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John Kerry at the OAS: A Shift in US Policy or More of the Same?

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In a speech delivered on November 18 before the Organization of American States (OAS) and cosponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue, Secretary of State John Kerry did not exactly stun his audience by declaring “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  At best, this grand gesture evoked a somewhat hesitant applause.  Could it be that the audience was taken by surprise? After all, just seven months ago, Kerry referred to Latin America as “our back yard.”  The use of such language engendered disbelief because this was not the first time a Secretary of State announced a significant shift in US policy towards Latin America. At the 1933 Pan-American Conference in Montevideo, Cordell Hull echoed President Franklin Roosevelt’s good neighbor policy by backing a credo that “No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.” But a long series of US interventions in Latin America has undermined the credibility of that promise and forever placed a burden of proof on any new such declarations of a change of course called for by a United States official.

The burden of proof has arguably not yet been met by the Obama administration. It is on President Obama’s watch that the US backed a golpista regime in Honduras. This provoked the outrage and disillusionment of many of Obama’s avid supporters, both in the US and Latin America, who had wanted to believe that “yes we can” when it comes to having a policy of mutual respect among the Americas. The Obama administration has also not hesitated to use soft power to wield its influence in the region. For example, in May 2013, Washington pulled out all of the stops to pressure the Salvadoran legislature into passing a Public Private Partnership Law (P3), even threatening to withhold a second Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) grant of $277 million US dollars. On the security front, Washington has noticeably beefed up the US military presence in Colombia and Honduras, and recent revelations about the excessively broad nature of US spying operations in the hemisphere have provoked indignant rebuffs from some of the region’s leaders.  At the present moment, with  tensions rising in Caracas in anticipation of municipal elections in Venezuela on December 8th, the Obama administration still declines to recognize the election of Nicolas Maduro as President of Venezuela.  Some of these policy decisions may be considered “interventions” and manifestations of a simmering confrontation between the U.S. support for the rehabilitation of neoliberalism in the region and popular resistance to similar moves throughout the hemisphere.

The Kerry speech comes in the context of the growing independence of the Latin American and Caribbean nations over the past two decades. This independence is expressed through civil society, multilateral and international relationships. The democratic legitimacy of the OAS in terms of representing Latin American states is being gradually diminished not so much by a disintegration of the regional body but by the pronouncements of a string of new, generally left-leaning multilateral organizations such as ALBA, UNASUR, MERCOSUR, and CELAC which do not provide for U.S. membership. Leftist and populist politics, however, do not completely determine the movement towards independence and integration. There has been a stark divergence between Washington and other OAS member states at the last two gatherings of the Summit of the Americas on issues that transcend ideology, ranging from demands to end the embargo against Cuba to calling into question the strategy of the War on Drugs. Finally, on the international front, Latin America and the Caribbean have increasingly diversified their trading partnerships and built new alliances. The late President Hugo Chavez championed such developments as a contribution towards building a multi-polar world. Nevertheless, both the US and Latin America have significant mutual commercial interests and cultural ties that would only benefit from a resounding end to the application of the Monroe Doctrine.

While Kerry’s speech does not drum forth a new grand alliance of a unified Americas, it does seek to convey at least somewhat more than a routine commitment to democracy and freedom. Should we be hopeful that Washington will, in Kerry’s words, treat other nations as “equals” with a “shared commitment to democracy” that will “advance the values and the interests that we share”? This has to depend on what  Kerry means by “democracy,” exactly which of the social and political forces are considered “partners,” and what particular “values and interests” these democratic partners are supposed to be sharing. U.S. diplomacy may be indicating that in its lexicon, those nations that conform to the imperatives of free market economics are worthy colleagues and have the right values and interests. On the other hand, those nations that are implementing social democratic policies that reject the neoliberal creed and those nations that are experimenting with versions of 21st century socialism, are presumably not considered worthy partners. This interpretation of the political lexicon suggests that when Kerry stressed that “the Western Hemisphere is unified in its commitment to pursuing successful democracies,” he was referring to a limited partnership of nations that accept some form of neoliberal economic and social policy. It appears that in practice, such partner states do not need democratic credentials to join the club (such as Honduras); nor do they have to respect human rights as (as in the cases of Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras). This arrangement can even leave out millions of the formerly excluded and marginalized citizens who reject the Washington consensus, either in whole or in large part, because they seek to democratize not only the liberal state, but the economic and social dimensions of their lives as well. This extension of democracy requires structural reform, something that is anathema to transnational corporate interests and the empire which promotes those interests in the hemisphere.

The Kerry speech intimates the exclusion of two countries, or perhaps more precisely, the current governments of two countries, from the vital partnership: Cuba and Venezuela. With regard to Havana, Kerry signaled a possible change of course that acknowledges the reforms taking place in Cuba while criticizing the continued command structure of the regime. These signals, when heard in light of Obama’s own somewhat ambiguous speech in Miami on November 8th, suggest that the President might move to support an end to the embargo. This would arguably constitute a significant step forward for US policy in the region.

Kerry has no problem singling out Venezuela for derision, and speaks as a member of the OAS in good standing when he says: “we also express our concern when democratic institutions are weakened, as we’ve seen in Venezuela recently.” But the unanimity of this “we,” is not at all clear, as the Secretary General of the OAS has recognized the outcome of the Presidential election in Venezuela and Venezuela enjoys diplomatic and mutually respectful relations with almost all of the member states. The Bolivarian Revolution does, however, pose an economic, social, and political model that departs both from the Washington Consensus and the liberal democratic ideal. It rejects the view that democracy can only thrive in largely unregulated free markets and it is experimenting with communal structures that are designed to practice direct participatory democracy.  Though imperfect and facing formidable challenges, the fact that these fledgling communal structures challenge capitalist relationships of production and distribution does not mean Venezuela is fundamentally less democratic than other states that are included in the presumed partnership.

In fact, not surprising but damaging to the bona fides of the Kerry Speech, Honduras was not given special mention for a leadership role in the rogues’ gallery. Since the coup there in 2009 which ousted its democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, the human rights record of Honduras has deteriorated and Honduran security forces have been implicated in a number of violations. On Sunday, Honduras held presidential elections in an environment where 17 opposition party (LIBRE) members have reportedly been murdered, exacerbating an already tense atmosphere of fear and intimidation. At this writing the results are not yet definite. In any case, this was an important election, because the current government of strongman President Porfirio Lobo has enthusiastically bought the neoliberal package being aggressively peddled by Washington and the reported victory by conservative Juan Orlando Hernandez of the ruling National Party over left-leaning LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro has further entrenched Honduras’ increasingly rightist economic orientation, although Castro is contesting the results.

Pro-democratic forces in the hemisphere are not likely to mount an argument against Kerry’s support for increased access to education nor a shared economic prosperity, the use of renewable and clean energy, and other laudable economic and social goals. There are different approaches, however, to how those goals should be achieved that are derived from deep ideological differences among member states of the OAS about the degree to which democracy should be extended to economic and social spheres. If the US is to successfully respect these differences, an end to the Monroe Doctrine would include a termination of security arrangements that enable anti-drug forces to abuse human rights;  the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly SOA); an end to the embargo against Cuba; and a commit to non-intervention, even in states that seek to redistribute wealth and implement structural change. It must be their, and not Washington’s, decision to make.

The US is unlikely to embrace such a change of course, but seems to be in an ideological holding pattern. Here is the dilemma: Washington has been largely committed to transnational corporate interests and the neoliberal policies that afford privileges for those interests in Latin America, yet the Obama Administration also recognizes that it is more likely to remain a major economic player in the region by dredging out a role of being a “good neighbor.” Our neighbors are not just states and political parties, but the indigenous movements, social movements, and  popular sectors that are transforming the political and cultural landscape. These movements are linked to people to people ties between the North and South that have been building networks of solidarity for decades. It is in the interests of constituents in all of the Americas to unite and join the effort, through genuine democratic procedures, to overcome the inequality, militarism, and needless human suffering  that still plagues the western hemisphere.

Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action

For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action