Update: Venezuela-U.S. Tensions Rise

By CLALS Staff

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: andresAzp / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

AULA BLOG lets policymakers’ own words characterize the state of relations between Washington and Caracas.

Venezuelan Government Statements

I have ordered the Foreign Minister of the Republic … to declare persona non-grata y to expel from the country these three consular officers from the United States Embassy in Venezuela. We have been watching them for two months already, holding meetings in universities. The story is that they’re offering visas. … Well, let them go and conspire in Washington. …

The demands [made in a statement delivered by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee to Venezuelan Ambassador to the OAS, Roy Chaderton] are unacceptable, insolent. I ordered a diplomatic response. In Venezuela, we are willing to accept all consequences in defense of democracy. I take orders from no one. …

The government of the United States should take responsibility, before the Venezuelan people and the world, for allowing U.S. institutions and individuals to finance, legitimize and promote the actions of persons and groups who attack Venezuelan society violently, and who look to twist the democratically expressed will of our people to build their sovereign destiny in peace.
—President Maduro, February 16
AP, EFE (CLALS translation)

The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela forcefully rejects the statements made today, Wednesday, February 19, by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, insofar as they constitute new and crude interference in the internal affairs of our country, made worse by being based on false information and baseless accusations.

This is an offense to the heroic land of the Aztecs, of Juárez, of Villa, and of Zapata; to the noble and courageous people of Mexico, the sister nation from which President Obama continues attacking a free and sovereign nation of Latin America and the Caribbean because its policies, principles, and decisions are the result the democratic expression of popular will.

The statement that the independent governments and people of the world await is that in which the government of the United States of America explains why it finances, encourages, and defends opposition leaders who promote violence in our country, and clears up what right Deputy Assistant Secretary [of State] Alex Lee has in sending a message from his government that tries to impose conditions on and threaten the Venezuelan state for having taken judicial action against those responsible for the violent acts of recent days.

As a final point, the Venezuelan government reiterates that it will continue monitoring and taking the necessary actions to prevent U.S. agents attempting to cause violence and destabilization, and informs the world of the nature of the interventionist policies of the Obama administration in our country.
—Despacho de la Presidencia, February 20
(CLALS Translation)

I have just read recent statements by John Kerry – arrogant, interventionist and insolent – that confirm the terms of the threat that I denounced. John Kerry is threatening Venezuela with more violence through his statements giving the green light to violent groups to attack our people. Let the brutal and insolent imperialists know that we will continue defeating it with the force of our people, which is the force of Bolívar and Chávez.
—President Maduro, February 21
Tweets, via TeleSur (CLALS translation)

I call for a dialogue with you, President Obama. I call for a dialogue between the patriotic and revolutionary Venezuela and the United States and its government. Accept the challenge. Let’s initiate a high-level dialogue and let’s put the truth out on the table. … I say this, and some will say, ‘Maduro is naïve.’ No, we will always find a new situation through political dialogue – a change in the historic relations between the U.S. elite and Latin America and Venezuela. … I propose therefore a grand dialogue, and that we name ambassadors, since they haven’t been accepted so far, so they can sit down and talk.
—President Maduro, February 21
Various media (CLALS translation)

There’s a global campaign against Venezuela. It’s a campaign to justify an intervention in the domestic affairs of Venezuela. … [There is] a brutal manipulation campaign, [which] has created a perception in the world that Venezuela is on the verge of civil war, that here in Venezuela we have a group of docile students opposing an illegitimate government.
—President Maduro, February 22
CNN

U.S. Government Statements

In general, when it comes to Venezuela, we’ve made clear that we’re open to having a constructive relationship with the Government of Venezuela. Quite frankly, we haven’t seen that – we have not seen that reciprocated, to be clear. So we also, I think, see a lot of conspiracy theories or rumors out there in the press about how the U.S. is interested in influencing the domestic political situation in Venezuela, which is absolutely not true. It’s not up to us to comment on internal Venezuelan politics.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 13

So we are deeply concerned by rising tensions, by the violence surrounding these February 12th protests, and by the issuance of a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. We join the Secretary General of the OAS in condemning the violence and calling on authorities to investigate and bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of peaceful protestors. We also call on the Venezuelan Government to release the 19 detained protestors and urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 14

The United States is deeply concerned by rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela. Our condolences go to the families of those killed as a result of this tragic violence.

We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.

We join the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and others in condemning this senseless violence. We call on the Venezuelan government to provide the political space necessary for meaningful dialogue with the Venezuelan people and to release detained protestors. We urge all parties to work to restore calm and refrain from violence.

Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are universal human rights. They are essential to a functioning democracy, and the Venezuelan government has an obligation to protect these fundamental freedoms and the safety of its citizens.
—Secretary of State Kerry, February 15

The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 17

We have seen many times that the Venezuelan Government tries to distract from its own actions by blaming the United States or other members of the international community for events inside Venezuela. These efforts reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Venezuelan Government to deal with the grave situation it faces. … With the OAS and our regional partners, we are working to urge calm and encourage a genuine dialogue among all Venezuelans. There is no room for violence by either side.
—State Department Spokesperson, February 18

In Venezuela, rather than trying to distract from its own failings by making up false accusations against diplomats from the United States, the government ought to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people. So, along with the Organization of American States, we call on the Venezuelan government to release protestors that it’s detained and engage in real dialogue. And all parties have an obligation to work together to restrain violence and restore calm.
—President Obama, February 19

Revitalization of the OAS: More Than an Act of Congress

By Carlos Portales*

OAS logoU.S. Congressional passage in late September of the “Organization of American States Revitalization and Reform Act of 2013” could either help revitalize the troubled body or contribute to its irrelevance. By directing the U.S. Secretary of State to develop and drive OAS reform options, the bill seeks to give much higher priority in the OAS and Summit of the Americas to promoting and consolidating democracy in the hemisphere – “with due respect for the principle of nonintervention” – while recognizing that “key OAS strengths” are also in strengthening peace and security, assisting and monitoring elections, and fostering economic growth. Reducing “mandates” – ongoing programs that tend to get institutionalized – is another priority. The new law also requires Secretary Kerry to devise a strategy for a new fee structure in which no member state would pay more than 50 percent of OAS’s assessed yearly fees. (The U.S. Library of Congress reports that the United States, the organization’s largest donor, contributed an estimated $67.5 million in fiscal year 2012 – nearly 43 percent of the total 2012 budget.)

The reforms parallel ideas presented by OAS Secretary General Insulza in his “Strategic Vision of the OAS” on December 2011 (updated in March 2013) striving for concentration on four main pillars: democracy and conflict resolution; human rights; development (in association with the Inter-American Development Bank); and security (mainly against drugs and organized crime). He also advocated limiting a single state contribution to 49 percent without reducing the OAS’s total budget. The Secretary General embraced similar reforms when the legislation was first introduced by then-Senator Kerry in the previous Congress.

Agreement that the OAS needs reform is nearly universal, but any strategic transformation will have to take into account important developments among the Latin American international organizations. The OAS handily accommodated the creation of subregional organizations such as SICA and CARICOM in the past.  But new bodies – such as UNASUR, CELAC and ALBA – have posed new challenges to the organization’s relevance and effectiveness. Differences among the organizations have emerged over trade, democracy (different value attributed to the independence of powers and to press freedom, as well as of handling of crises in Venezuela, Honduras, and Paraguay), security (withdrawal of five countries from the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance), the strategy against drugs, and relations with the United States.  The organizations have also created new arenas for leaders to meet, at times taxing governments’ ability to keep up. From 1990 to 2012 there have been 272 Latin American regional and subregional summits, including eight Summits of the Americas.  When Secretary Kerry delivers his plan, it will be difficult for him to strike a balance between bringing the OAS more in line with Washington priorities, as laid out in the legislation, and seeking a bigger tent that addresses some of the concerns that gave rise to the plethora of competing organizations.

*Carlos Portales is the Director of the Program on International Organizations, Law and Diplomacy at WCL, American University. He was Ambassador of Chile to the OAS between 1997 to 2000.”

Egypt Policy – Latin America Style

By Fulton Armstrong

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Department of State Headquarters | Wikimedia Commons

We who follow U.S. policy in Latin America shouldn’t be surprised to see Washington’s policy toward Egypt drift from support for democracy to support for the status quo ante.  President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo reaching out to Muslims – calling for an end to the “cycle of suspicion and discord” – came just six weeks after he told the Summit of the Americas that he wanted “an equal partnership” with the hemisphere and sought “a new beginning with Cuba.”  When 30-year President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in 2011, the Administration eagerly linked Egypt to the “Arab Spring” and, despite concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood roots of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, tried to make the relationship with Mohamad Morsi work.  Over time, however, Morsi – successor to an undemocratic regime in an undemocratic country with no democratic traditions and no democratic institutions – was accused of being undemocratic.  The estrangement grew so deep that the Obama Administration still cannot bring itself to call the July 3 coup against Morsi a coup, and Secretary of State Kerry saw fit to refer to the military takeover as “restoring democracy” even as the Army was firing on unarmed crowds.

To Latin America watchers, this chronology is reminiscent of U.S. policy in our own hemisphere.  The case of Honduran President Mel Zelaya is clearest.  The Honduran military removed Zelaya– in his pajamas – from his home and country in June 2009 for proposing a referendum that, the putschists claimed, violated the Honduran constitution.  The Obama Administration’s nominee to be Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Arturo Valenzuela, testified that the action was, in his opinion, a coup, but the State Department never categorized it as such and, despite rhetoric committing to restore Zelaya, the Administration let the interim regime consolidate power.  Amidst a state of emergency, media closures, and other irregularities, the State Department also gave its blessing to elections held several months later.  Zelaya’s rhetoric before the coup was caustic, and he squandered political capital in needless confrontations, but he never threatened Honduran “democracy” or violated human rights as the interim regime did.  Nor did he preside over a steady deterioration of security, civil rights, and the economy as the current government has.  Yet, ironically, the Obama Administration has never set the history of the coup straight – just as the Bush Administration never rectified its disastrous support for the 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela.

The excesses of some leaders, like Zelaya and Chávez, make supporting or turning a blind eye to a coup very tempting.  But Washington has also shelved its moral outrage when much less provocative presidents – democratically elected but progressive-leaning – have been removed from power, if not with a gun at their head.  The “constitutional coup” against President Lugo in Paraguay last year is the most recent example.  The gap between U.S. rhetoric about democracy, rule of law, and due process on the one hand and its tangible actions on the other has a number of causes. 

  • American “exceptionalism” – the sense that U.S. success gives it a right to judge others and intervene even when national interests are not at stake – sometimes leads Washington to over-extend and make rash decisions.
  • Eagerness to act quickly – to appear decisive – often makes policymakers confuse the symptoms of problems, which seem amenable to quick solutions, and the essence of the problems themselves.  Policies address the short-term while neglecting the strategic.
  • Washington lobbies – the pro-Israel lobby in the case of any matter in the Middle East and the Cuban-American lobby in Latin America – are able to dominate U.S. perceptions of events, pushing administrations into a corner. 
  • Administrations embarrass themselves when they throw around words like “Arab Spring” and “democracy.”  When the inevitable bumps in the road occur, they act betrayed rather than admit they got carried away by wishful thinking. 
  • Double-standards –the expectation that progressives succeeding authoritarians will be perfectly democratic and flawlessly inclusive – make it difficult for Washington to avoid prematurely throwing a potential ally overboard. 
  • Another factor, and potentially the most important, is that the U.S. government builds deeper relationships with elites and the security services that do their bidding than with any other forces.  During the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” the U.S. Government entrusted Egypt with extremely sensitive operations, including the interrogation (and alleged torture) of suspected terrorists, and Washington relies on Latin American security services to prosecute the “war on drugs.” 

When U.S. interagency committees discuss how to respond to crises, the departments and agencies with the deepest ties in the country under discussion claim more influence over events there than anyone else – and win most policy debates.  The problem is that their ties are mostly to political and economic elites – or the military and intelligence services that back them – which are rarely agents of change.  Washington winds up allied with forces that suppress the new voices essential for the “springs” and “democracies” that it says it wants.

 

 

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.

U.S.-Cuba: Time to End the Visa Charade

By Eric Hershberg

Slide1Bad habits die hard, especially when they involve Cuba and American bureaucrats eager to appease the right wing.  For more than 50 years, Washington has been at loggerheads with a revolutionary regime eager to reciprocate incessant aggression and stick its finger in the eye of the Colossus to the North.  Although nothing as absurd as a confrontation at the brink of nuclear war has occurred since 1962, during the ensuing decades both governments have repeatedly provoked one another to exacerbate a conflict that even in 2013 bizarrely perpetuates the Cold War.  To this day, the U.S. proclaims “regime change” as its bottom line condition for normalizing relations with a sovereign country for which such imperial proclamations are justly anathema.  Havana, in turn, is not beyond demonizing American citizens – people who have no connections to the U.S. government or its misguided regime-change programs – who seek to engage their Cuban counterparts.  Last month I spent two hours in the Havana airport answering hostile questions from government goons for whom my assurances that my visit was academic in nature were mysteriously insufficient to get me smoothly admitted through immigration.  An American University colleague reports that she suffered similar harassment at the Havana airport in March.

One manifestation of the anachronistic dispute between the two governments is the infantile tit for tat that both parties play with permitting travel across the Florida Straits even for purposes both claim to support. The dynamic is pernicious, and reflects a combination of ideological extremism and petty bureaucratic behavior on both sides.  Organizers of scholarly meetings in Cuba are increasingly being told that the participation of one person or another would not be acceptable to unspecified authorities in Havana, and the result has been that they have been “disinvited” from workshops in which their participation would have been appropriate.  More troubling, from my perspective as an American citizen, is that since the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies was established three years ago, on three separate occasions the State Department delayed the visas of Cuban academics who I had invited to the University and refused to say why.  Last week, when the Latin American Studies Association convened its annual meeting in Washington, assembling 5,000 scholars from around the world, Cuban researchers who have long traveled to and from the U.S. were denied visas, again for no stated reason. They included three individuals with whom the Center has time-tested, ongoing working relationships:  Rafael Hernández, who edits one of Cuba’s principal journal of society and culture and has taught as a Visiting Professor at Harvard and Columbia; Milagros Martínez, who directs international academic affairs at the University of Havana; and Juan Luís Martín, arguably Cuba’s most innovative sociologist.

That the Cuban government interferes with academic life should be no surprise.  That the practice continues on the U.S. side is another matter.  One would think that Washington would by now have gotten beyond this shameful charade, five years into an administration that knows better.  Somewhere in the system and its mysterious processes –the opacity contradicts our democratic principles – bureaucrats are denying visas arbitrarily and with no accountability.  What threat do these academics, whose work has at times catalyzed important debates in Havana, conceivably pose to the United States?  What is the U.S. national interest in slamming the door on people eager to hear what we have to say in our universities and academic conferences?  The State Department’s visa denials undermine the professional activities of American citizens and contradict the Administration’s own policy of “people-to-people” relations.  It may be too much to expect President Obama to risk incurring the wrath of a shrinking minority in the Cuban-American community and in the Congress to put forth a rational Cuba policy.  But one would have thought that Secretary of State Kerry has the wherewithal and influence required to put an end to the use of visa requests as a means of restaging scenes from a cold war era that ought to have been left behind twenty years ago. The State Department’s actions over the past month evidence its disregard for academic freedom and the hollowness of its assurances to the scholarly community that it does not intend to interfere with our work.  I say: Enough is enough.

 

Honduras: Simmering Crisis

Porfirio Lobo and Hillary Clinton
US Embassy Guatemala
/ Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Little good and lots of bad has transpired in Honduras since the night in June 2009 that an Army-backed coup d’état, orchestrated by the economic elites, ousted President Mel Zelaya and installed Roberto Micheletti as the de facto ruler.  Almost four years later, Honduras remains one of the places in the Americas where democracy is at permanent risk – where drug trafficking, corruption, impunity, private armies and feudal caudillos thrive in a climate of spiraling violence.  Honduras today is the most violent country in the Americas and last year was among the top three in the numbers of assassinated journalists.  Honduras also remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo lacked credibility from the moment he donned the presidential sash in January 2010 – the candidate who, by almost all accounts, would have lost the election had not the coup reversed that fate, clamped down on opposition media, and suspended many civil rights.  While Washington worked hard to gain OAS recognition of his government, Lobo offered no guarantees – to either Hondurans or foreigners – that he would reverse the ongoing activities of the Army and rapacious economic elites to undermine democratic institutions.

  • Timid attempts to show independence, such as a projected police reform, languished due to lack of political will and financial support.
  • Honduras’s doors opened ever wider to organized crime and corruption.  According to U.S. agencies, roughly 60 percent of the cocaine passing through Central America on its way to U.S. markets in 2011 went through Honduras.  (The Obama Administration funded a militarized drug interdiction program that sputtered after Honduran civilians were killed.)
  • Politically motivated murders by sicarios – reminiscent of 1980s death squads – skyrocketed.  Investigations were few, and prosecutions were nonexistent.
  • By the end of last year, Lobo was pointing fingers at his old allies in the Army, the elites, and even his own party, accusing them of trying to destabilize his government. He failed to pass constitutional reforms that he claimed would protect democracy.  General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the military commander during the coup, announced that he was running for president.
  • Honduras is facing one of the worst fiscal crises of its history – a significant landmark for the perennially mismanaged country.

In Washington none of this seems to raise red flags.  On the contrary, the ideological bent of statements from both the executive and legislative branches suggests satisfaction with the state of affairs in Honduras – and willingness to keep the crisis there unsolved.  Hillary Clinton´s State Department was, to say the least, shy when addressing the deteriorating situation of the Central American country.  In January, at Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that what happened in Honduras in 2009 wasn’t a coup went unchallenged – despite the overwhelming consensus otherwise throughout our hemisphere.  The first sign offered by Kerry as Secretary of State, however, gives room to expect at least a modest change in the narrative: on March 4th, the State Department gave one of eight International Women of Courage Awards to Julieta Castellanos, a respected human rights advocate and critic of corruption and impunity in Honduras.  This hint of a less ideological and a more strategic and humanistic approach to the unsolved Honduran question is welcome.

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.