Iran in Latin America: An Exaggerated Threat

By Aaron Bell

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Former Presidents Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad / Photo credit: chavezcandanga / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Republican Mitt Romney referred to Russia as the United States’ number one geopolitical foe, but in the Latin American context he and his fellow conservatives have focused much more on another perceived competitor – Iran. Alongside China and the EU, Russia has indeed taken greater interest in Latin America in the past decade, investing in energy, selling military hardware, and even offering an alternative to Washington’s counternarcotics programs. But Romney and major elements of his party have given more attention to the newer, more enigmatic go-to threat of Iran and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 2012 Republican Party Platform warned that Venezuela had become “an Iranian outpost in the Western Hemisphere,” issuing visas to “thousands of Middle East terrorists” and providing a safe haven to “Hezbollah trainers, operatives, recruiters, and fundraisers.” This past spring, former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told a Congressional committee that Hezbollah was working alongside the Sinaloa Cartel to fund and organize terrorist activities. He claimed the organization had infiltrated the Venezuelan government so the Iranian government could launder money through Venezuelan banks to avoid international sanctions.

Relations between Iran and some members of ALBA expanded during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, during which he spent more time in Latin America than either Presidents Bush or Obama. He shared the stage with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega in denouncing the United States and its policies toward both Iran and the ALBA nations, and he pledged to invest in Venezuela, Bolivia, and other countries. The warmth of that contact gave credibility to rumors that Iran has used elite Quds soldiers and Hezbollah agents to create a web of Latin American agents available for terrorist strikes in the United States.  As required by the Republican-sponsored “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act,” the State Department released a report this summer analyzing Iran’s regional activities. While it expressed concern over Iran’s political and economic links, it concluded that Tehran’s regional commitments had largely gone unfulfilled. Nonetheless, a handful of U.S. Congressmen and the media continue to warn of the looming Iranian threat along what conservative commentators call the “‘soft belly’ of the southern border.”

The Obama Administration has not dismissed entirely the negative impact that a country like Iran can have in Latin America, if nothing else by encouraging political leaders to sustain their anti-U.S. rhetoric campaigns. But the Administration has not subscribed to the right wing’s exaggerations about Iranian activity and indeed is seeking pragmatic agreements with Iran to resolve a series of concerns about its activities, particularly its nuclear program. A handful of members of Congress led by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have accused the Obama administration of putting politics over national security by failing to challenge Venezuela and other Iranian allies, though the political advantage the president supposedly achieves with such a policy is unclear. Some xenophobic nationalists on cable TV believe the Iranian activities are part of Islamic imperialism, which poses a threat to Western civilization. Others see the threat as being embodied by Barack Hussein Obama, accusing the administration of hyping the Iranian issue as a pretext to justify the expansion of a U.S. military presence in South America. Today’s paranoia about Latin America is different from during the Cold War years, but only in the identity of the villain. Latin America’s role in the new narrative remains unchanged: it exists primarily as a base of operations for foreign enemies of the United States that must be monitored and pressured to ensure U.S. national security. While the rhetoric of ALBA leaders and their efforts to establish friendly relations with regimes like Iran fuel such paranoia, Washington would be wise to respond to actions rather than empty rhetoric. Fortunately, the Obama administration appears to be doing just that.

The U.S. Election: A sigh of relief, a moment of hope?

Photo by: Hanoian | Flickr | Creative Commons

Latin American media see a glimmer of hope in President Obama’s reelection that was largely absent during the campaign.  The breadth and composition of the coalition that carried Obama to victory appears to have impressed commentators, and some believe that Obama might be freer of political constraints in a second term.  In Mexico, undergoing its own presidential transition, there is expectation that continuity in Washington will facilitate a smoother transition there.  The prospect that Obama will be willing, and perhaps more able, to press for additional stimulus measures to jumpstart the U.S. economy – with obvious benefit for interdependent Mexico – may also be a factor.  El Tiempo in Colombia noted that “with Obama, there won’t be surprises,” and that stability is welcome during the difficult peace talks.  The ALBA countries generally welcomed Obama’s reelection, and – probably reflecting a wider view – Cuban media proclaimed: “U.S. elections: the worst one did not win.”  Some media, such as Brazil’s O Globo, reminded readers that the U.S. House of Representatives remains under Republican control, and that the GOP “had been kidnapped” by the Tea Party.

A quick review of regional commentary reveals interest in the fact that Latino voters, more than 70 percent of whom opted for the President, were an important part of his coalition in Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico.  Despite the Obama administration’s record number of deportations and its failure to introduce comprehensive immigration reform during its first term, there is little doubt that the President’s June 2012 decision to implement provisions of the Dream Act increased enthusiasm.  Challenger Mitt Romney’s tough talk on Cuba and Venezuela did not win over South Florida, suggesting that demographic change is undermining support there for hardline policies.  Bolivian President Evo Morales said, “Obama needs to recognize and pay that debt to the Latinos.”

No one so far has dared to expect a major shift in emphasis toward Latin America during Obama’s second term, but reelection gives the President another opportunity to make good on his vision for “partnership” in our hemispheric “neighborhood.”  Early analysis of the voting, particularly in Florida and in Latino communities, suggests that he will have the political space to live up to the expectations created by his soaring rhetoric during his first Summit of the Americas in 2009.  Not only can he explore reasonable approaches to longstanding issues such as Cuba, which will improve the U.S. image throughout the region; he can reengineer Washington’s relations with Central and South America in ways that reflect the region’s own evolution and ambitions – enhancing and facilitating them, rather than fearing or even resisting change.  If Latin America is ready to move into the future with a new, constructive interaction with the United States, now is the time to give it a try.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.

FTA Dreaming: Promises to Expand Free Trade in the Hemisphere

Photo by: Starley Shelton | Flickr | Creative Commons

Although Latin America has not been an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has stated multiple times that he would promote hemispheric trade agreements.  In the second debate, he said, “I’m also going to dramatically expand trade in Latin America. … I want to add more free trade agreements so we’ll have more trade.”  Romney did not specify, however, with which partners he would conclude trade agreements.  (A request to the Romney campaign for more information has not been answered.)  President Barack Obama did not comment on Romney’s promise, suggesting the president’s lack of focus on the region or calculus that voters simply don’t care.  Under Obama, the United States ratified pacts with Colombia and Panama, negotiated during the Bush administration.  The U.S. already had FTAs with Central America and the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico, and Peru.

While that would seem to leave a number of large economies, nearly all of them are unlikely partners. The most important remaining economies – Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Paraguay – are part of the Mercosur trading bloc.  Washington has refused to negotiate with them as a group, and the group prohibits members from signing bilateral accords.  Meanwhile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Cuba, and several Caribbean nations have joined together specifically to counter U.S. proposals for free trade in the hemisphere.  The few remaining countries have tiny trading relations with the United States.

The idea of adding FTAs in Latin America looks quixotic.  Nevertheless, that is hardly an excuse for failing to improve trade relations short of comprehensive agreements.  There are important opportunities to deepen the United States’ most important trade relations with Canada and Mexico, as AU Professor Robert A. Pastor has argued.  Moreover, if the United States is willing to use the Andean Trade Preferences Act as a tool for development instead of a cudgel against Latin Americans it considers wayward, it could expand trade in ways that benefit all parties.  Likewise, trade problems have become outsized irritants in U.S. relations with Brazil and Argentina – to say nothing of the broader implications of U.S. “trade policy” with Cuba.  These problems have largely festered under Obama, and Romney’s promises of free trade agreements do not seem a serious proposal to correct them.

ALBA’s Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Discussion of the U.S. election in  the countries roughly aligned under the banner of the “Bolivarian Alliance” (ALBA) – Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina – generally reflects their own polarized domestic politics.  In Venezuela, comparisons between the two countries electoral campaigns were common.  Washington-based commentator Moisés Naím suggested that Romney could learn from Venezuelan Presidential candidate Capriles’s empathy and inclusiveness in order to unseat Obama.  Andrés Correa ripped President Obama, saying he needs to take Chávez more seriously and needs “an atlas and a compass so he can figure out where he is and come to understand that the United States has more connections with Latin America than with any other part of the world.”  In a column that appeared in several countries, Argentine Ricardo Trotti praised the civic spirit of the first U.S. Presidential debate, and took Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández to task for not engaging in debates.  “The fear of debating implies a fear of democracy,” he wrote.  In Nicaragua, former education minister Humberto Belli Pereira made a similar point in La Prensa, as did a commentator in Bolivia’s El Deber.

Mitt Romney’s criticism of Obama as being naïve about the pernicious influence of the “failed ideology” of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Castro brothers attracted wide coverage throughout the region – with predictable reactions from each side.  In ALBA countries, opposition media evinced skepticism of Obama and appreciation for Romney’s promises to take a hard line against Chávez, and pro-government outlets portrayed the Republican as a loose cannon who trumpets Manifest Destiny and military options.  Chávez’s reference to Romney as “crazy” during the primaries set the tone for some media.  On Aporrea, a popular pro-Chávez online forum, one commentator said he preferred Clinton Eastwood’s empty chair to either Romney or Obama.  In Argentina, Martin Kanenguiser wrote in La Nación that his country could only “tie or lose” in the U.S. election, particularly in regard to the Argentine relationship with international financial institutions.  The 2011 elections in Argentina, followed by the U.S. 2012 contest, have contributed to a sour atmosphere for bilateral relations, noted Leandro Morgenfeld in Marcha.

That the U.S. election has become polarizing illustrates the challenges the new U.S. administration will face in 2013.  If Romney wins and follows through on his rhetoric, he might please hardliners in the U.S. and opposition groups in ALBA-aligned countries, but relations will become even more bitter.  If Obama is re-elected, those opposition groups will continue seeking support for their own agendas and pressure from Washington on ALBA governments. However, the dearth of high level attention would likely continue in a second Obama administration, leaving bilateral relationships to stagnate.  More likely, the real choice in U.S.-ALBA relations will be between empty rhetoric and deafening silence – while further exposing the limits of U.S. influence in the region.

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.

Brazil: A curious, but very distant observer

This is the second of a series of entries examining how the U.S. presidential campaign is being viewed in different Latin American countries.

Photo: São Paulo by Cleber Quadros | Flickr | Creative Commons

The twists, turns, and daily gaffes of the U.S. presidential campaign elicit muted interest from Brazil’s opinion makers and usually land near the back of the newspaper.  A review of the Brazilian media indicates curiosity about the race but little fretting about its consequences.  As Republican candidate Mitt Romney has struggled, Brazilian commentators have started handicapping the U.S. election in President Obama’s favor.  The magazine Veja said Romney had nearly issued himself a “political death certificate” via recent mistakes, while O Globo judged the Republican to be down, but not completely out.

Romney’s struggles have not generated great joy, even though a recent poll showed that nine of 10 Brazilians, given the chance, would vote for Obama. Many Brazilians are frustrated about the Obama administration’s attacks on Brazilian trade policy, which they attribute to the coming election.  Public exchanges between U.S. and Brazilian trade officials have grown terse. Personal relations between Dilma and Obama appear chilly, with no conference planned on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this week.  Romney’s foreign policy positions, on the other hand, draw criticism.  Mocking Romney’s rightward drift, Professor Demetro Magnoli wrote in Estado do São Paulo that the former governor is “the most dangerous man in the world” for his threats to unleash a trade war with China and a real war with Iran.  Nonetheless, Magnoli and others in the Brazilian press seem skeptical that campaign rhetoric will be reflected in foreign policy.

While the U.S. campaign gives Brazilians little reason for either excitement or concern, one implication they may see is that Brazil’s regional stature will continue to ascend regardless of who wins.  Romney’s campaign platform for Latin America plays up threats from “Bolivarians,” criminals and drug cartels, and Hezbollah.  Moreover, his promised solution – a “Reagan Economic Zone” – seems incongruous with the late president’s image in Brazil and much of Latin America.  Obama, on the other hand, has a personal background and restrained tone in foreign affairs that makes him more popular with the Brazilian public, but he has not taken advantage of that to improve relations or to address irritants like trade or onerous visa requirements, nor to improve Washington’s image in Latin America.  Whichever administration begins in 2013 will find a Brazil that is curious, but hardly waiting on Washington for answers.

Mexico: Expecting More of the Same

This is the first of a series of entries examining how the U.S. presidential campaign is being viewed in different Latin American countries.

Photo: Zocalo, Mexico City | Luis Lobo Borobia (“Cromo”) | Flickr | Creative Commons

A survey of Mexican media indicates that, despite the considerable attention the U.S. presidential campaign is getting, few Mexicans expect the November election to result in significant shifts in bilateral relations.  Unlike in U.S. coverage of Mexico’s recent presidential contest, the Mexican press has not focused on bilateral drug cooperation.  Some commentators have stated general preferences.  “For the economy, demography, and proximity, a second term for Barack Obama would be good for Mexico,” wrote Enriqueta Cabrera in El Universal.  But most opinionmakers appear focused on particular issues.

There is a broad recognition in Mexico that the campaign is primarily about the U.S. economy, and the potential impact of continued stagnation has driven wide coverage.  The Mexican media are also tracking the candidates’ immigration policies.  President Obama’s executive order to halt deportation of young people who would be eligible for legal status under the long-stalled DREAM Act helped his image in the Mexican press.  The coverage of Republicans has been harsher, with El Universal saying that immigration has been “the taboo topic” for the GOP and that Governor Romney had “forgotten” about Hispanics.  The role of Latinos in the campaigns has drawn attention, mostly positively for the Democrats.

The Mexican media’s treatment of the campaign – and assumption that relations will not change much – reflects the fact that neither American candidate has brought new ideas to the table in one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships.  On drug policy, bloody continuity seems far likelier than change, regardless of who wins in November.  Although Romney has tipped his hat – as Obama has – to the need to reduce U.S. consumption of narcotics, his main message is “to help Mexico as we did Colombia, with intelligence and surveillance.”  The greater variable is on the Mexican side, where new President Enrique Peña Nieto’s promise to refocus the drug fight on citizen security – instead of cartel interdiction – has drawn criticism from some in the United States.  Allegations that the “old PRI,” tolerant of the drug trade, is back are not far behind and could poison the relationship.