Latin America Skeptical of U.S. Immigration Debate

By Aaron Bell

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Photo Courtesy of Larry Engel

Latin America’s subdued response to the immigration reform debate in the United States reflects a region-wide skepticism buttressed by the recent history of unfulfilled expectations.  Mexican media and a handful of Central American counterparts across the board have identified the Republican Party as the primary impediment to progress.  Conservative editorialists in the region, many of whom denounce President Obama and the Democrats as political opportunists rather than legitimate advocates for immigration reform, have also expressed frustration with the Republicans for not coming up with a better approach.  In particular, they think the party’s digging its own political grave by failing to rein in members and supporters who smear Hispanic immigrants as a threat to the ethnic identity of the United States.  Some have fond memories of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which balanced security and enforcement with compassion and amnesty for undocumented migrants.

Mexico’s El Universal has been one of the most frequent contributors to the discussion of immigration reform, particularly with editorials giving greater attention to the human rights aspect of the debate.  They’ve called for reforms so that undocumented workers can “come out of the shadows,” so that families can stay together without fear of deportation, and so that harsh punishment meted out to undocumented workers caught crossing the border can come to an end.  The Mexican government has been relatively quiet on the issue of immigration reform in the previous decade, with the exception of a complaint lodged against Alabama’s HB 56, which requires police to take certain actions if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an immigrant is in the United States unlawfully.  But last summer Foreign Minister José Antonio Meade took to the pages of El Universal to complain that proposed enhanced border security measures were a detriment to regional development – and not a solution to immigration problems.

Public opinion data on Latin American views of the reform debate is limited, though circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between reforms and overall views of the United States.  Pew Research found that public opinion of the United States among Mexicans dipped sharply following the passage of Arizona SB 1070 in 2010, which laid the groundwork for HB 56.  Those numbers have since rebounded, with 66 percent of those polled holding favorable views of the United States in 2013, when many perceived that the Obama administration would achieve a positive outcome in the reform debate.  Although critical of Republican approaches, commentators who support reforms are not inherently in favor of the Democratic Party.  Only half of those Mexicans polled held a favorable view of the Obama administration, and some commentators have noted the high number of deportations on Obama’s watch.  For Latin American observers, humane and fair treatment for migrant workers and immigrants is the primary concern – and neither party appears poised to deliver.  The region’s skepticism that this round of debate over immigration reform will produce anything new appears at the moment to be warranted. 

September 11 Coup in Chile: Global Ramifications

By Eric Hershberg

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

Chilean Grape export photo by Dick Howe Jr CC-BY-NC Flickr / Indictment of Pinochet, Photo by a-birdie CC-BY-NC Flickr

In Washington last week many events recalled the bloody coup of September 11, 1973, which overthrew the Popular Unity government of Chilean Socialist President Salvador Allende and ushered in a dictatorship that, even by South American standards of the time, stood out for its brutality.  Discussion about “the other September 11” highlighted the human cost of the coup, the role of U.S. government agencies in undermining Chilean democracy and encouraging the military’s actions, and the memories of the coup and dictatorship that remain deeply embedded in Chile today.  These and similar gatherings around the world and in Chile featured demands for the full truth about the dictatorship’s crimes – the fate of some thousand of the disappeared remains unknown today, according to the Human Rights Observatory of the Diego Portales University – and to hold those who committed them fully accountable.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet destroyed Latin America’s longest standing democratic regime and ended a unique experiment testing the proposition that electoral democracy could catalyze a transition to socialism.  In Chile, the coup initiated 17 years of military rule grounded in state-sponsored violence, but it also resonated far beyond that country’s borders, marking a watershed in global affairs.  To this day how people around the world conceive fundamental issues of political change, economic development and human rights is affected by September 11, 1973.  These broader legacies were the focus of a panel discussion at American University, co-sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies and the Washington College of Law, this week.  (Click here for details.)

We can now see three large sets of consequences that the Chilean coup had far beyond its borders. 

Political:  Across Southern Europe, it reverberated powerfully, undermining the confidence of sectors of the Left that believed fervently a socialist transition could be effected through victory at the ballot box.  After the coup, Eurocommunists in Italy and Spain came to believe that victory would require an alliance with Christian Democrats or other centrists, lest a coup coalition akin to that in Chile bring down democracy altogether. For much of the Latin American left, the Chilean experience would over time prove a wake-up call, alerting those aspiring to turn the world upside down that democracy was not a mere bourgeois luxury and suggesting that “second-best” options – more gradual change –were preferable to maximalist goals that would likely jeopardize democracy.

Economic: The coup paved the way for “neoliberal” policies that would shake the foundations of conventional thinking about development for nearly three decades.  They were prescribed across Latin America.  It would not be until the emergence of ALBA in the mid-2000’s that the region would again witness a faith (however misguided), in the capacity of import-substitution and inward-oriented redistribution to achieve lasting economic advance in the region. 

U.S. policy:  Finally, the coup set in train levels of violence and human rights abuses so abhorrent that they drove major changes in U.S. human rights policy and international jurisprudence.  In the United States, advocacy organizations, progressive majorities in Congress, and the Carter Administration introduced unprecedented legislation aimed at preserving democracy and curbing human rights abuses.  Well beyond Washington, numerous international regimes put in place to combat impunity were motivated and influenced by what had taken place in Chile and the imperative of ensuring that it not happen again.  

Just as the cataclysmic event that took place in the U.S. on 9/11/01 opened the door to extreme and ongoing changes felt around the world, so too did the Chilean tragedy that began on 9/11/73.

Will the U.S. support controls on security contractors in Latin America?

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

An upcoming conference in Switzerland will test U.S. willingness to make good on its rhetorical support for greater control over private contractors involved in wars or similar circumstances.  The “Montreux plus five” conference in December will discuss implementation of the Montreux Document, which lays out legal obligations and “best practices” for countries that hire “Private Military and Security Companies” (PMSCs) during armed conflict.  The process emerged in 2008 to reiterate state responsibilities after contractors were found to be deeply involved in incidents in Iraq – including the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and a confrontation at Nissour Square in which 17 civilians were killed.  The United States, which participated in discussions of the Document and endorsed it, has been developing its own “standards” based on it.

Although the PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their alleged involvement in human rights abuses – are most widely known, security contractors are deeply engaged in U.S. efforts in Latin America related to the “war on drugs.”  In the 2005-2009 period, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC collectively received counternarcotics contracts in Latin America worth a total of $1.8 billion.  The contracts include provision of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, information technology, and communications equipment.  Lockheed Martin received contracts for training, equipment, and other services in Colombia and Mexico. Yet the majority (Democratic) staff of the subcommittee on contracting oversight of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded in 2010 that neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense had adequate systems to track the implementation of counternarcotics contracts.  Referring to contract and accounting errors, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told the subcommittee chairman that it “does not … maintain discrete records of such occurrences since these challenges routinely occur at the embassies.”

The subcommittee’s focus was on contracting anomalies, but publicly acknowledged incidents – such as DynCorp’s violation of guidelines governing coca eradication in Colombia – suggest oversight over operations is also lacking.  In Colombia, for example, two cases of rape of a minor involving U.S. contractors were reported yet remain uninvestigated, and in Mexico a contractor appears to have been involved in torture training.

PMSCs often carry out their work within the dark interstices of sensitive operations – beyond the government’s immediate operational control but functioning with its imprimatur and expecting its protection when things go wrong.  The U.S. Senate’s acknowledgement of the need for better management and oversight over them has not driven significant reforms yet.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are any guide, problems with the monitoring of expenditures are the tip of the iceberg.  Security contractors tend to run rough over human rights, and they are often a source of tensions with both governments and the population in host countries.  The use of security contractors without effective monitoring is a source of diplomatic tension within the region as well.  DynCorp’s aerial eradication operations, for example, provoked Ecuador to file suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Colombia dispersed toxic herbicides into Ecuadoran territory, damaging human health, property and the environment.  The two countries recently resolved the dispute, but the case illustrates the risk of outsourcing sensitive operations to contractors without careful monitoring.

The Snowden Case: Provocations and Intimidation

By Fulton T. Armstrong

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

Edward Snowden / Photo credit: zennie62 / Foter / CC BY-ND

The rhetoric and diplomatic jostling surrounding the flight of American whistleblower (or, depending on perspective, criminal leaker) Edward Snowden have once again thrust to the fore Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region.  Some Latin American presidents have seemed to go out of their way to prick U.S. sensitivities, and Washington seems to have gone out of its way to stomp on Latin American sensitivities.  Both sides have been happy to live up to the caricatures of themselves held by the other, but both sides’ interests have been harmed in the process.

The drama started, of course, while Snowden was in hiding in Hong Kong, and it has dragged on as he’s resided in a transit lounge of the Moscow airport.  U.S. media, which in the past have published stories casting Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and others as eager to poke the U.S. in the eye, ran pieces – shifting attention to Latin America – and away from China and Russia’s even bigger slap in Washington’s face in refusing to hand the leaker over.  Reporters believed their own rumors and piled into an Aeroflot plane bound for Cuba.  Washington rolled out the big guns, including Vice President Biden, to discourage the Latin Americans from offering Snowden any help – and seemed to have success.  Ecuador, which has protected Wikileaks boss Julian Assange from British, Swedish and U.S. pursuit, initially welcomed Snowden but, after a phone call from Washington, pointed out that an asylum petition could not be considered until he arrived in country.  The crisis between the U.S. and Latin America deepened, however, when several European countries – presumably responding to U.S. pressure and bad U.S. intelligence – closed their airspace to Bolivian President Morales, who someone, somewhere, suspected of flying Snowden out of Moscow on the president’s return home.  Latin American condemnation exploded.

Venezuelan President Maduro, stating that that he wanted “to protect this young man from the persecution unleashed by the world’s most powerful empire,” publicly offered Snowden asylum on Friday.  That move ended the slight progress Caracas and Washington had made toward rapprochement– evident since the OAS General Assembly in June – and bilateral relations will surely worsen.  But the Obama Administration’s relations with Latin America writ large don’t appear likely to fare much better.  Some leaders’ rhetoric may be over the top, but Washington’s language has been threatening, and its actions speak louder than its words.  An unidentified senior U.S. official told the New York Times that “there is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point,” adding that any aid for Mr. Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.” Such statements leave one wondering whether we are approaching the point where this administration will cease proclaiming its commitment to a new era of US-Latin America relations characterized by partnership and respect among equals.  Transcripts of Mr. Biden’s calls will not be released, but rarely do countries reverse their positions publicly in the absence of either serious threats or generous inducements – and few clear-thinking Ecuadorans, tracking the Administration’s attitudes toward President Correa, see the latter as in the cards.  In pressuring its European allies to establish a no-fly zone to keep a head of state from returning home, Washington took an action that many Latin Americans – not without a grain of truth – believe it would never take against a region that it respected.  Repairing the damage of el asunto Snowden will be hard for both sides, but Washington has the bigger task ahead.

 

U.S.-China: Competing over Central America and the Caribbean?

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

The recent visits to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama (and Vice President Biden to Trinidad and Tobago) suggest a handoff from Washington to Beijing of the role as the region’s sugar-daddy, but not a strategic shift in influence.  The presidents’ visits were similar in their innocuous itineraries.  Both got pompous welcomes; met with “real” citizens (Xi ate empanaditas de chiverre with a coffee farmer); and praised the bilateral relationships.  Both held sub-regional summits – Obama in San José and Xi in Port of Spain.  Both repackaged ongoing or recently negotiated projects as new “accords.”  Obama pledged another $150 million a year for funding the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), part of the strategy started under President Bush to counter the drug trade and related threats.  Xi got headlines in Costa Rica for providing more than $1.5 billion for refinery and road projects and to purchase replacement taxis and buses from Chinese manufacturers.  Significantly, China is also building Costa Rica’s new National Police Academy – the sort of project Washington used to thrive on.

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Despite the similarities, the visits had different orientations and feel.  Xi’s principal task appeared to be to open his checkbook, while Obama’s main deliverable was a policy shift – the welcome word that Washington was pulling back from making its top regional priority the interdiction of narcotics produced in South America and transiting the isthmus on their way to consumers in the United States.  According to press reports, despite the continued CARSI funding, Obama had absorbed Costa Rican President Chinchilla’s complaint last year at a summit with Biden that it was unfair that Central Americans were dying in efforts to stop narcotics that Americans use.  The media tried to give the two presidents equal coverage, but the disparity became obvious.  The Chinese distributed copies of the China Daily (in English) even into the San José suburbs, whereas Obama didn’t need to do his own publicity.  Despite whiffs of resentment about airport and street closures, the papers covered all of Obama’s events with affectionate quotes from government and common folk alike – and showed people, including a kid dressed as Spider-Man, waving to his motorcade.  La Nación, on the other hand, reported that school children cheering a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The goodies each president brought created little excitement – and no small amount of skepticism.  Important details about China’s offer to help repair the Costa Rican gasoline refinery remain unknown, and Chinese cars already have a bad reputation.  China’s handouts aren’t going to be turned down, of course, and Xi’s pledge to buy more Costa Rican coffee (now about 5 percent of what Japan buys) and to encourage Chinese tourists to travel to the country (now a micro-percentage of visitors) are welcome.  Obama’s CARSI funding looks like bureaucracy on autopilot.  Few Central Americans can cite concrete benefits from the seven-year-old Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States either, and the general impression – reinforced by Secretary Kerry’s recent reference to the region as the U.S. “backyard” – is that Washington is yielding the playing field to China.  But the natural ties and strategic mutual interests between Central America and the United States remain strong and give the United States, should it wish to fill it, ample space to play a positive role in the region’s future beyond programs on autopilot.

South America and the United States after Chávez

By Tom Long

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | Foter.com | CC BY

Banco del Sur | Photo by: Presidencia de la N. Argentina | Foter.com | CC BY

In many depictions, South America’s relations with the United States have been structured around Hugo Chávez for much of the last decade.  So it is natural for the region to wonder where U.S. policy will head now that he is gone.  In the Bush Administration’s framework – which the Obama Administration has largely continued – Chávez and his closest allies in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina were an emerging anti-American axis.  Colombia and Chile were considered Washington’s last bastions of support, and Brazil under Presidents Lula and Dilma variously positioned itself as a quiet moderator or, on occasion, private fan of the estrangement between the unruly ALBA countries and the United States.  With Chávez’s passing, the narrative will change.

Although Chávez’s charisma, boundless energy, seductive regional pride, and resumption of Venezuela’s traditional oil subsidies made him larger than life, the depth and endurance of his influence was exaggerated by friends and foes alike.  Elements of his vision of a “Bolivarian” Latin America united in resisting U.S. influence have always been present and always will be, but the dynamic Chávez sought, with himself at its center, seems likely to fade fast.  Bolivia’s President Morales was the closest to being a protégé, but even he has been compelled by domestic politics to give priority to relations with Washington. Ecuador’s President Correa was never as close to Chávez and largely steered his own independent course. Chavez’s detractors had tired of using him as a foil as well.  For years no Latin American leader had found tangling with Caracas – thereby giving Chávez the attention he craved – to be worthwhile.  Since Álvaro Uribe’s departure, even Colombia, apparently taking a cue from the oil-hungry United States, has made trade a bigger priority than criticizing its erratic neighbor.  Many high-profile Venezuelan initiatives for the continent, such as the Banco del Sur, fizzled.  Despite Chávez’s role in their founding, even UNASUR and CELAC had grown away from his personal leadership.

Concerns in Washington that someone will take Chávez’s place as counterweight to U.S. influence seem at least five years out of date.  There is no candidate with both the desire and ability to assume Chávez’s mantle.  Just as the benefits of close cooperation with the United States have declined, most leaders have little to gain from overt conflict.  South American international relations have already grown considerably more complex, as countries developed their own responses to Chávez without taking orders from either Washington or Caracas.  The trend of increasing autonomy is natural and, in ways, inevitable – even though it may be irksome to some in Washington, who are skeptical of Latin Americans’ commitment to what Washington thinks should be a shared interpretation of democracy, trade and counternarcotics policy.

The Overlooked Dimension of U.S. Immigration Reform

By Eric Hershberg

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

Immigration reform rally | by Anuska Sampedro | Flickr | Creative Commons

The 2012 U.S. presidential elections brought national attention to the Latino vote and, with it, immigration reform.  Embarking on his second term, President Obama immediately labeled the matter a priority, and some but not all of the Republican leadership is eager to reach a deal.  Beyond electoral calculations, there are many good reasons for Washington to finally resolve the status of roughly 11 million people living in the United States without legal documentation.  The border with Mexico has become increasingly impermeable, stripping critics of reform of one of their principal talking points.  Virtually all credible studies demonstrate that immigrants contribute more to the tax base than they receive from public expenditures, and they are a crucial source of community revitalization in some of the nation’s depressed cities and towns.  Meanwhile, a generation of youth brought to the country as young children – the “Dreamers” – languishes without recognition of their de facto status as Americans.  There are also humanitarian issues: families and neighborhoods are torn apart by the more than 400,000 deportations in each of the past several years.

Immigration reform matters to Latin America as well.  With millions of Latin Americans residing in the United States, several of the region’s economies are highly dependent on a steady flow of remittances, which are destined to increase if undocumented workers come out of the shadows.  In 2012, Mexico and Central America received more than $35 billion from migrants in the U.S.  Particularly striking is the case of El Salvador, a U.S. ally.  Nearly a third of its population lives in the U.S., and remittances surpass all other sources of revenue – now 16 percent of GDP.  For several Central American governments the welfare of migrants working in the U.S. is not only a humanitarian concern: these citizens are a crucial foundation for economic viability – and thus nothing less than a national security priority.

Yet remarkably absent from the U.S. immigration debate are the implications of a comprehensive reform for the eroded credibility of the U.S. in Latin America.  Virtually alone among senior officials, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged soon before leaving her post that creating a pathway to citizenship “will be a huge benefit to us in the region, not just in Mexico, but further south.”  The point merits emphasis.  The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform, the result of domestic policy shortcomings, has serious consequences for U.S. standing in the region – as serious as other policy failures such as Washington’s continued inability to normalize relations with Cuba, to stop illicit gun exports, or to stem the demand for illicit drugs that is fueling violence and corruption across the region.  If the new administration wishes to avoid a replay of the open rebellion by Latin American governments against U.S. policy that emerged at last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, it would do well to show the region that it is willing and able to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Is Chairman Menendez the Right U.S. Signal for Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, Professors of Government, American University School of Public Affairs

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez | by Talk Radio News Service | Flickr | Creative Commons

Fresh and credible allegations about U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s bullying of Latin American governments and influence-peddling for political cronies raise further doubts about what Washington is signaling to the region – and the implications for U.S. relevance in the second Obama Administration.  Secretary of State Kerry’s successor as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez is now a major architect of U.S. policy, and his activities and policies are an indication of U.S. intentions around the world, especially in Latin America, which has been the focus of much of the Senator’s attention.

Media reports have documented well how Menendez persistently intervened on behalf of a wealthy campaign donor to pressure the government of the Dominican Republic to institute port security programs over legitimate objections of local authorities.  When Dominican officials appropriately exercised their duties and pointed out that the donor lacked expertise for the exorbitantly priced contract, Menendez only turned up the heat.  This was consistent with an ongoing pattern of behavior.  In 2011, according to reliable sources, Menendez demanded a U.S. policy of forcing the government of El Salvador to fire a cabinet minister he did not like, clearing the way for the military to capture the position.  Earlier, when the OAS opened discussions on whether to lay out conditions for Cuba’s readmission to the hemispheric body, he threatened to cut all of its U.S. funding.  A self-proclaimed champion of “democracy promotion” and “accountability” in Latin America, the New Jersey Democrat never missed a chance to criticize centrist or left-leaning governments.  Governments in the region are not the sole targets of his interventions:  Menendez has used his influence to intimidate bureaucrats throughout the U.S. foreign policy community into either supporting his initiatives or, at least, turning a blind eye to them.

Latin American opinion-makers grew accustomed to Menendez’s ways during his tenure (2010‑12) as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on the western hemisphere, but his ascension to the chair of the full committee from within Obama’s own party makes his voice – and style – much more important.  His influence-peddling for his buddies’ business interests – at the expense of other U.S. government and foreign partners’ priorities – can only fuel greater cynicism about U.S. preachiness on anticorruption and “democracy promotion.”  It also further risks U.S. relevance at a time that many in the region remain hopeful of a revival of President Obama’s short-lived emphasis on “partnership” in the “neighborhood.”  The investigations into Menendez’s activities may run into serious obstacles – many bureaucrats fear his ire, and will be reluctant to talk – but it’s already clear that his bullying and influence-peddling make him the wrong person for a leadership role in U.S. policy toward Latin America. 

High Time for a U.S.-Bolivia Reset

By Rob Albro, CLALS Faculty Affiliate

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Evo Morales in a climate meeting at the University of Oslo | by Utenriksdept | Flickr | Creative Commons

Little has changed in the U.S-Bolivia relationship since each expelled the other’s ambassador and suspended full diplomatic ties in 2008.  Last month a Bolivian official accused the United States of trying to sabotage the administration of President Evo Morales, and Morales has not dropped his pugnacious anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Washington, for its part, has persistently criticized Bolivian anti-drug policies, while not acknowledging the failures of its own decades-long “war on drugs.”  As discussions surrounding Secretary of State Kerry’s January 24 confirmation hearing suggested, U.S. policy toward several Latin American countries – including Bolivia – is still on Cold War autopilot, continuing to use code-words like “socialism,” implicitly and incorrectly viewing the recent and historic changes in that country largely through the prisms of Venezuela and Cuba.

Along with many observers outside of Washington, the Bolivian government understands itself to be addressing long-standing demands to correct a historical lack of social inclusion, to institute a more participatory (and “plurinational”) democratic process, and to pursue economic sovereignty.  In notable contrast to Venezuela, with which Bolivia is often lumped together, the country’s long-marginalized indigenous majority is in the national political driver’s seat for the first time.  Despite Morales’s rhetoric to the contrary, Bolivia is far from rejecting the free market. It recently applied for full participation in MERCOSUR, and has welcomed foreign investment in its sizable petroleum and lithium deposits. Along with Peru and Ecuador, Bolivia has also sought ways to maintain economic growth while protecting the environment and avoiding unsustainable extractivist policies.  Bolivia’s is a hybrid approach: mixing an alternative democratic tradition domestically with the promotion of Bolivia Inc. globally.

It is past time for Washington to move on from its one-size-fits-all approach toward Andean countries, and to take more seriously the perspectives and priorities of their peoples and governments.  And Bolivia’s recent history provides ample opportunity for the U.S. to identify common – if not identical – ground.  Morales’s frequent statement that Bolivia is looking for “partners, not bosses” echoes President Obama’s own 2009 speech about “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.” Obama’s recent inaugural call for more effective “collective action” resonates with the spirit of Bolivia’s ongoing plurinational democratic experiment.  And if climate change is back on the U.S. political agenda, Bolivia continues to be a global catalyst for this important multilateral discussion. Emphasizing these shared problems, experiences, and aspirations, can provide a foundation for closer relations.

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,024 other followers