U.S.-Latin America: Lack of Vision from Washington Didn’t Start with Trump

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

A group of representatives from Latin America and China stand in a group

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) hosted representatives from China in late January 2018. / Cancillería del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

U.S. leadership in the hemisphere has declined significantly over the past two decades – manifested in Washington’s inability to implement a comprehensive environmental and energy strategy for the Americas; conclude a hemispheric trade accord; revitalize the inter-American system; and stem the rising tide of Chinese influence.  In a recently published book, I argue that Washington under Presidents George W. Bush (2001-2009), Barack Obama (2009-2017), and now Donald Trump has lacked vision in Latin America and the Caribbean, and has allowed a narrow security agenda to dominate.  The most noteworthy accomplishment – the assertion of central government control in Colombia – was largely bankrolled by the Colombians themselves who also devised most of the strategy to achieve that goal.

  • President Obama’s rhetoric was the loftiest, and his opening to Cuba in 2014 changed regional perceptions of Washington. But he got off to a slow start, entering office when the United States was engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  His ability to devise a bold new policy for the Western Hemisphere was further stymied by an intransigent Republican majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives after the 2010 mid-term legislative elections.

Washington’s inability or unwillingness to act is most obvious in four key areas.

  • The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) represented an opportunity for leadership on environmental issues. The United States proposed many ECPA initiatives but did not fund them, expecting the private sector or other governments to step up to the plate – which failed to happen in any significant manner.  Failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or enact meaningful national climate change legislation also undermined its moral authority on the issue.  Carbon offset programs would have provided an important boost to ECPA.
  • Although the United States played a predominant role in devising the parameters for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, its own positions caused it to fail. It refused to give up the options to re-impose tariffs in response to alleged dumping even if there were alternative means (such as competition policy) to redress the impact of unfair trade practices.  Washington kept discussion of the highly distortive impact of its agricultural subsidies out of the talks.  As a result, the United States was unable to offer meaningful concessions.
  • The Organization of American States (OAS) has also been a victim of U.S. neglect. Washington has pulled back from exerting leadership and, on occasion, has delayed payments of its dues.  The most effective component of the inter-American system relates to the promotion and protection of human rights, but the U.S. Senate has never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights.  The United States also rejects the binding character of decisions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, opening the way for governments with deplorable human rights records to question its work.  Latin American and Caribbean governments have also shown enthusiasm for forming alternative institutions to the OAS, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which purposefully exclude the United States.
  • China is now the largest trading partner for many South American nations, and it could conceivably replace Washington’s influence and leadership in at least some areas, including models for economic and political reform. The boom in South American commodity exports to China allowed governments to build up their reserves, pay off debts, and liberate themselves from dependence on multilateral lending agencies centered on Washington.  Chinese banks now contribute more money, on an annual basis, to economic development projects in Latin America and the Caribbean than do traditional lenders such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.  Moreover, this lending comes free of the conditionalities often attached to capital provided by Washington based multilateral institutions.  China’s role in building ports and telecommunication systems gives it an intelligence advantage, and arms sales have given China military influence as well.

While broad policies and political commitment behind them have been lacking, Washington has run a number of security programs in the region.  This focus, however, has often turned out to be problematic.  The Mérida Initiative, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) did not resolve the myriad root causes of the drug trade and escalating violence in the beneficiary countries.  They were myopically fixated on a narrow, short-term security agenda with precarious and uncertain funding streams.  While Pathways to Prosperity and 100,000 Strong in the Americas exemplify American liberal idealism at its best, the lack of an overarching sense of purpose and political consensus behind them have led to both being woefully underfunded.  A vision for the Americas doesn’t guarantee Washington will have positive influence, but the lack of one will indeed prolong its decline.

March 16, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  This article is based on his new book, Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (Routledge, 2018).

Colombian President Santos’s Challenges Now … and Later

By Fulton Armstrong
Embed from Getty Images
Colombian polls continue to give President Santos a comfortable margin in a second-round re-election victory, but the gap is closing – and an array of issues plaguing his campaign suggest serious challenges ahead for a second term.  The economy grew 4.3 percent last year, and optimism about future growth is so strong that the central bank is implementing measures to keep inflation under control.  The peace process with the FARC has been tedious – yielding agreements on only two of five main agenda items over 17 months of talks – but the fundamental drivers of the talks, including fatigue on both sides, remain strong.  But a number of political messes are swirling around the President:

  • The Army was caught red-handed spying on Santos’s top advisors in the FARC negotiations, suggesting disloyalty to him as Commander in Chief.  (The intercept center that police last week [6 May] raided was not the Army’s.  It was staffed by contractors reporting to the Centro Democrático, the party of former President Uribe and Santo’s leading rival in the election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.)
  • Uribe, who in March won a seat in the Colombian Senate, has been a relentless critic and drawn Santos into public spats.  Santos recently called on the former President to “stop causing the country harm” and to stop politicizing the Armed Forces.
  • An agricultural strike launched in late April has revived memories of a nasty confrontation last year and threatens food supplies in the run-up to the election.  Santos has mobilized police and military assets to keep highways open, but a political solution has eluded him.
  • In late April, the courts forced Santos to reinstate Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, whom he had removed a month earlier because the nation’s inspector general, an Uribe partisan, found that the mayor’s decision to cancel private garbage-collection contracts did not follow proper procedure.  Santos had gone ahead with the firing over the objections of a unanimous Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • Santos’s political message has been off target.  He has made the peace talks his top priority and proclaimed that “the second term will be about peace,” but polls indicate that only 5 percent of voters say the peace process is their top concern.

If the polls are correct, Colombians voting in the first round on May 25 and second round on June 15 feel little enthusiasm for Santos, but even less for Zuluaga and Uribe’s party.  A recent surge in support for former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa suggests, on the other hand, that voters could turn on both candidates.  Behind the numbers is a country eager to consolidate its democracy, maintain stability and – probably – end the 50-year insurgency.  But the red flags – such as the security service’s continued penchant for spying on government officials – are not inconsequential.  Santos, who was Defense Minister during Uribe’s presidency, should have earned the military’s confidence, will have to decide how far to push the military to respect democratically elected civilian leadership.  The farmers’ demands, including relief from low-priced, low-quality imports facilitated by Colombia’s free trade agreements, will also be difficult to satisfy.  A peace deal with the FARC will be an historic achievement, but the political reality is probably that any assistance to demobilized combatants will be minuscule compared to that given to the former paramilitaries – increasing the likelihood that ex-insurgents, like the paramilitaries, will join the bandas criminales (BACRIM) who continue to maraud throughout large swaths of the country.  Santos’s second term, should he win one, will not be easy.

El Salvador’s “Constitutional Crisis”

Photo by: rosaamarilla via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccy/3395160591/

A months-long political feud over the Supreme Court in El Salvador has blossomed into what observers are calling a constitutional crisis.  The first shot was fired in April when legislators from the FMLN engineered a “legislative decree” to replace five court Magistrates, the outgoing Assembly’s second shot at choosing justices during its three-year term.  The court’s Constitutional Chamber in June declared the decree unconstitutional – because each Legislature gets to vote only once for Magistrates.  At the same time, the Chamber invalidated a similar move by the opposition ARENA party affecting Magistrates chosen in 2006.

The theater came to a head this month when two feuding Supreme Courts met in different wings of the same building and claimed legitimacy – one with five members elected in 2009 and the other with the 10 invalidated members.  The rightwing ARENA party and its allies in Washington are claiming the crisis represents a shift against democracy by the FMLN.  Two Cuban-American members of the U.S. Senate have called on the Obama Administration to impose sanctions – principally suspending negotiations on a second Millennium Challenge Corporation compact potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if the crisis is not ended quickly and in the manner they wish.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has called for prompt resolution, and the U.S. Ambassador in San Salvador and the State Department have expressed “concern.”  A Washington Post editorial this week lambasted the FMLN for shifting toward Chávez-style authoritarianism and President Funes for failing to stop it.

This episode reflects maneuvering within the FMLN – fueled by frustration that President Funes’s soft line toward ARENA has only weakened the party’s influence – and poor judgment among activists on where and how to pick the fight.  The legislators rushed the decree because they anticipated correctly that they were about to lose control of the Assembly in elections several weeks later.  The crisis falls into a much more ominous pattern, however, in that – like the coups in Honduras (2009) and Paraguay (2012) – the right wing and its coreligionists in Washington exploit events to challenge the democratic credentials of a democratically elected reformist government to rationalize weakening it, while the Obama Administration responds timidly.  ARENA is again demonstrating its superior lobbying skills in Washington, which have already severely disadvantaged President Funes on issues such as relations between his security cabinet and its U.S. counterparts – resulting in a serious erosion of his own influence over security issues.  If the current political impasse is not resolved to the satisfaction of U.S. conservatives, Washington’s threats – ironically directed against the Administration’s “best friend” in Central America – will likely continue and relations will be strained, further persuading hardliners around Funes that moderation pays no dividends.

Whither the OAS?

 

Photo by: Photo by: Jose Miguel Insulza via http://www.flickr.com/photos/insulza/2561669250/

The OAS General Assembly in Bolivia this week underscored, yet again,the Organization of American States’s struggle for relevance in the hemisphere.  Only Presidents Correa and host President Morales showed up.  Secretary Clinton skipped the summit, and U.S. Assistant Secretary Jacobson didn’t even stay to deliver her own speech.  The ALBA countries, led by Venezuela, attacked two of the OAS’s defining initiatives, while the other members stood by.  Alleging the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was biased in favor of the U.S. agenda, ALBA won a vote to discuss reform in the future.  Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua also announced their withdrawal from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance.  Known as the Rio Treaty, the pact has enshrined the principle of mutual defense in hemispheric relations since 1947.

ALBA’s complaints about the OAS are not new, and neither are Washington’s.  The House Committee on Foreign Affairs voted to zero out U.S. funding for the OAS in July 2011, when several Congressman called the OAS “an enemy of the U.S. and an enemy to the interests of freedom and security” and claimed it was “bent on destroying democracy in Latin America.”  The Obama Administration did not come to the organization’s defense, and, as in the past, the OAS appeared passive, apparently calculating that the storms would blow over.

The South Americans will be happy to fill the void with their counter to the OAS – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which explicitly excludes the United States and Canada.  But CELAC lacks infrastructure and funding and, so far, has mostly been a forum for speeches.  Brazil’s position will be key.  Although probably bemused by the decline in U.S. and OAS influence in the region, Brazil may nonetheless see advantage in reviving – and reforming – the OAS as a buffer for working out north-south and even south-south differences.

Click here for additional information from CLALS’s “Hemisphere in Flux” initiative, an ongoing research program on the future of Inter-American affairs, conducted in partnership with Brazil’s Institute Nacional de Estudos dos Estados Unidos (INEU) and the Coordinadora Regional de Investigaciones Economicas y Sociales (CRIES) .