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.

Colombia Peace Talks in Havana: Peace on the Horizon?

Photo by: “medea_material” | Flickr | Creatives Commons

The Colombian government and its old adversary, the FARC, are taking tentative steps toward peace.  After a brief delay, the two sides initiated negotiations on a five-point agenda in Havana this week and quickly showed signs of progress.  The FARC declared a unilateral, two-month truce – a step beyond what they granted the last time talks were held from 1999-2001 – without assurance that the Colombian government would reciprocate.  President Juan Manuel Santos, already criticized for the talks, has rejected a cease-fire so far and appears reluctant to double-down on his political bet.  If the truce holds, it would create a much improved environment for the talks.

Most commentators have stressed that the Colombian government is in a much better position now than a decade ago because the FARC has been beaten back militarily.  What has received less attention is how President Santos has put himself in a better position through important non-military reforms.  He has pressed through important measures such as the ley de víctimas, compensating those who have suffered from the conflict; the creation of a more independent judiciary; and agrarian reform measures intended to improve life in the countryside.  Santos is not about to adopt the FARC’s anti-capitalist line, but his policies have addressed some of the problems the guerrillas claim to be fighting to redress.  At the same time, nearly three-quarters of the Colombian people support the talks, according to a Gallup Colombia poll.

Stronger rhetorical support from the Obama Administration – even as it properly remains on the sidelines of the actual talks – would enhance the peace process.  Even an implicit U.S. guarantee of support for implementation of any accord would be a powerful boost to President Santos and help him face down criticism from ex-President Álvaro Uribe and his political allies.  It would also be a clear signal to Latin America that Washington supports social and economic reforms to attain peace and stability, not just military programs.  The Cuban government, accused of fomenting unrest in the past, has shown that it favors peace and undertaken this initiative apparently without expecting any quid pro quo from Colombia’s primary backer, the United States.  Chile and Venezuela have shown support as observers.  For the United States to hesitate, apparently in response to bombastic comments from the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, undermines U.S. influence and leadership on an important issue with hemispheric implications.

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.

Colombia: Giving Peace Talks Another Try

Photo by: ideas4solutions | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”  Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington.  U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.”  The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators.  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”

Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.”  Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered.  The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated.  The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down.  Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.

The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general.  Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part.  Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks.  Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process.  Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration.  The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force.  After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past.  Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.

NOTE:  This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks.  We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.

FARC Activity

A French journalist has become the latest victim of Colombia’s internal conflict.  The French Foreign Ministry announced that journalist Romeo Langlois was kidnapped by leftist rebels last Saturday following an armed raid on Colombian troops who were attempting to dismantle cocaine laboratories.  Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told reporters that Langlois had been wounded in the arm during the attack, which left a police officer and three soldiers dead.  Langlois had been traveling with the army to film a documentary about illegal mining and Colombia’s notorious drug trade.  This attack indicates that the FARC, though severely weakened after decades of armed conflict, are still very much a powerful force to be reckoned with.  Analysts suspect that this latest action, coming after a declaration to end kidnappings in February, is a message to President Juan Manuel Santos, who has refused to negotiate with guerrilla leaders.