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One Year Is Gone. Will Obama Still Deliver on Latin America and Brazil?

President Barack ObamaBarack Obama assumed the presidency twelve months ago amidst “strained hemispheric relations.” Productive cooperation on a variety of shared regional concerns had been all but ignored by a Bush administration completely distracted by the Iraqi War and in favor of an approach characterized by confrontation, diplomatic bullying, and the continued pursuit of policies detrimental to the interests of both Latin America and the United States.

Apparently recognizing this, Obama brought with him a promise to begin a “new chapter in the story of the Americas,” in which the U.S. leader would follow an inclusive and relevant approach to regional diplomacy, coupled with a pledge to begin “matching rhetoric with deeds.”

Writing as Obama took up office, we called on the new administration to make good on these foundations and implement a program of change which would not only reverse eight years of failed initiatives under Bush, but also manage to address a series of new political and economic tasks that would have a positive impact on the hemisphere.

However, as the presidential campaign wore on, Obama’s own position on a number of key issues became disturbingly contradictory. He recognized “nearly 50 years of failure” on Cuba, while pledging to continue “holding back … relaxation of the trade embargo” until certain preconditions were met.

He supported continued provision of U.S. military aid under Plan Colombia despite its failed militarization of the War on Drugs, while ostensibly refusing to back Bush’s free trade agreement with Colombia because of the violent effects of that militarization. He also called for diplomatic engagement with Venezuela, only to sharply criticize its President, Hugo Chávez, for “[interrupting] progress in the region.”

The Honduran Crisis

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the country’s armed forces by order of the Honduran Supreme Court on June 28, 2009, in what Roberto Micheletti, who as acting President of the National Congress temporarily assumed the presidency, claimed was a move designed to preserve the country’s democracy.

The symptoms of Zelaya’s approaching ejection had been noticeable for months, as the Honduran president clashed relentlessly with the other branches of government over his alleged illegal ambitions. This scuffling went unperceived by the Obama Administration and other foreign actors, even though just three weeks prior to the culmination of the country’s institutional volatility, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in San Pedro Sula for an OAS meeting.

Obama joined the rest of the world in condemning Zelaya’s ousting as an illegal coup, but the administration’s line on Honduras since then has been rather muddied. On the one hand it has remained consistent: no amount of semantic athleticism will change the fact that it was a coup, and that Zelaya would remains the democratically elected leader of Honduras until his term ended on January 27, 2010.

However, instead of recalcitrantly breaking off all ties with Honduras, like Venezuela and Argentina did, or blocking trade in the manner of Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, the U.S. afforded itself the ability to be flexible in its approach by viewing the coup as a longer event than simply a single flashpoint.

While countries usually critical of U.S. interventionism urged for more pressure from Washington, and a pitch that did not yaw, Obama was eager to avoid parallels with deeply unpopular past misadventures, especially since a few months prior to the coup he had declared the era of U.S. unilateralism in Latin America to be over. Perhaps hoping for the crisis to work itself out without any U.S. intrusion, Washington looked towards the highly pliable and unusually unrealistic Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to mediate and find a Central American solution to a Central American problem.

However, the already dubious San Jose Accord, which sought to reinstate a powerless version of Zelaya and end the crisis in a peaceful manner, was promptly rejected by both Zelaya and Micheletti. Consequently, the U.S., the only country with any real leverage over Honduras, began to episodically freeze aid and suspend most visas for members of Micheletti’s cabinet, while continuing to maintain its insistence on the reinstatement of Zelaya, until the deposed president surreptitiously reentered the country in September, and holed up in the Brazilian embassy, perhaps happy to call Washington’s bluff.

The impasse caused by the obstinate personalities of both Zelaya and Micheletti, a Janus-minded OAS, and an unfocused Washington, dragged on until a few weeks before the November 29 elections, when the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon was sent to the country to broker an agreement.

Nary a day after landing in Tegucigalpa, it was ultimately a diplomat from Washington and not San Jose or Brasilia who managed to force a deal out of Micheletti. The highly controversial elections – boycotted by the usual contingent of observers but declared by the U.S. to be fair and transparent – resulted in Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s election.

The administration’s ambivalence towards Micheletti and his coup regime, and its ultimate recognition of the elections, has caused many to see Obama as an echo of past imperial presidencies. However, not all the blame can be placed on the U.S.; Arias, Shannon and OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza all aired their concern during the crisis about a lack of political will to move forward.

Micheletti’s defiant comments even against the U.S. and Costa Rica, as well as against Venezuela made it easy to see who was culpable in that respect. Micheletti’s obstinacy and caudillo-style leadership were hardly conducive to any productive diplomacy or conciliation of Zelaya; indeed, he ultimately reneged on even the agreement he signed with Shannon.

It is apparent that few outside of Honduras saw the coup coming, and this is certainly true of the Obama Administration. Nevertheless, its handling of the crisis was more considered than could be expected from past US governments. However, Obama’s supposed embrace of partnership and cooperation in Latin America hit a bottleneck with the crisis presented by his wavering over Honduras; he will need to work harder over time to convince the region of his dedication to this policy, and demonstrate that he possesses principles and the wisdom to use them.

Colombia: Status Quo Prevails

The other significant development in U.S.-Latin American relations during 2009 merely increased regional suspicion of the new administration in Washington. Dictated by the framework of the War on Terror, Washington’s approach to Colombia under President Bush was simple: prioritize affording it the military assistance deemed necessary to fight the guerrilla insurgency and the problems related to narcotics production, and couple this with the pursuit of a free trade agreement.

In theory this would lead to the bolstering of a strategic geopolitical foothold for the U.S. in an otherwise hostile South America. Despite bringing a more tolerant and relaxed rhetoric and attitude to the White House, Obama, much to his discredit, has appropriated wholesale this myopic and simplified approach in his own policy towards Colombia, which now bears little resemblance to the position he held as a principled senator.

In October, Obama boosted a military approach towards drug interdiction which has largely failed to quell overall violence or lower drug production, and has seen millions displaced, by signing a new deal on the U.S. use of Colombian air bases, and, in doing so, angered virtually every South American government.

Regional alarm was justified by the secrecy of the bilateral negotiations that produced the agreement, along with U.S. Air Force comments – undermining the official line that the bases will be used solely for internal operations – that the deal “provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub-region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics-funded insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters.”

It is additionally worth noting that the U.S. military designated the principal base in question, Palanquero, as off-limits for aid after 17 civilians were killed in a 1998 bombing carried out by troops stationed there, and only resumed such assistance in April 2008.

Moreover, having opposed Bush’s U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) during his campaign when he expressed concerns about Colombia’s record on anti-labor union violence, as president, Obama has since reversed his position. “I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made on human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there,” he said after meeting the Colombian leader at the White House in June. Subsequently, in September, the Obama Administration okayed the State Department’s annual certification of Colombia on human rights in order to facilitate continued military assistance.

The administration has seemingly turned a blind eye to the human rights situation in Colombia in order to justify its policies. After reaching a low under Uribe in 2007, killings of trade unionists rose by 25 percent in 2008, to 49. Colombia’s connected problem of impunity means that convictions in cases of anti-union attacks are virtually unheard of there.

The Justice and Peace process continues under siege in the country, with right-wing paramilitary groups resurgent following Uribe’s ineffective demilitarization program. The country’s security service (DAS) was implicated last February in an illegal wiretapping scandal which involved some key pro-government politicians, and the military stands accused of “False Positives” practices, whereby soldiers murdered innocent civilians in order to meet targets for killing guerrilla insurgents.

U.S. and Colombian relations with Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela were those most restively affected by the base agreement, which witnessed Chávez mobilizing his armed forces along the Colombian border and introducing a still-existing trade embargo. Rhetoric between Washington and Caracas has retained its vacillating nature, with Secretary of State Clinton saying before relations soured in the wake of the air base deal,

“The prior administration tried to isolate [hostile governments], tried to support opposition to them, tried to … turn them into international pariahs. It didn’t work.” On January 17, 2010, a week after his administration apparently changed its tone by meeting with U.S. embassy officials to discuss Venezuelan spying claims, Chávez said, “it’s possible that there could be an easing of tensions.”

The “hostile rhetorical shots” may have diminished, but they have been succeeded by equally worrisome actions. By continuing to pursue a free trade agreement with Bogotá, and continuing to advance the largely ineffective Plan Colombia in spite of the convincing body of evidence against President Uribe’s credentials as a defender of human rights, and in the face of the concerns of virtually every South American government, President Obama has seriously damaged his claims to be bringing “change” to U.S.-Latin American relations.

Guantánamo & Cuba

On January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, President Obama ordered the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay to be closed “no later than one year from now.” As events transpired, Obama proved unable to deliver on even this most modest of promises, admitting on November 18 that his deadline for the prisoners’ departure would not be met. It will now likely be 2011 at the earliest before the administration has secured and equipped a new facility in Illinois to house the remaining detainees.

This lamentable disappointment has left only one significant change in U.S. policy towards Cuba under the Obama Administration. The president announced in April that U.S. citizens would be granted the right of unlimited travel to the island in order to see relatives, rather than being restricted to one visit every three years as they were under Bush, while simultaneously lifting the $300-per-quarter cap on remittances.

Common to both of these flagship Cuba policies is the fact that they simply rescind measures put in place by President Bush’s executive decrees. The centerpiece policy positions – restrictions on travel for most Americans, the decades-old trade embargo, and de facto occupation of the land at Guantánamo Bay – all remain in effect, despite Obama’s laudable assertion several years ago that the embargo, having “utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro,” should be lifted.

Bilateral discussions about immigration last July, talks in Havana on September 17 over the reinstatement of a direct postal service, and recent cooperation over the use of Cuban airspace for aid delivery in the wake of the January 12 Haitian earthquake, are all to be viewed as constructive steps. However, progress has slowed as a result of various recent developments, including the December 4 arrest of a U.S. contractor in Havana on espionage charges, and Washington placing Cuba on a list of states deemed by it to pose a “security risk” in the aftermath of the foiled Christmas Day airline bombing.

Were he seriously inclined to pursue “change” in this country’s relations with Cuba, Obama could do worse than begin by backing the efforts of the House Democrats who have considerable backing for a bill which would end the ban on travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, before addressing the formidable barrier to change posed by the Helms-Burton Act. However, it would appear that the president’s appetite for change has vanished. Obama continues to demand preconditions from Cuba on human rights issues – notably some action regarding its political prisoners – as a preliminary step toward any further meaningful relaxation of U.S. sanctions.

The case of Cuba provides an excellent illustration of the nature of Obama’s approach towards wider Latin American ties with this country. Rhetoric has somewhat softened, and diplomacy has become more accommodating and less paranoid. At the same time, though, significant policy change has not been forthcoming. This will likely continue to be the case for as long as the Obama White House ignores history and maintains the failed approach of enforcing preconditions for lifting its trade embargo which will continue to be refused by Havana.

Drug War: Mexico Bleeds

Drug-related violence in Mexico reached new peaks during 2009, with a staggering 7,800 homicides reported there, bringing to more than 16,000 the number of deaths that have been caused since President Felipe Calderon’s anti-trafficking offensive began in 2007. However, one of the unforeseen consequences of Mexico’s attempts to purge the major cartels and criminal gangs from its territory has been an increase in common crime across Central America.

Over the last year, most notably in Honduras and Guatemala, domestically-organized crime syndicates serving as proxies for Mexican cartels have openly targeted their home governments and their security forces.

The Honduran head of anti-drug trafficking operations, General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, was gunned down in Tegucigalpa in December after seizing several large compounds thought to be owned by the Sinaloa cartel. During the past year, Honduras has also earned the dubious distinction of having one of the highest murder rates in the world, at 53 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

Owing to its proximity to Mexico and the attraction offered to gangs of its environment of impunity and corruption, Guatemala has not fared much better. Most troubling has been the persistent intimidation carried out by the Zetas, the erstwhile armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, which is now a criminal enterprise in its own right. In March, its members threatened President Colom’s life after he denounced their infiltration of the Guatemalan government and security apparatus.

One of the most significant stories at the time of Obama’s inauguration, the drug war in Mexico and Central America has since been relegated to the back burner. Aid assigned to Mexico City under the terms of the Merida Initiative, the controversial U.S.-sponsored security pact intended to stem the influence of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and Central America, has yet to materialize; to date, only 3 percent of the allotted $1.4 billion has been released.

Secretary of State Clinton has argued that complications delaying the disbursement of funds are costing lives in the region. However, as Plan Colombia already has proved, the militarization of what essentially should be a domestic US health issue is now being viewed as a highly ineffective approach. Indeed, Calderon’s military offensive has failed to end the cycle of violence which has gripped his country since 2007.

High profile victories by the state against the cartels, such as the killing of Arturo Beltrán Leyva, and the arrests of Teodoro Garcia and Carlos Beltrán Leyva, have continued to be routinely followed by acts of even more violent reprisal and intimidation, and violent struggles are reflected in the brutal power vacuums they leave. Despite the optimistic claims of the U.S. and Mexican governments, the Washington-backed drug war in Mexico is in no way reducing the strength, capability or brazenness of drug trade organizations.

Early in 2009, former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia issued a plea to President Obama urging him to reconsider the present direction of the failing U.S.-led “drug war.” States across the United States are legalizing medicinal marijuana, a considerable leap considering the draconian laws that existed over the past three decades, but stopping far short of decriminalizing or even legalizing general consumption.

But while the various movements towards liberalizing drug consumption policies have also gained momentum in Mexico, Argentina and even Colombia, as long as the Obama Administration ignores such pleas and continues to target the vast majority of its resources at stemming the supply from abroad, the northbound traffic of narcotics will persist.

Indomitable Brazil

Much like the rest of Latin America’s engagement with Washington during 2009, the story of Brazil’s rapport with the U.S., at the dawn of Barack Obama and coinciding with the twilight of Lula da Silva, has taken place in two acts, with the coup in Honduras representing the pivotal event.

Prior to June 28, the leaders built on former President Bush’s efforts to establish a strong, if shallow relationship between Brasilia and Washington. However, the institutional explosion witnessed in Honduras was the first in a series of notable ruptures between the governments, culminating with Lula referring to Obama as a “disappointment.”

Nevertheless, Lula is in the last year of his final term, and as sure as Brazil’s global profile will continue to rise after he steps down, the Obama Administration’s multipolar worldview must include the South American giant.

Brazil’s intentions to become, if it is not already, a truly non-aligned superpower which can wield great influence on climate change negotiations, vie for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, seek to protect democracy in its sphere of influence and inject itself into the Middle East peace process, have been made perfectly clear in 2009.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial state visit in November rubbed Washington the wrong way, but it is this very relationship of mutual respect, despite some divergent interests, that President Obama should seek out with Brazil. Natural allies who in fact share many common concerns, the U.S. and Brazil have developed what could be the beginnings of a resilient rapport that can be expected to weather occasional differences and disagreements.

After a few tense months of public verbal sparring (and sometimes worse) regarding the Honduran crisis, the Colombian base controversy and the Ahmadinejad visit, President Obama has proposed to President Lula a joint U.S.-Canadian-Brazilian task force to provide aid, relief, security and rebuilding efforts in the wake of the recent devastation in Haiti.

Brazil’s existing peacekeeping enclave in that nation combined with about 20,000 US troops who will be deployed to the island will certainly prove invaluable. Despite their sporadic differences, the natural partnership between both countries ought to be further encouraged by their respective governments and should remain a high priority for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela and Obama’s agenda for the region.

Assembling a Staff

Regarding personnel, the absence of key officials proved the biggest impediment to sound regional policy over the past twelve months, as Republican Senator Jim DeMint, unhappy with Obama’s Honduras policy, blocked the confirmation of Valenzuela until November.

The Georgetown professor eventually joined Obama’s other Latin America appointees; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Frank Mora, and Dan Restrepo, the director of Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. Valenzuela aside, some of the remaining figures are an unknown quantity, but taken as a team, their record up to now has been far from compelling.

Once confirmed, we celebrated Valenzuela’s considerable experience of Latin American affairs, and his welcome pragmatic style that appears to fit Obama’s measured diplomatic approach to the region. Nevertheless, Valenzuela, one of the authors of Plan Colombia under President Clinton, hardly seems the person to offer an alternative approach to that, and other failed policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Moreover, during his first official visit to the region in December, Valenzuela reportedly riled the Argentine government with comments about the country’s unpaid debts, a concern of vulture funds, but few others. According to El País, Valenzuela spent the majority of his time meeting opposition leaders, before talking to journalists about North American companies’ “worry” over the country’s “legal insecurity.”

In keeping with the administration’s overall approach, Secretary of State Clinton’s tone has fluctuated between the status quo hard line and one of accommodating tolerance. Despite making comments that suggest an improvement in relations between the U.S. and its critics in the region, she subsequently has proffered advice – for example, that doing business with Iran is “a really bad idea” – which will have been wholly unwelcome.

Over the past year, Trade Representative Ron Kirk has buttressed his free trade credentials, unsurprisingly praising the Uribe government’s “remarkable progress” on anti-union violence. Moreover, the administration has lost its valuable White House counsel Greg Craig, lauded by us last year as an inspired appointment, after recriminations over the lack of progress on Guantánamo, and the special envoy for the region Obama promised to appoint during his campaign has failed to materialize.

In spite of its apparent unwillingness to make bold policy changes, and its readiness to continue fractured relations with many of the region’s governments inherited from Bush, the new administration appears to still retain a considerable measure of goodwill among the Latin American public.

A poll conducted by Gallup between July and September found that 51 and 61 percent of respondents approved of the U.S. leadership and president’s performances respectively. Moreover, 71 percent of respondents to the annual Latinobarómetro poll were happy with Obama.

By predominantly appointing Clinton administration veterans, Obama has ensured that his administration’s approach to Latin America will, in policy terms, adhere almost entirely to an inherited status quo. While a full compliment of Obama appointees may well bring more coherence, Valenzuela’s ill-timed Argentine gaffe hardly suggests a promising future, and Obama’s public support will likely subside as disillusionment takes hold over a program that posits few surprises.

Change Meets Intransigence

The indications that Barack Obama’s campaign trail contradictions and the administration appointments made both before and after his inauguration concerning the likely direction of his Western Hemisphere policy, were sufficient to instill concern among well informed policy groups and academic circles at the time, and those worries will not have subsided.

Over the past twelve months, a pattern has emerged whereby the Obama Administration’s rhetoric on U.S.-Latin American relations has been belied by the limited actions the president has to date been interested in taking.

While it ultimately failed to realize the aim of a multilateral solution to the crisis in Honduras, and in doing so invoked widespread criticism of its approach towards hemispheric affairs, the Obama Administration at least showed a willingness to sidestep unilateralism, only forced into single-handedly brokering a deal as a last resort.

Since then, the administration’s dealings with Brazil at least have proved that a good working relationship with Washington no longer has to be predicated on slavish adherence to the White House’s world view. Under Bush, President Lula’s recent engagement with Iran would almost certainly have seen Brasilia shunned, but Obama’s subsequent cooperation with the Brazilian leader has provided evidence of change and maturity in that respect. In a similar vein, the Obama Administration has succeeded in toning down much of the belligerent rhetoric aimed at Hugo Chávez under Bush.

Nevertheless, when one looks at the administration’s concrete policy actions to date, it is clear that the status quo continues to prevail. Shortly after Obama called for “a new era of engagement” in a speech at the UN in September, Hugo Chávez remarked astutely, “Sometimes one gets the sensation that there are two Obamas. One, who gave the speech, is good. The other makes decisions that are contradictory to his speech.” Indeed, rhetoric and diplomacy are only one side of the coin.

It is telling that Obama’s most significant policy measure up to now has been to sign a highly controversial military agreement with Colombia, signaling an intention to continue pursuing the same militarized approach to the War on Drugs which failed to yield significant results in reducing coca cultivation under Clinton or Bush. Higher up on the distribution chain, the Mexican anti-drug offensive is entering its third year with no end in sight.

The Merida Initiative, which, most likely, will not quell the violence, has yet to take off. Obama and members of his cabinet have begun to draw down their War on Drugs rhetoric, while simultaneously challenging the U.S.- supported structures that end up underpinning the Mexican cartels. These are but small steps in the right direction towards finally shelving the War for good, but the bottom line remains that until the U.S. addresses its own addiction problems, peace will not emerge in any of the countries caught in the corridors of drug trafficking.

In the meantime, the continued militarization of the drug war, coupled with an about-turn in favor of the U.S.-Colombian FTA, demonstrates that strategic geopolitical concerns remain at the forefront of Washington’s collective thinking, to the detriment of the thousands of Colombian victims of human rights abuses, the millions of displaced in that country, and the thousands of dead in Central America. This represents a snub of fellow regional governments, despite the administration’s rhetoric of diplomacy and concern.

The status quo approach to Cuba also has persisted under Obama, where despite reversing some of Bush’s more damaging exercises, he has failed to push further, insisting on reciprocal action from Havana, an approach which has failed U.S. policy makers for almost 50 years.

Looking ahead, Obama is beginning his second year as president with a new hemispheric issue to contend with. The earthquake which devastated Haiti on January 12 drew swift pledges of financial aid and troops from Washington, but at the time of writing, recriminations are flying regarding the chaotic nature of the relief efforts. While it is too soon to judge the Obama Administration on its approach, Haiti will prove a good test of Washington’s willingness to address seriously the consequences of another failed U.S. foreign policy arena and will undoubtedly inform an assessment of its regional policy six or twelve months from now.

Currently, the greatest hope for change comes not from the White House but from the House of Representatives, where Democrats have succeeded in holding up the Colombian FTA for almost three years, and are closing in on passing significant legislation which would lift the Cuban travel ban. The officials appointed by Obama to important administration positions have now been confirmed and, while doubt should be expressed about the degree of change they are capable of initiating, they must be given a chance before judgment is passed.

Likewise, Obama seems genuine in his attempts to alter the U.S.’s worldview, and time will provide a better picture of his success in forging a comprehensive multilateral approach to diplomacy as the region deals with challenges in Haiti and new issues arise.

Nevertheless, while policy continues to move in the wrong direction on a number of fronts, regional disappointment surrounding the president’s first year in office is entirely justified, with the question remaining whether the White House is capable of doing more for the region than tossing feel-good rhetoric at its multiple problems.

Guy Hursthouse and Tomás Ayuso are research fellows at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org. The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: coha@coha.org.

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