia Deal," BBC News, August 27, 2009, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8224342.stm (accessed January 11, 2010); and Juan Forero and Mary Beth Sheridan, "U.S.-Colombia Deal Prompts Questions," Washington Post, August 27, 2009.
3. Hugh Bronstein, "Colombia, U.S. Sign Military Cooperation Deal," Reuters, October 30, 2009.
4. For facts on the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement, which was signed in November 2006, see Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, "Colombia FTA," October 13, 2009, available at www.ustr.gov/trade-agreements/free-trade-agreements/colombia-fta (accessed January 11, 2010).
5. Doug Palmer, "Obama Voices Support for Colombia Trade Deal," Reuters, June 29, 2009.
6. Doreen Hemlock, "Colombia Holds Major Export Event in Miami," Miami Herald, November 17, 2009.
7. "An alliance of the Americas will only succeed if it is founded on a bedrock of mutual respect. It's time to turn the page on the arrogance in Washington and the anti-Americanism across the region that stands in the way of progress. It's time to listen to one another and to learn from one another," then-senator Barack Obama said in a speech in Miami, Florida. See Barack Obama, "Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas" (speech, Miami, May 23, 2008), available at www.barackobama.com/2008/05/23/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_68.php (accessed January 11, 2010).
8. Stephen Collinson, "Obama Slams Honduras Critics at North America Summit," Agence France-Presse, August 11, 2009.
9. Jorge G. Castañeda observed, "The fact is that the United States is no longer willing, or perhaps even able, to select who governs from Tegucigalpa, or anywhere else in the region for that matter. Looking back at the history of the hemisphere, this fact is remarkable--and certainly transformative." See Jorge G. Castañeda, "Adios Monroe Doctrine: When the Yanquis Go Home," The New Republic, December 28, 2009.
10. "Venezuela Begins 2010 with Electricity Rationing," Agence France-Presse, January 3, 2009.
11. Paul Maidment, "Chavez's Bank Purge," Forbes.com, December 9, 2009, available at www.forbes.com/2009/12/06/hugo-chavez-venezuela-opinions-notes-on-the-news-paul-maidment.html (accessed January 11, 2010).
12. The Brazilian polling firm Datafolha and the Folha de São Paulo newspaper conducted telephone interviews with 11,429 adults from December 14-18. The margin of error was said to be +/- 2 percent. See "Rousseff Grows, Serra Stable in Brazil," O Polls and Research, January 10, 2010, available at www.angus-reid.com/polls/view/34817/rousseff_grows_serra_stable_in_brazil (accessed January 12, 2010).
13. A speech by Serra offers significant insight into the candidate's approach to economic and fiscal policy and the role of the state in Brazil's economy. See this excerpt: José Serra, "A Latin American Perspective on the Crisis (Part I)," Globalist, July 2, 2009, available at www.theglobalist.com/StoryId.aspx?StoryId=7857 (accessed January 11, 2010).
14. John Lyons, "Brazil's New Standing Threatened by Ahmadinejad Visit," Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2009.
15. Human Rights Watch issued a thorough report on the continued repression. See Human Rights Watch, New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era (Human Rights Watch, Washington and New York, November 18, 2009), available at www.hrw.org/en/reports/2009/11/18/new-castro-same-cuba (accessed January 11, 2010).
16. Humberto Fontova, "Heads Roll in Havana, Baffling 'Cuba Expert,'" American Thinker, March 10, 2009, available at www.americanthinker.com/2009/03/heads_roll_in_havana_baffling.html (accessed January 11, 2010).
17. U.S. Agency for International Development, "Colombia's Untold Success Story" (presentation), available at www.usaid.gov/locations/latin_america_caribbean/country/colombia/Colombia_presentation.pdf (accessed January 11, 2010).
18. Government Accountability Office to Eliot Engel and Connie Mack, House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Washington, December 3, 2009, available at www.gao.gov/new.items/d10253r.pdf (accessed January 11, 2010).
19. Alfredo Corchado, "Mexican Military Raid Kills Reputed Drug Cartel Leader," Dallas Morning News, December 18, 2009; and Alexandra Olson, "Mexico Captures Brother of Dead Cartel Leader," Associated Press, January 4, 2010.