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Obama’s New Brazil and LatAm Policy: Too Close to Bush for Comfort

Barack Obama To frame his proposed Latin America policy, Barack Obama is using the “Four Freedoms” vision of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which Obama referred to in his “Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas” speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami on May 23, 2008.

As World War II overtook Europe and was about to engulf the United States, President Roosevelt delivered a speech on January 6, 1941m that envisioned a post-war world “founded upon four essential freedoms” – political freedom, religious freedom, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Obama’s reference to FDR is a welcome way to begin revamping Latin American-U.S. relations. Under FDR’s leadership, hemispheric relations improved considerably in the 1930s as the United States brought to a close an era characterized since the 1890s by direct military intervention and occupation in Caribbean Basin nations.

Obama chose to highlight an FDR speech delivered on the eve of U.S. entrance into World War II, but a more appropriate and helpful reference might have been FDR’s 1933 inaugural speech when he launched his good neighbor policy. The good neighbor principles of “mutual respect,” “a spirit of cooperation,” and “self-determination” would offer a much-needed antidote to the Bush foreign policy of arrogance and power. These principles are especially relevant to U.S. relations with Latin America.

To a large extent, the responsibility for ensuring the four freedoms in Latin America falls not on the United States but on Latin American and Caribbean countries themselves. Too often in the past, U.S. promises of supporting “freedom” and development in the region have proved self-serving and have obstructed the region’s own development.

There’s no doubt that there were major shortcomings and inconsistencies in FDR’s good neighbor policy. But the ethics that defined the policy – respecting one’s neighbor and oneself, cooperating to solve common problems, and letting neighbors determine their own development – should once again be embraced by the U.S. government. A renewed and updated good neighbor policy would go a long way toward fostering political and economic development in the region.

In its founding document, Progressives for Obama stated: “We need to return to the Good Neighbor policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, which rejected Yankee military intervention and accepted Mexico’s right to nationalize its oil in the face of industry opposition.”

Obama certainly recognizes the need for a dramatic change in U.S. policy in Latin America. “It’s time for a new alliance of the Americas,” he said. “After eight years of the failed policies of the past, we need new leadership for the future. After decades pressing for top-down reform, we need an agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up. So my policy toward the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States.”

While talk of alliances and “bottom-up” politics is certainly welcome, it falls short of a commitment to self-determination and mutual respect. At the same time that Obama was promoting an alliance and partnership, he signaled that the alliance would likely be only with some countries – including Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil – while other nations that have embraced left-center politics – including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Ecuador – would probably not be members of his “new alliance of the Americas.”

Commenting on Obama’s foreign policy vision for Latin America, Forrest Hylton, who has written books on Bolivia and Colombia, said, “If ever there was a moment to rethink U.S. policy toward Latin America before it’s too late, so to speak, it would be now. Now would be the time to introduce something like a revamped version of the good neighbor policy.

But instead, when Obama all but explicitly poses the question of who lost Latin America, he answers his question with a series of right-wing positions that are, let’s say, more conservative than the Council on Foreign Relations, which represents establishment thinking on U.S. foreign policy.”

Clearly Obama is still learning about Latin America, a region to which he has never traveled. He has labeled his Latin America policy “A New Partnership for the Americas.” While this certainly represents a rhetorical break with the long tradition of hegemonic politics, Obama faces many challenges if the United States is to win respect as a regional partner.

As president, Obama wouldn’t be expected to praise or support governments and people’s movements with which the U.S. government has major differences, but he will need to treat them as sovereign nations that have the right to set their own course.

His attempt to win political points in his speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami with his critiques of Venezuela and Cuba wasn’t an auspicious start to his plan to establish a new regional alliance or partnership.

The speech’s ideological focus on “libertad” or freedom echoed the Bush administration’s own highly charged rhetoric about political freedom and did little to distinguish Obama’s case for “new leadership.” A commitment to mutual respect, self-determination, and cooperation would take Obama much further in forging an Americas partnership.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project of the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC.

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