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U.S. Policy in Latin America: Naïve or Disingenuous?

This is not another posting about Honduras.  We’ve had enough of those and the back and forth. This is broader: about the general sense of drift of this administration’s policy in the region.  (Warning: this is a précis of a future article.) 

Is partnership really possible today in the Americas? For all the rhetoric and desire for collective action, the hemisphere is too divided, U.S. politics too polarized, and a number of Latin American countries too willing to shirk responsibility for that to happen.

President Barack Obama’s administration walked into office and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago talking about partnership in the hemisphere—a welcome refrain from recent years.  But if current events are any indication, the region doesn’t want partners it wants a punching bag.  Partnership assumes a level of shared values, responsibility and future.  The last eight months demonstrate everything but. 

First, the sad debate at the Summit of the Americas in April.  President Obama came armed with public adulation, a global honeymoon and a promise of partnership.  All the presidents of the hemisphere united; the first regional meeting with the newly elected President Obama, and what do the Latin American countries put on the agenda? Cuba. 

Anticipating the debate several days before the Summit the administration announced a lifting of the restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances. The move may have avoided a harsh, dead-end debate, but it also avoided a more serious discussion not just of Cuba but of all the other important issues that should have been on the table.  The lifting of the Cuban-American restrictions was hardly radical and the change didn’t get the hemisphere’s presidents around the table to address the central issue: the lack of democracy in Cuba.

Fast forward to the OAS General Assembly in San Pedro de Sula, Honduras—a country soon to be in the headlines again for its own crisis.   This time the region’s foreign ministers were gathered together in the midst of what seemed to be the world’s greatest financial crisis.  And the topic was officially to be crime and security—surely something that given rising crime rates (especially in Caracas) the countries would want to develop concrete proposals around, especially in Central America.  So, what did they discuss? Cuba and its re-admission into the OAS.  It’s not that Cuba wanted in.  They’d already said so.  But again a handful of countries were hell bent on embarrassing the U.S., and the rest followed. Never mind that by forcing the hand of the U.S. it only risked stiffening the back of pro-embargo folks in the U.S.  But the goal wasn’t to be constructive; it was to shame. Fortunately, the U.S. delegation in Honduras (in addition to spurning a late-night-visit by then President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya) outflanked the pro-Cuba lobby and just changed the terms of Cuba’s isolation from the OAS.  But what was the point?

Next the debate of the so-called U.S. bases in Colombia.  Let’s set the record clear here on two fronts: first, they aren’t bases—they are the expansion of the U.S. presence in Colombia in six bases for anti-narcotics purposes following the closing of the base in Manta, Ecuador; second, the U.S. had consulted with Brazil, despite their later protests to the contrary.  We’d expect Venezuela to complain, in large part because as a July 2009 Government Accounting Office report documents, Venezuela has become a major route for flights carrying narcotics out of Colombia; having U.S. bases next door only raises the risk they’ll be caught.  But U.S. soldiers and the U.S. Defense Department just make good anti-Yanqui baiting.  And who can resist that in Latin America, right?  Unfortunately, our supposed friends Brazil and Chile couldn’t

At about the same time, arms originally sold to Venezuela turned up in the hands of the terrorist FARC.  Specious concerns about a U.S. arms buildup versus the arming of an internationally recognized terrorist group…..the latter would get more attention from our partners, right?  No.   Instead, the governments in the hemisphere (predictably) rose to the bait and convened a meeting of the new UNASUR regional defense alliance.

Did they discuss arms transfers to a non-state actor known for kidnapping innocent citizens, enlisting child soldiers, protecting and running drugs, and responsible for the millions of internally displaced people in Colombia?  No. To them the real threat was the U.S.—a democratic country that doesn’t kidnap innocent citizens, doesn’t employ child soldiers…well, you get the point.  They devoted an almost full-day discussion about what the expansion of U.S. bases would mean for hemispheric security.   The FARC-Venezuela nexus….hardly nothing.

And next, of course, Honduras. Immediately after the June 28th coup that removed Mel Zelaya from power, the hemispheric community sprang into action and the U.S. cast its lot with them.  The OAS condemned the events of coup and, citing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, they voted to eject the de facto Honduran government from the multilateral body.  Then things got goofy.  Secretary General José Miguel Insulza tried to enter into Honduras with Mel Zelaya and then tried to broker a deal. But the OAS was already a damaged brand. It had failed to denounce Mel Zelaya when he overstepped his constitutional powers and then their leader accompanied him in his ill-advised, reckless attempt to return to reclaim his throne.

Again, it took U.S. leadership not partnership to break the deadlock. First the U.S. anointed Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate.  When that failed and the region appeared paralyzed before the situation the U.S. sent its own negotiators to move out of the crisis. 

I’ve argued here and elsewhere that the ideal situation would have been to return Zelaya in a neutered, temporary form and so not doing that was a great risk.  I still believe that.  But the clock ran out, and we were confronted with the November 29 elections. It was not the ideal context, but the international community had to move on and the previously scheduled elections presented an opportunity to do that. 

The US said that if the elections were transparent and free on election day, it was prepared to accept the winner and move on.  Whether U.S. diplomacy was an act of cowardice, courage or dishonesty at the time is open to debate, but the deadlock was broken. 

The policy shift split the hemisphere.  Though more and more countries are likely to join the U.S. in recognizing president-elect Pepe Lobo as time wears on, the immediate reaction in the region was sharp.  Brazil and Argentina, feeling that their position had been abandoned, publicly refused to recognize any victor in an election that had been held by a government that had come to power through a coup.  (Never mind the fact that only a few weeks earlier, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva warmly welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—a man elected in an openly fraudulent election in which afterward hundreds of protestors were detained and over 70 killed.

The notion of partnership—which seemed by this time more of a default position than a policy—was abandoned again.  Brazil had failed to take any leadership itself beyond hiding Zelaya in its embassy and then wrapped itself in its own moral hypocrisy about elections.  And the U.S. went it alone and then sought to bring along others—leadership, not partnership.

These last weeks have only underscored the essential fallacy of partnership in the hemisphere.  We’re past the era of broad-shared goals or values that can form the basis of collective efforts in the defense of security, democracy, and human rights.  Tough issues that require leadership are set aside in the name of solidarity and playing nice, or with the short-term goal of scoring a few cheap shots against the U.S.  Seeking that broad-based partnership that many assume the Obama administration meant in April this year is not in the U.S. national interest. 

This is not to call for unilateralism or a rejection of international norms at the expense of alliances and partners.  What it does point to is a more limited, pragmatic agenda: engaging on specific, discrete issues with countries—energy, trade, elections, human rights, climate change, multilateral negotiations, nuclear non-proliferation—when it is in the  specific national interests of regional neighbors.  Wishing for more is an exercise in futility and impotence.

How can the U.S. work to form these ad hoc alliances?  That discussion I’ll leave for the full article.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Obama’s Latin America policy, U.S.-Latin America policy, Honduran elections, Brazil-Honduras

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