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U.S. Presidential Candidates’ Rhetoric on Latin America

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Colombia’s President Uribe Goes Dangerously Ballistic

    • Colombian President in effect has terminated the hostage release program by resorting to bombs not diplomacy in resolving his dispute with FARC guerillas.
    • Speculation over the possible U.S. role in the affair and whether U.S. trainers, helicopters, satellite imaging, intelligence and smart bombs were supplied.

On Saturday, the Colombian air force attacked a FARC camp site in Ecuador, a mile from the Colombian border resulting in the death of Raul Reyes (Luis Edgar Devia Silva), the second in command of the FARC, and seventeen other members of his unit. Both Ecuador and Venezuela reacted with outrage, with Ecuador immediately recalling its ambassador (Venezuela previously had done so) and ordering their troops to their respective borders with Colombia in response to the air strike and subsequent incursion by Colombian helicopters ordered by President Alvaro Uribe into Ecuador.

What is particularly worrisome about this entire scenario is the strong possibility of U.S. involvement in the incident and what role, if any, Southcom had in planning, supplying and carrying out the operation. There are good grounds to speculate that the entire game plan seems to have been carried out at too sophisticated a level by a Colombian military which normally is dismissed as incompetent, corrupt, drug sodden and ill-deposed to risk dangers.

While there is no evidence to buttress such surmises, the U.S. role could have involved the supply of intelligence based on satellites and heat sensors, a supply of smart bombs and the seconding of some of the scores of U.S. trainers in the country to cooperate in carrying out the initiative. In addition, there could have been possible authorization of the use of Black Hawk helicopters provided under the auspices of Plan Colombia, the multi billion dollar U.S. military aid program which transformed Colombia into being the third largest recipient of such U.S. assistance in the world.

Caracas and Quito have called the attack “cowardly and cold” and have argued that Ecuadorian air and ground space were clearly violated and there was no justification for such foreign military action on Ecuadorian soil. Chávez also said that if such an attack had been duplicated on Venezuelan soil, Caracas would consider declaring war on Colombia.

Ecuador has withdrawn its ambassador to Colombia, expelled the Colombian ambassador in Quito, while Venezuela has ordered 10 battalions to the border for possible military action.

There is no question that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has dangerously escalated the tension now mounting in the northern arc of South America. Uribe’s decision to take such violent action just at the time that the tempo of FARC’s release of some of the estimated 750 hostages it was holding was being stepped up, has to be seen as a very strange development when one considers that the Colombian President had previously sacked Chávez last November for his successful record in arranging the release of several hostages thus, there may be other matters on Uribe’s agenda rather than just hostage release. Uribe is also risking the $6 billion a year in bilateral trade between Venezuela and Colombia and he may be hoping that Chávez’s decision to send 10 battalions of troops to the Colombia-Venezuela border may be put to good use in convincing Congressional Democrats to give up their opposition to approving the bilateral free trade agreement that the Bush administration has signed with Bogota, due to Colombia’s stalwart fight against “terrorism.” The Democrats now oppose such passage because the Colombian security forces have a repellant reputation for gunning down the country’s labor leaders.

The question is how prudent was Uribe’s dangerously precipitous action. Without question, Colombia’s Darth Vader has ordered operations before that have violated the territorial boundaries of his neighbors, such as using Colombian intelligence forces to collaborate with Venezuelan mercenaries to penetrate that country’s territory to abduct the FARC`s Rodrigo Granda, who later was released after France’s Nicolas Sarkozy persuaded Uribe to let him go after Colombia’s tensions with Caracas continued to escalate.

The Audacity of Vagueness: Barack Obama and Latin America by COHA Senior Research Fellow Nikolas Kozloff

As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has not been very eager to comprehensively address Latin America as an issue. In recent years, the region has undergone a major tectonic shift towards the left, surely prompting many to wonder how the young Illinois Senator might deal with progressive change throughout the hemisphere were he elected to the White House.

Would he seek to continue the rabidly hawkish stance of the Bush administration towards such nations as Venezuela, or could he be convinced to broker a rapprochement? Given his statements to date, it’s unlikely that Obama would be as militaristic or confrontational as McCain, whose anti-democratic positions are detailed in my last COHA report (“Latin America and the U.S. Presidential Campaign: Nikolas Kozloff on John McCain”). However, Obama’s vagueness is a little troubling, and unfortunately, a compliant press corps has failed to aggressively pressure him to state his positions more clearly. Oddly, Obama doesn’t even mention Latin America on his campaign website.

Colombia: Some Cautious First Steps

Though you wouldn’t know it from watching TV news or reading most newspapers, the Colombian civil conflict continues even today, and the U.S. government still funnels billions of dollars in military aid to the right-wing regime of Álvaro Uribe. The policy is a complete and total misuse of U.S. taxpayer funds, not to mention a means of support for human rights abuses in that unfortunate Andean nation.

What does Obama have to say about this serious matter? He has explained that the flow of drugs from Colombia should be reduced, and has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with the Uribe administration (which has been tied to right-wing paramilitary death squads). In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.

“The problem,” Obama wrote, “is compounded by the Colombian government’s questionable implementation of the paramilitary demobilizations.” To his credit, Obama took a strong stance in his letter advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks. The government, Obama argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then “maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify.”

When push came to shove, however, Obama failed to join his liberal colleague Russ Feingold in pressuring the Colombian government to address these problems. In July 2005, Feingold, as well as Senators Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, called on Rice not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions until greater progress was made on a series of issues. Where was Obama? Unfortunately, the Senator failed to sign the letter.

On the other hand, Obama did join Dodd and Leahy in criticizing Nicholas Burns, the outgoing Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who played down the Colombian problem on the pages of the Miami Herald. The Illinois legislator also gave his support to a letter signed by Dodd and Leahy and addressed to Uribe. In it, the senators expressed concern over public statements by some government officials, including President Uribe, which have led to attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and other members of civil society. “A more peaceful, just, and stable Colombia is undoubtedly in our national interest,” Obama has remarked.

Those are surely compelling words, but Obama’s critics may very well be right when they accuse Obama of not offering tangible solutions. Colombia’s problems are rooted in historic and social inequities, and the unequal distribution of land. The War on Drugs prosecuted by Washington and Bogotá has exacerbated such tensions.

How does Obama intend to resolve the intractable civil conflict in Colombia? Would he continue the counterproductive War on Drugs for an indefinite period, even though it has proven tremendously costly in human terms? The Illinois Senator needs to do more than simply offer up polite and diplomatic protestations to the Bush White House and must come up with a plan of his own.

From Bush to Obama

All of this is not meant to suggest that Obama would be incapable of articulating a more creative foreign policy in the region. To his credit once again, Obama praised Latin American countries for carrying out recent elections which have brought left-leaning governments to power. “In many ways,” Obama noted in a March 2007 speech, “these election results symbolize the important political, economic, and social changes occurring throughout the Americas. As many have noted, the elections gave voice to a yearning across the hemisphere for social and economic development – a yearning among tens of millions of people for a better life.”

In contrast to John McCain, who excoriates the rise of leftist regimes such as those of Chávez and Evo Morales in Bolivia, Obama views some of these political developments in Latin America positively. Though he did not state the names of individual regimes in his speech, Obama remarked that recent electoral trends in Latin America were a “welcome development.” In a jab perhaps aimed at the Bush administration’s interventionist regional foreign policy, Obama added a new twist: “too often, change in the Americas has occurred in an anti-democratic fashion. Those days must permanently be put to rest.”

Continuing to lash out at the President, Obama noted that “our [United States’] standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush Administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by six years of neglect and mismanagement of relations.”

On a high note, Obama added that, “If we pay careful attention to developments throughout the region, and respond to them in a thoughtful and respectful way, then we can advance our many and varied national interests at stake in the Americas.” Moreover, Obama hit Bush hard for neglecting Latin America and failing to deliver much needed economic aid. Obama remarked that with the exception of HIV/AIDS funding, Bush has slashed assistance for both economic development and health programs in the Americas. In contrast, Obama pledged to help alleviate poverty in the region, an initiative “which is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values.”

Obama and Afro-Latinos

Though Obama has not focused on Latin America nearly as much as some of his Senate colleagues, such as Patrick Leahy, have urged him to do, the Illinois lawmaker has taken a long-standing interest in the plight of Afro-Latinos. Early in his Senate career, Obama declared that “From Colombia to Brazil to the Dominican Republic to Ecuador, persons of African descent continue to experience racial discrimination and remain among the poorest and most marginalized groups in the entire region. While recent positive steps have been taken in some areas–for example, giving land titles to Afro-Colombians and passing explicit anti-discrimination legislation in Brazil—much work still needs to be done to ensure that this is the beginning of an ongoing process of reform, not the end.”

Obama noted that Afro-Latinos were more likely to become refugees or victims of violence within areas of conflict in their own countries. Obama went on to detail the many problems faced by Afro-Latinos, such as a lack of access to health services and a high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Moreover, Obama added that Afro-Latinos were subject to far greater rates of aggression from local police forces than are generally perceived.

Obama lamented the fact that in the previous Senate, there was not one mention of the millions of Afro-Latinos who continued to experience widespread discrimination and socioeconomic marginalization. “Emerging civil society groups are growing stronger throughout many countries in Latin America, and this growth should be encouraged as it presents important opportunities for partnerships and collaboration,” Obama said.

In another speech, Obama spoke eloquently on the subject of Afro-Latinos. “In the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” he said, “our own country is being awakened to a great divide in our midst. As we struggle with troubling intersections of race and class, and how we have failed the most vulnerable members of our population, I hope we will be able to take a moment to reflect on similar struggles in places such as Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.”

Obama has praised the Uribe government for creating a cabinet-level position on Afro-Colombian issues and appointing an Afro-Colombian to fill the post. He noted the political importance and symbolism of the move: Afro-Colombians have long been subject to racial and economic discrimination in the country.

“It is my hope that this will encourage other governments in Latin America to consider taking additional measures to address racial discrimination,” Obama said, “as well as economic and social marginalization, faced by Afro-descendants in their countries.”

However, as the Senator is surely aware, the Chávez government has made great strides in addressing the plight of Afro-Venezuelans, while Uribe only began to confront this problem recently. Chávez, for example, has created a special commission to address racism in Venezuelan society, “and has seen fit to include a special provision in his constitution that protects the rights of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous peoples. In Barlovento, a coastal region populated mainly by Afro-Venezuelans, one can vividly witness the degree to which the poor have benefited from the government’s health and education programs.

Chávez: The Political Hot Potato

While praising Colombia, a controversial U.S. ally, for its positive steps to address the racial divide, Obama is wrong to show such caution when it comes to Venezuela. If anything, Chávez has done far more to help people of African descent than Uribe, but the Senator hasn’t singled out the Venezuelan leader for his excellent track record. That’s not surprising given the virulently anti-Chávez mood in Washington on both sides of the party divide, but it raises questions about Obama’s level of sophistication regarding political developments in Venezuela, not to mention his strategy for dealing with Chávez. What does Obama think about the National Endowment for Democracy, for example, and the U.S. role in the April 2002 coup? Would Obama seek to fundamentally reorient U.S. policy and end its prejudicial support for anti-Chávez groups in the country?

Obama’s foreign policy advisers, such as Samantha Power, have been frustratingly (and some might say infuriatingly) vague as to what Obama’s policy might be. When Power was specifically asked on Democracy Now! to elaborate on Obama’s views about Chávez, she only said that her candidate would engage with the Venezuelan leader “in a more intelligent way.”
Obama, claimed Power, was very aware of the troubled history between the United States and Latin America, as well as the latter’s “suspicion of U.S. motives.” Obama, she added, would respect both the right to self determination and the dignity of Latin American countries. On the other hand, Power said that she found Chávez “problematic” on the issue of human rights. If this is truly her point of view, she risks being on the wrong side of the debate, because Chávez’s human rights record compares favorably with most of his hemispheric counterparts.

In his public statements, Obama hasn’t cleared up his fundamental problem of vagueness regarding Chávez. Speaking with his supporters, Obama said Chávez had “despotic tendencies” and was using oil money to fan anti-Americanism. The Illinois Senator did, however, stir ripples when he declared in a CNN-YouTube debate that he would open diplomatic channels to “rogue nations” such as Venezuela. Though certainly mild, Obama’s remark quickly embroiled him in a political firestorm with his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who labeled him as “naïve”.

In the current political milieu, Obama deserves some praise for going out on a limb in the debate. Although he is still short on specifics, Obama has at least opened up a space for dialogue on both Venezuela and the relationship between the United States and newly emerging left-leaning regimes throughout the region. He’s still a relatively unknown on foreign policy but at least he hasn’t staked out a hawkish stand like John McCain, a politician who would surely continue the Bush legacy by antagonizing, bullying, and pushing around smaller, poorer countries who don’t go along with Washington’s traditional agenda.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008)

Barack Obama on Latin America by COHA Research Associate Monica Shah
In a February 2008 campaign rally in Alexandria, VA, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was applauded as he declared “Our Latin American policy can not just be ‘I oppose Castro’ and ‘I oppose Chavez.’” Even more applause was registered when he lamented the United States’ past neglect towards Latin America because, “We have been so obsessed with Iraq and the Middle East.” In his campaign strategy driven by ‘change’, Obama has strived for a different foreign policy towards Latin America in contrast to past presidents, and especially the catastrophic regional policies that were followed under the Bush administration’s Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, both of whom served as assistant secretary of state to Latin America, as well as a distempered John Bolton, a senior officer under Collin Powell.

In a 2007 statement to the Senate, Obama claimed, “As has been the case throughout the world, our standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush Administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by six years of neglect and mismanagement of relations,”—work that Obama has now pledged to engage in, including the matter of political prisoners in Cuba. The Illinois Senator and presidential contender also has a special interest in helping to revive stagnant aspects of the Mexican economy, which is among the primary causes of the influx of illegal immigrants to the United States.

Barack Obama believes that, “we ignore Latin America at our own peril”, and insists that Latin American countries are deserving of “mutual respect and dignity.” In contrast to President Bush and Hilary Clinton, Obama has stated that he would not need any “preconditions” before meeting with U.S.’s most bitter foes like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Cuba’s Raul Castro.

As Fidel Castro announced his resignation from office, Obama stated that it is, “the end of a dark era in Cuba’s history”. But in an effort to replace failed policies with effective ones, Obama has proposed to slowly ease the embargo that has existed for nearly five decades. He previously has voted twice against further funding of the U.S. anti-Castro television network, T.V. Marti, which relays propagandized news to Cuba. Furthermore, it costs tens of millions of dollars a year yet has only been able to reach a miniscule audience. In a 2007 Time Magazine article, Obama stated that, “A democratic opening in Cuba is, and should be, the foremost objective of our policy,” and later declared “I will grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island.”

In terms of trade, Obama has stated that he doesn’t oppose free trade but wants it to be fair and, “reflect the interests of workers and not just corporate profits.” He stated in the recent Ohio debate that he wants to ensure that NAFTA and any other agreement the U.S. signs has labor, environmental, and safety standards “that are going to protect not just workers, but also consumers.”

While some of his critics argue his foreign policy stands are naïve, Obama has a focused and positive concept of constructive engagement as well as a tough revaluation of the troubled state of U.S. hemispheric ties for the first time in decades.

McCain’s Perspective on Cuba, NAFTA and the Growing Threat of Chávez by COHA Research Associate Ruben Sierra

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate with the most harsh perspective and unyielding stance towards Cuba, views the recent transfer of power to Raul Castro as a merely superficial change in leadership, as he believes that Raul is cut from the same cloth as his brother. McCain also has promised that, if elected, he would take action towards punishing former president Fidel Castro for his government’s participation in shooting down an American military aircraft during the Cuban missile crisis. At a gathering with conservative representatives of Miami’s Cuban American community on January 21, 2008, McCain said he “would be prepared to open that investigation immediately. It seems to [him] that the radio intercepts show clearly that the shoot down of that airplane was orchestrated as an act by the Cuban government.” He also insisted that he’d only open up talks with the Cuban government once it implements free elections and released political prisoners.

On the same occasion, McCain was asked if he would loosen up regulations for Cuban exile families in order for them to visit their families back in Cuba. McCain refused to give a response, but he did prophesize that a post Castro “Cuba is destined to become an important ally in advancing democracy in [the western] hemisphere.” McCain also touched upon another important phenomenon in Latin America during a Cuban American conference – the role of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. McCain found that “Hugo Chávez is a threat in the region… The best way that we can handle Mr. Chávez in my view is to become independent of his oil… So my job as president of the United States is to get this country of ours into oil independence.” McCain may be the U.S. only presidential candidate that fully supports NAFTA, while other candidates have criticized some aspect or another of the free trade agreement. The presumptive Republican candidate believes that “NAFTA was a good idea” because “it’s created millions of jobs and it has helped the [Mexican, Canadian, and U.S.] economy.” Meanwhile, critics say that although NAFTA has increased Mexico’s GDP, the newfound wealth coming into the country is substantially concentrated in the upper class. Overall, McCain believes that “free trade is… vital for the future of America.”

Mike Huckabee’s View on the U.S. embargo against Cuba and NAFTA by COHA Research Associate Ruben Sierra

The Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee asserts that he will uphold the economic blockade against Cuba that his predecessors have done for over 40 years. Huckabee says that he is “committed to being a staunch ally in the cause of a free and democratic Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s communist totalitarian dictatorship has oppressed the Cuban people for nearly five decades” and “will oppose any efforts to lift trade and travel restrictions on the Cuban dictatorship and will veto any legislation seeking to lift these restrictions until [democratic] conditions are met.” However, Huckabee’s stance on the Cuban embargo is dramatically different from the one he advocated six years ago as governor of Arkansas.

In 2002, Mike Huckabee joined a bipartisan panel of politicians and business leaders who concluded that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba would stifle the development of U.S. businesses and called for the end of a failed policy. In a letter to President Bush on February 14, 2002, Huckabee wrote, “U.S. policy on Cuba has not accomplished its stated goal of toppling the Castro regime and instead has provided Castro with a convenient excuse for his own failed system of government” and “continues to harm our own agricultural and business interests here at home and has certainly not helped the people of Cuba.” Huckabee believed at the time that the embargo not only failed to accomplish its objective, but reinforced the Castro regime in Cuba, while hurting U.S. businesses. Huckabee’s dramatic flip-flop on the issue is an obvious attempt to appease hard-liners in the Cuban American community who support upholding the embargo.

On the topic of free trade and NAFTA, Huckabee states on his presidential campaign website that he “believe[s] in free trade, but it has to be fair trade.” Huckabee wants to implement a “FairTax” which he believes that “American companies are far less likely to move overseas and foreign companies are far more likely to come here and hire Americans to build and work in their new plants” under his policy. Huckabee also realizes the negative effects that free trade agreements like NAFTA have on the American and Mexican people. He said, “Behind the statistics, there are real families and real lives and real pain,” as a result of the loss of jobs under free trade.

Hillary Clinton on Latin America by COHA Research Associate Ashley Powdar

Hillary Clinton has taken a strict stance on opening dialogue with Cuba, which comes as little surprise as this was the policy which charactered her husband’s position on U.S.-Cuban relations throughout his presidency. Her strategy is that she will only speak with the new Cuban leader, Raul Castro, if there are any signs of advancing the island nation towards democracy, “I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening, because I think it’s important that they demonstrate clearly that they are committed to change the direction.” Clinton claimed in her February 21 debate with Senator Obama, that “releasing political prisoner[s], ending some of the oppressive practices on the press, [and] opening up the economy” are prerequisites for ensuing dialogue and relations between the two countries. Moreover, the New York Senator has condemned Barack Obama for welcoming dialogue without any prerequisites for change, stating that “I disagree with his continuing to say the he would meet with some of the worst dictators in the world without preconditions and without real, you know, understanding of what we would get from it.”

In addition to maintaining a strict stance towards Cuba, Clinton has made some cautious efforts to be critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), of which her husband, Bill Clinton, had been the major architect when he was President in 1994. But her position on the issue has led to the accusation that she has been inconsistent in her policies. In her 2003 book entitled Living History, Clinton argued in favor of her husband’s championing of NAFTA, stating that “Creating a free trade zone in North America — the largest free trade zone in the world — would expand U.S. exports, create jobs and ensure that our economy was reaping the benefits, not the burdens, of globalization.” Even before she announced that she was distancing herself from supporting NAFTA, arguing that in private she has always been a critic. In the recent debate, Clinton said “I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic. I’ve said it was flawed.” Despite her criticism, she stated that as president, she would first push for reform before completely discarding the agreement: “I would immediately have a trade timeout, and I would take that time to try to fix NAFTA by making it clear that we’ll have core labor and environmental standards in the agreement.”

Clinton mentioned that she will strengthen ties with Latin America, which will be guided by four priorities: promoting democratic governance, reducing extreme poverty, addressing the issue of energy resources and climate change, and lastly, enacting comprehensive immigration reform. She has also emphasized the need to create social equality within the Americas. Specifically, she would like to push for the bill sponsored by Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Congressman Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.), which creates a “Social Investment and Economic Development Fund for the Americas.” Clinton supports programs that provide cash assistance to families and strengthen access to education for the youth. Despite the fact that the New York Senator was almost unheard from on Latin American issues before the president campaign began, she now asserts that “As President, I will give Latin America the respect and attention it deserves.”