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What Kind of "Hope" Is Obama Offering to Latin American Countries Still Traumatized by U.S. Empire?

Throughout the Americas, there exists a powerful political tradition in which esperanza (hope) is defined by the fight against U.S. domination.
 
 
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For a U.S. audience, to watch as the wet, pinkish-red jelly -- the brains of Isis Odem Murillo, the young man killed last Sunday by the U.S.-trained Honduran military -- spill onto those who carried the Christ-like victim was to watch another tragedy unfold in a far off land.

But for those of us familiar with countries in the region like Honduras and El Salvador, where in 1989 U.S.-trained troops literally shot out the brains of six Jesuit priests, their maid and her young daughter, we see reminders of the possible return of the terror that takes friends, family and colleagues.

Such traumatic memories inform the sense of the past in the Americas, the same past that President Barack Obama told his hemispheric audience that he wants to break with. We see this, for example, in repeated references to the "past" Obama made during his important speech before the Summit of the Americas meeting in April ("To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements." Or: "I didn't come here to debate the past -- I came here to deal with the future.")

Noticeably absent in the forward-looking Obama's messages to Latin America is one of the two words we all identify him and his presidency with: hope.

Whatever the reasons for this omission, Obama would do well to remember that, in the bloodied streets of Honduras, and throughout the Americas, there exists a powerful political tradition in which esperanza (Spanish for "hope") is often defined by overcoming the pro-military policies of the country that took as its own the name given to the entire continent -- "America."

Regardless of the outcome of negotiations to end the standoff in Honduras between the de facto military government and the only recognized leader of the country, President Manuel Zelaya, Obama must view the Honduran crisis as an opportunity to support and negotiate with the forces of esperanza on the continent.

He must do so if he is to overcome the past and move forward as he said in his summit speech: "We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership."

In the insurgent region of Central America, tiny Honduras is nothing less than ground zero for the first encounter in the hemisphere between the tradition of esperanza and Obama's still-untested notions of "hope."

Contrasted against Obama's still-being-formulated-as-we-speak notions of "hope" and "change" in the region, the movements flying the ancient banner of esperanza have delivered historic shifts across the Américas, as can be seen in the leaders elected in recent years, leaders with no less startling and inspiring stories as Obama's. Indigenous leaders such as Bolivia's Evo Morales; socialist single mothers, and former torture victims, like Chile's Michelle Bachelet; and former steelworkers like Brazil's "Lula" -- Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In times of great crisis, times in which Obama has yet to consolidate a sense of "hope" about the U.S. system in terms of things like health care, banking and jobs, the U.S. president has little to offer Latin America in the way of an alternative to the strides toward universal health care as in Venezuela and Cuba, the nationalization oil and other wealth redistribution programs of Bolivia or the democratization efforts of the deposed Zelaya in Honduras.

Until "hope" has some heft besides military heft to back it up, " esperanza" of Latin America will reign supreme -- and be defended ferociously.

Once called "America's Backyard" by Obama's predecessors, America the continent has torn down the fences of what political scientists call the "unipolar" power of the United States in the region as the forces of esperanza usher in a new, more multipolar moment.

 
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