Latin America may be Barack Obama's greatest opportunity and greatest current weakness. As an opportunity, the continent is in the midst of the greatest democratic revolution in fifty years and can become a successful model of independent economic development. Domestically, the growing Latino and immigrant populations in the United States are evidence as to where the future lies. Two-thirds of them voted for Obama, helping deliver New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and even Florida.
The weakness is that Obama has little experience in Latin America, is surrounded with advisors who represent the failed models of NAFTA-style trade agreements, drug war interventions in Colombia and Mexico, the irrational embargo of Cuba, and U.S. hostility to democratically-elected governments in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Over an eight-year presidency, however, Obama's progressive instincts and intelligence might lead him to break with the failed policies of the past and define the U.S. as a "good neighbor" in the tradition of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who banned military interventions and accepted Mexico's and Bolivia's rights to nationalize their oil industry in the 1930s.
The future begins today in Trinidad and Tobago, an archipelago populated by the descendants of slaves and sugar-cane workers of empires past.
Advisers in Washington, Caracas and La Paz have been huddling for weeks to orchestrate today's inescapable encounters between Obama, Hugo Chavez, and Evo Morales. One reasonable guess is that Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will facilitate the ritual contacts, which will be a mixture of the scripted and the impromptu. [One of Obama's former professors, Roberto Unger, lives in Brazil and advises Lula.]
Obama surely will be good-natured and project the dawn of improved dialogue and diplomatic relations. He combines sweeping possibilities with incremental measures, such as the relaxation of travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans visiting their homeland. These new policies are less than Latin American wants, but may be enough to keep Latin America engaged with the new president.
Chavez will project two sides of his Bolivarian project: a positive abrazo to the newcomer combined with a declaration of independence for Latin America.
Morales will glow with the Aymara [indigenous] presence long suppressed in continental relationships. If the atmosphere becomes friendly enough, he may hand Obama a coca leaf.
That will be stepping into the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, the stage of superficial rapprochement. But the shallow will lead to the deep in the months and years ahead.
Obama needs to create his own Latin American working group that engages with its counterparts to the South in a permanent roundtable dialogue where no issues are off the table.
Unfortunately, social movements in America demanding a new course in Latin America have ebbed since the anti-WTO and anti-FTAA protests of the past decade and the solidarity movements that came before. Organized labor, the immigrant rights movement and environmentalists will have to come together with progressive Latinos to demand significant change towards the south.
In the establishment center, Obama has some support to go further. The Council on Foreign Relations already approves the normalization of ties with Cuba and better relations with Venezuela and Bolivia. Julia Sweig of the CFR has been particularly good on Latin American issues, but was passed over for a post in the administration.
On the right of the spectrum, Obama can be less worried than previous presidents about the Miami Cubans, whose stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy is fading with time. A greater threat to Obama will come from the neo-conservatives who want an aggressive approach to Venezuela. The Center for Security Policy already is demanding to know "who lost Latin America?' to Chavez and Venezuela, claiming they are a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists. This line of thinking parallels that of Lou Dobbs and Patrick Buchanan, who claim that America's jobs and national identity are threatened by immigration from the South. Their threat of right-wing populism could gain traction in the recession, but thus far seems to be a minority backlash.
At the deeper end of the pool will be trade agreements. Obama promised to re-open NAFTA and opposed Bush's trade deal with Colombia. He now needs to clarify how far he intends to back away from his campaign pledge, a retreat which will upset Latin America and organized labor. Lula, who is considered a pragmatic leader, is not against the WTO or FTAA per se, but even he demands that power be shifted away from the "white-haired blue-eyed" Wall Street bankers who have plunged the continent into greater poverty. To the left of Lula are those led by Venezuela in ALBA, the Bolivarian alternative model, who are shaping a Latin American trade and currency bloc of their own. Obama will be under great pressure to accept a negotiated agreement more equitable to Latin America and distance himself from the wreckage left behind by the Bush administration and Wall Street.
The deepest issue will be liberating the U.S., Mexico, Colombia and the whole continent from the nightmare of spreading military intervention under the pretext of drug wars. Hawks in Washington prefer is a politics of repression state-formation as a rival pole to Chavez' 21st century socialism. Plan Colombia and Plan Merida set in motion a dangerous U.S. military intervention in support of corrupt, authoritarian regimes, leading toward permanent U.S. bases and forward positioning in Latin America. Thomas Shannon, the key State Department official under both Bush and Obama, has described this approach as "armoring NAFTA." Branded as essential to protecting Americans from drugs and gangs, the result will be a toxic combination of privatization and militarization.
This emergent policy, towards which the Obama administration is drifting, will require a powerful resistance from movements in both North and South if it is to be checked. Though only a first step, Hillary Clinton's acceptance of blame for American drug consumption and free-for-all U.S. weapons sales to Mexican traffickers must be the start of an imperative dialogue. The Calderon government's military offensive against the Mexican cartels, supported by the U.S., has resulted in 7-10,000 deaths in the past year alone. In Colombia, the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency has claimed 114, 000 lives, including 12,713 alleged "subversives" from 2002 to 2008, according to Colombian human rights sources.
Latin American leaders are moving towards legalization, regulation and treatment strategies for drugs like marijuana, while Morales and others demand the legalization of coca. But the Pentagon model of "armoring NAFTA" is deepening, with typical gringo indifference to oblivious to Latin American perspectives.
As the continental drift widens, a radical new analysis is emerging among many intellectuals and policy analysts in Latin America, one that views the U.S. as a declining superpower. In Venezuela, for example, I interviewed Gen. Alberto Mueller-Rojas, a close Chavez ally who now heads a Caracas policy institute of the Socialist Party. Over a three-hour discussion, the general explained why he thinks it pointless for the U.S. to worry about "losing" Latin America.
"Latin America is already 'lost,'" he began. Besides the repeated democratic elections of left-center parties, internal economic, trade, financial and diplomatic exchanges are growing throughout the region. Technology transfer is increasing. Chinese, Iranian, Russian investments and military sales are expanding. The only remaining American base is Colombia, he said.
Second, Central America is similar, he said. The FMLN will win in El Salvador, he correctly predicted. Honduras is the remaining U.S. base.
Third, he claimed, "the Caribbean is lost to the U.S." Instead of the U.S. embargo isolating Cuba and intimidating the region, the reverse is true. Its Cuban policy has isolated the U.S. in the entire region.
The general's proposal to Obama was to accept the geopolitical fact that "a multi-polar world exists already", through transnational forces which are more important than governments. "Technology conspires against empire", he asserted, because "it facilitates communications among people to achieve their needs to develop themselves." He was suggesting that the slogan "another world is possible" already is obsolete. Another world already exists, or is beginning to exist. "It is irreversible," he opined.
In the general's perspective, all Obama needs to do is deal with reality. The U.S. is no longer the hegemon over Latin America. "If the geopolitical interest of the U.S. is to contain its competitors, that is no longer possible." Instead, the U.S. should learn the lesson that military strength must be replaced by politics: "We in Venezuela are willing to do politics, which is a process of negotiating explicitly."
He added that Obama gives us "hope for normalizing relations with us, because we know he must please his base."
Listening to this general share his long experiences, I wondered if he was underestimating the persuasive power of Obama's charisma combined with the low visibility of the Pentagon's counterinsurgencies. I also worried whether the American public might be stampeded to senseless war by fear of drug lords and terrorists at the border. The U.S. has been dismissed incorrectly as a "paper tiger" before. But the general's explanation made greater sense than the Beltway-centric view that the U.S. has been "losing" Latin America because the Bush administration became mired in Iraq. It remains to be seen if Obama can bend events to his liking by offering "a new beginning" or whether his task will be to retreat from unsustainable fantasies that Latin America continues to be America's backyard.
Tom Hayden is the author of the forthcoming The Long Sixties, From 1960 to Barack Obama [Paradigm, August 2009]. He has made many trips to Latin America.