02/18/2009 02:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

State Department Thaws Stance on Latin American Mavericks

There are early signs of change in the Obama State Department. In response to significant political victories by former Bush nemeses Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, State Department spokespersons praised the democratic processes in these countries, indicating a more open attitude toward the growing independence of Latin American nations.

Chávez won his referendum on lifting term limits for elected officials on Feb. 15 by a solid 54% at last count, with a 70% turnout. State Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid stated that, "for the most part this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process."

Last week spokesperson Robert Wood established the administration's position on the referendum by calling it "an internal matter." When asked for his opinion on the Venezuelan vote, Duguid echoed that position saying it "was a matter for the Venezuelan people."

A similar response came out of the State Department following the Jan. 25 vote on Bolivia's new constitution. Approved by over 60%, the vote culminated a reform process that nearly tore apart the nation and left several dead in its wake due to the violent opposition of anti-Evo factions.

The day after the vote, Wood congratulated the Bolivian people on the referendum and stated, "we look forward to working with the Bolivian Government in ways we can to further democracy..." When asked if he believed the referendum furthers democracy, he replied, "A free, fair, you know, democratic process certainly does contribute positively."

These might seem like standard-issue statements from a government commenting on matters pertaining to neighboring countries. But if the votes had taken place under the Bush watch, the response would have been much different.

The Bush administration kept a pouty silence following President Morales' resounding victory in a recall referendum Aug. 10 as congratulations poured in from other nations. It remained similarly mute after the massacre of at least 25 peasants, supporters of the president, by opposition forces. After the U.S. Ambassador was expelled for meddling, Bush cut off trade preferences to the country.

In the case of Venezuela, the active hostility against the Chávez government was well-known and heavily broadcast by the mainstream press. From not condemning the ultimately failed coup against Chávez in 2002 to frequent name-calling, the administration's relations with Venezuela reflected a permanent enmity that was often expressed through personal insults that were returned in kind.

The response to the referendums bolsters optimism that the new U.S. government will move toward what Clinton called a foreign policy based on "principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology."

There have been some other not-so-good signs though. Whether it's a lack of consistency among high-level diplomats, or the inertia of Washington, or indecision, members of the administration have on occasion mimicked a paternalistic tone toward Latin America that characterized U.S. policy for far too long.

Clinton and her second in command, James Steinberg, have described the continent as a "playing field" where a supposed lack of leadership on the part of the U.S. recently must be corrected so as not to cede ground to Hugo Chavez. The idea that maybe the continent's diverse nations don't need tutelage from anyone is absent. This is old-school thought--southern countries as geopolitical objects and not subjects in their own right. It doesn't live up to the promise for a "new face on US diplomacy" that was promised for the region.

Everyone's hoping for a spring thaw in relations, but the Obama administration has to make a choice. It can either start in now to build good-neighbor relations in the hemisphere or it can continue Bush policies of actively opposing the democratic changes toward greater sovereignty, equality and decolonialization that are taking place. Obama and the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela have all declared their willingness to sit down to direct dialogue. That would be a good start in improving relations that have been allowed to deteriorate for too long.