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Compañero Obama? Obama Mends Fences with Latin America

The last time George W. Bush went to Latin America, protesters flooded the streets. Things have changed quite a bit since then.
 
 
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When George W. Bush went to Latin America, Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona called him "human trash," and protesters flooded the streets.

Now, when Barack Obama visited, leftist Venezuela President Hugo Chavez wanted to shake his hand, the right-wing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, asked for his autograph and the anti-imperialist book Open Veins of Latin America made an unlikely journey to the White House.

What does the April Summit of the Americas say about the past and future of U.S.-Latin American relations?

"While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms," Obama told 34 of the hemisphere's presidents at the summit. "But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership … There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values."

Such intentions were perhaps most clearly represented in the now-famous handshake between Obama and Chavez. At the start of the summit, Obama strode across the room to initiate a warm greeting with Chavez -- much to the chagrin of right-wing pundits and politicians in Washington.

Dick Cheney found the handshake "disturbing," and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said, "I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez."

Obama responded to critics by explaining, "Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States'. They own Citgo. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

The encounters between Obama and Chavez were followed up with concrete plans to improve relations. Both countries agreed to restore the ambassadors in each nation; the diplomats had been pulled last September when oppression of supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales was linked to U.S. funding and support.

Obama later said at the summit, "We recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways."

Such rhetoric comes at a time when the region is clearly breaking free of Washington's grasp. Across Latin America, leftist leaders have been elected on anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platforms. On April 26, left-leaning Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was re-elected with 51.7 percent of the votes, showing that the leader is one of the most popular in Ecuador's recent history; it was the first election since 1979 that did not necessitate a run-off vote.

Statistics also show that many Latin American leaders' socialistic policies -- and independence from Washington -- are improving the lives of their citizens.

Inés Bustillo, director of the Washington office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations agency, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that in Latin America, "Between 2003 and 2008, we had average annual growth of 4.5 percent -- growth we had not seen since the late 1960s … That growth, and some really sound fiscal policies and expanded social initiatives, led to a 9 percent drop in the poverty rate -- 40 million people moving above the poverty line."

Obama Has a Fan inColombia

Obama has previously criticized the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, citing the assassination of labor leaders and violations of human rights as reasons for not supporting the deal. Yet Obama has since made an about-face on the topic. The day after the summit, the Obama administration announced that it will not renegotiate any part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and will continue pushing for the application of FTAs with Panama and Colombia.

Colombia's Uribe was in on Obama's plan at the summit, hence his giddiness when he approached the U.S. president to ask for his autograph. Obama complied, writing, "To President Uribe, with admiration."

Uribe joked of the note to reporters: "Barack Obama signed this little letter for me ... I'm going to send this to get framed."

But is Uribe really the kind of fan Obama needs? The Colombian leader has been regularly linked to violent right-wing paramilitary groups, implicated in gross human rights violations. Just recently, Diego Murillo, a former paramilitary and drug lord in Colombia, said in a U.S. court that he helped fund Uribe's 2002 election campaign.

And on April 29, Britain quietly announced they would end all military support to the Uribe regime due to his government's extensive human-rights violations and links to violent paramilitary groups. The military aid had been going on for almost a decade.  

In a written statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said his government "shares the concern … that there are officers and soldiers of the Colombian armed forces who have been involved in, or allowed, abuses … Our bilateral human-rights projects with the Colombian ministry of defense will cease."

According to The Guardian, "Investigators are looking into 1,296 cases since 2002 of reported executions of civilians by army soldiers who dressed the victims in rebel uniforms and planted weapons on them to present them as legitimate guerrilla casualties."

Open Veinsin the White House

At the summit, Obama also said that he "didn't come to debate the past, I came to speak about the future." Yet the past crept up at every turn. First, Chavez handed Obama a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's 1971 anti-imperialist book, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, "to learn about our history, [because] it is on the basis of this history that we have to rebuild."

Perhaps Chavez handed Obama the book in part because he knew that Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. coordinator for Obama's summit meeting, was also the U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1971 to '74, during the U.S.-backed military coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The U.S.' funding and support for the violent reign of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet is well documented.

At the summit, Davidow commented, possibly because of this bloody past, that the more right-leaning governments of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia are "forward-looking, not backward-looking" and that the regional call for lifting the embargo against Cuba is "part of the historical baggage that Latin America carried with it and is almost a reflexive suspicion or anti-Americanism."

In a recent column, Tom Hayden wrote of a declassified document from 1974 in which Davidow communicated with Chilean officials regarding a "conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile to paint the junta in the worst possible terms."

This violent dictatorship casts a shadow across each page of Galeano's now-classic book -- which, after Chavez handed it to Obama, shot to No. 2 on the Amazon best-seller list. One can only hope that Obama will read this book and improve U.S.-Latin American relations in the post-Bush era, relations that could be marked by camaraderie rather than blood and bullets.

In the afterword to Open Veins, Galeano writes about the stories of where his book ended up after its publication:

The most heartening response came not from the book pages in the press but from real incidents in the streets. The girl who was quietly reading Open Veins to her companion in a bus in Bogotá, and finally stood up and read it aloud to all the passengers. The woman who fled from Santiago in the days of the Chilean bloodbath with this book wrapped inside her baby's diapers. The student who went from one bookstore to another for a week in Buenos Aires' Calle Corrientes, reading bits of it in each store because he hadn’t the money to buy it. And the most-favorable reviews came not from any prestigious critic but from the military dictatorships that praised the book by banning it.

Now, with the unlikely arrival of this book in the White House, the journey of Open Veins continues, and the story of U.S.-Latin American relations enters a new chapter.

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007). He is also the editor of Toward Freedom, a progressive perspective on world events, and Upside Down World, a news Web site uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. Email BenDangl@gmail.com.
 
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