Three years ago I wrote an article arguing that the political changes sweeping across Latin America were epoch-making and probably irreversible, and that they would fundamentally alter the relationship between the region and the United States. Some of the most important economic causes of the region's shift to the left - including the unprecedented long-term growth failure since 1980 - were unrecognized then and remain mostly unacknowledged to this day.
At the time, Washington's stated strategy was to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors. This was before the election of additional left governments in Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Paraguay, and El Salvador. I argued that this strategy was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening in the region, and that it would only succeed in isolating the United States from its southern neighbors.
All this has come to pass, but more interestingly, for the first time we have an acknowledgment of this failure from the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. At a press conference last Friday, she said in response to a question about Venezuela:
"[W]hen we look around the world, actually, we see a number of countries and leaders -- Chavez is one of them but not the only one -- who, over the last eight years, has become more and more negative and oppositional to the United States. . . the prior administration tried to isolate them, tried to support opposition to them, tried to . . . turn them into international pariahs. It didn't work."
This is a remarkable confession, and didn't get a fraction of the attention it deserved. Clinton did not name the countries, but in Latin America, Bolivia would have to be included as a country where Washington has incurred resentment by supporting opposition movements against President Evo Morales. And of course there is the 47-year failure of the embargo against Cuba:
"We're facing an almost united front against the United States regarding Cuba. Every country, even those with whom we are closest, is just saying you've got to change."
She didn't mention that they are also saying that Washington must change its policy toward Venezuela. President Lula da Silva of Brazil, who has consistently defended President Chavez of Venezuela, has told President Obama as much and reportedly counseled him at the Summit of the Americas not to listen to his advisers - most of whom have appeared to seek continued hostility toward Venezuela and possibly Bolivia.
It is remarkable that pressure for a reality-based view of the world has had to come from the South, and says a lot about the state of civil society in the United States. How is it that nobody from our leading foreign policy institutions could have figured this out years ago? On Cuba, there has been dissent -- partly because there are powerful business interests that want access to the island, and partly because 47 years of failure is a long time even for slow learners. But on Venezuela, the primary focus of U.S. foreign policy in the hemisphere for the past seven years, there has been an overwhelming consensus of fantasy and hype. Hugo Chavez is the only democratically elected leader in the world, facing a media that is still overwhelmingly controlled by his political opposition, to be successfully maligned as a "dictator." And a threat to the United States -- what exactly has he done to the United States, anyway, other than provide a $100 million annual subsidy to poor people here for heating oil?
The sad reality is that while the United States has at least some civil society organizations that can present an independent view to the public on domestic issues, on foreign policy issues we are much more like Russia. The vast majority of expert opinion on foreign policy that is allowed access to major media in the United States consists of government officials, former government officials, or people who or are otherwise influenced by the government. This is one reason why it was so easy to invade Iraq, and so difficult to get out of there or out of Afghanistan - in spite of the American public's long-standing lack of enthusiasm for sending combat troops overseas.
Hillary Clinton also took note that Russia, Iran, and China are gaining economic and political influence in Latin America, and recognized that we are operating in "a multi-polar world." This is also obvious -- China has recently invested billions in Venezuela, Brazil, Cuba, and Ecuador, and agreed to a 10 billion dollar currency swap arrangement with Argentina. This week China also passed up the U.S. as the number one recipient of Brazilian exports. But Clinton's recognition of a "multi-polar world" is unusual and probably unprecedented for a U.S. Secretary of State.
The signals from Washington remain mixed: the State Department last week took another gratuitous swipe at Venezuela, listing the country as a "terrorist safe haven," among other unsubstantiated allegations. (A few days later, Venezuela deported five Colombian guerillas to their home country). Obama's top economic adviser Larry Summers recently made a point of saying that Argentina would not qualify for the IMF's Flexible Credit Line, from which Mexico had just received a $47 billion commitment. Washington is the IMF's principal overseer; Mexico and Brazil also each have access to a $30 billion currency swap arrangement with the Fed. These are large commitments, and a reminder that Washington is still using its clout in a time of crisis to play political favorites, rather than contributing to regional balance of payments support.
But Clinton's unprecedented reality-based remarks are an indication that she and President Obama may have taken home some important lessons from their conversations with other presidents at the Summit of the Americas on April 22. Such new thinking would be long overdue.
This column was published by The Guardian Unlimited on May 6, 2009.