Democrats Have a Chance to Reshape Bush’s Flawed Latin American Policy

Is there, or will there be, a revitalized Democratic Latin American policy as distinct from the farrago of ineptitude witnessed under the Bush administration? To begin, in Bush’s eye, the Cold War remains.

The head of his personal list of enemies is Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and, of course, Fidel Castro. While this may be a faithful characterization of the Bush hemispheric strategy, it does not differ that much from the opportunism and occasional meretricious initiatives of the Clinton administration and its all-encompassing pursuit of free trade.

Clinton’s controversial trade agenda predictably developed a sharp cleavage over policy both within the Democratic and Republican parties as well as between them.

NAFTA was the Vanguard

Recalling the extremely close vote over one of Clinton’s premier foreign policy initiatives – the passage of NAFTA in 1994 – his operatives had to depend upon a higher percentage of Republican than Democrat legislators to achieve a narrow victory.

A heavy majority of Democratic legislators mobilized against NAFTA while the Republicans overwhelmingly supported it. The same political division is likely to once again occur if the hemisphere-inclusive FTAA trade bill ever manages to reach the floor of Congress and is voted upon.

Clinton’s Latin American Docket

Upon taking office, President Clinton and his administration envisaged a strictly defined, trade-dominated agenda towards Latin America. Looking back on his largely failed regional policy, one can see that the delimited nature of its focus on trade and more trade was the key ingredient of its relative lack of success.

If there was any exception to the Clinton administration’s mainly languorous interest in the region, it was its Jacobin orientation toward Cuba-related issues. In the first Clinton campaign, the Democratic candidate cynically moved to the right to outflank the first President Bush by taking a more bellicose stand on Havana; he therein relentlessly socked away at Castro in order to push Bush aside so as to obtain a share of the campaign donations and tap into the political clout of Miami’s Cuban-American community.

Clinton apparently felt no great loss in sacrificing a balanced Cuba policy in favor of shrill invective, as well as artful tactic to win over Florida’s vital Electoral College votes. The Clinton administration soon revealed that there were a great number of dark spots in its snapshot of the region.

If one accepts that such benchmarks as social justice, pressing environment issues, the aspiration for a just society, as well as the conviction that the implementation of hemispheric inclusiveness is where U.S. regional policy should be, then both the Clinton and the successor Bush administrations got it wrong both in theory as well as in practice.

An Impoverishment of Vision

For the Bush administration, there was a lingering line of now irrelevant Cold War ideology that would have been best to foil and then sweep away, because the basis for such concerns were eliminated with the demise of the Soviet bloc in 1991.

Nevertheless, without the distraction of the anti-Soviet crusade still at work, the battlefield was left clear for a right-wing Republican absorption of Clinton’s thirst for trade deals, which, after all, was basically entirely congruent with traditional Republican values. In addition to this mix however, was a potent brew of neo-con negativity from a dramatically radicalizing Bush State Department, particularly emanating from its Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs.

This office had been rendered even more extremist by the strident orientation of its first Assistant Secretary of State, Otto Reich and his equally rabid successor, Roger Noriega. For these envenomed regional players, trade matters could be left to the Treasury and the White House’s Trade Office, while they continued with their main lethal obsession that sprang from their determination to bring down the Castro regime and any other rogue states that looked or sounded like Havana.

This was the assessment that they would apply before implementing any other major regional policy-making initiatives, and was also the yardstick used to evaluate the worth of other Latin American leaderships. Where nations stood within the region in relation to Castro and what they were doing to isolate Hugo Chávez, in addition to whether they were prepared to join the coalition of the willing on Iraq, became the visa-to-friendship between these countries and the current administration.

In fact, any amateur historian could have told Clinton – as well as the Bush administrations – that Cold War ideology did not die in the early 1990s, as Clinton once claimed – it merely had gone underground where it would hibernate until a more propitious season for it to thrive came along.

At the beginning of the Bush administration’s term, an intense ideological posturing began in addition to the reassertion of the pro-free trade docket, while anti-Castro diatribes that were tempered to new extremes of hardness, were once again launched at the aging Cuban strongman.

At this point, a fast-breaking scenario began to unfold. The Soviet era’s Cold War compass was still sympathetically spinning for the Bush administration and its impact was not only theoretical. Meanwhile, memories of that period were profoundly and irrationally honored in U.S.-backed Latin American national security doctrines, even though the themes of privatization programs, bilateral free trade pacts, and market integration had substituted a new vocabulary and a new emphasis for Washington’s new regional jihad – the war against terrorism.

Meanwhile, the ideologues – Reich and Noriega – free of any admonishment by their seniors due to the distractions posed by the Iraq War, could now, undisturbed, commit themselves to their life’s work of mopping up Castro, and later Chávez.

While such a gameplan would be good enough for Know-Nothing Americans and affluent Latin Americans led by their local captains of industry, along with the new professional class who were admirably suited to feast off of expanding commerce, it turned out to be pretty thin gruel for the chronically poor, the indigenous, and the millions of a given population who found themselves part of the rural and urban unemployed and underemployed. For those seeking even slightly improved standards of living and a portal into a better life, the contrast was embittering.

Clearing the Decks for Trade

During the time that it has ruled, the Bush administration’s paramount mistake with regional issues has been that, in its concentrated quest for orthodox trade models that adhere to traditional conservative ideals and the raw ideology that was targeted at a number of Latin American leftist bull’s eyes, it acted as if it had found the globe’s most potent concoction.

This was reflected in militant proselytizing for the full implementation of the Washington Consensus trade model, first devised under Clinton. But the fact was that, at this end of the political spectrum, those of that persuasion were only nursing an illusion. Like Hitler’s Third Reich, Washington’s game plan for expunging a radical strain from anywhere in the hemisphere where it surfaced, would not last for a thousand years, but scarcely a decade.

Because of their preoccupation with the time-consuming Iraq debacle, senior U.S. policy makers had hardly any quality moments to soothe a maladroit strategy or to soberly assess the proper mixture of good ideas and high quality personnel. In this respect, they were unable to field what could pass as a successful regional policy, value-driven both in concept and practice.

Such a plan would want to reflect both rectitude and a readiness to address their national interests as well as Washington’s. Poverty abatement, social justice issues, and attending to the correct practices, whose lack would otherwise hobble society’s reasonable expectations, and prevent a commitment to an authentic rather than a faux democracy, which would be part of the recipe.

But the neo-cons charged with working hemispheric issues under Bush – who were particularly fertile in the Defense and State Departments – neither represented an undeniable strong moral force nor were comparable to the Pope’s army in the service of an indisputable cause. Rather, they were little better than a gaggle of bullies and ill-motivated Pharisees, who used perverse versions of such concepts as democracy, human rights, and market liberalization to express their selective indignation against those on the left, including such leftist luminaries as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa or Bolivia’s Evo Morales, let alone Chávez, and of course, Castro, all of whom were accused by U.S. officials at one time or another of being the dupe of some progressive cause.

Selective Indignation

Of course, a policy based upon the pursuit of social justice and a respect for a nation’s authentic sovereignty would be the antithesis of what the Bush policy was plying in Latin America. The role played by its questionable certification process, for example, which almost entirely relied upon spurious evidence and cooked data to make its case regarding Venezuela’s supposedly unacceptable performance in such areas as drugs, terrorism, and human trafficking, ended up by being little more than self-discrediting.

An example of this was intelligence czar John Negroponte’s recent establishment of a special Cuban-Venezuelan unit with great fanfare and whose implications were perfectly clear, since the only other special units were those set up for North Korea and Iran.

Moreover, one of Negroponte’s previous avatars – as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s – could be handily cited as how to be deeply involved in covering up something like Contra death squad activities against Hondurans opposed to U.S. policy in Nicaragua, and get away with it by repeatedly claiming, as Negroponte did, amnesia during his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to the UN, where he denied any such role before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, despite impressive in-depth evidence to the contrary.

Parallel to when Negroponte’s especially set-up Cuban-Venezuelan unit became operational, the State Department, ever since Chávez’s landslide win in the presidential race, has switched directions and is now ostensibly trying to engage Venezuela in joint projects. After repeated bashings of Venezuela and castigating that Caracas was unworthy of being certified for its cooperation in Washington’s anti-drug war, it abruptly changed its line.

State Department spokesman Scott McCormack redacted the Bush administration’s usual tart language that it lavishes on Chavez, calling on Caracas to "work together." He noted that "we have been able to work pretty effectively together."

Ironically, McCormack is extending his hand to Chavez over the very transgressions on Chávez’s part, whose alleged failure the Bush administration recently used to discredit Caracas, as exemplified by the U.S. denying Caracas its anti-drug certification.

A Prescription for Success

If Washington now means to turn its attention to salvaging its currently deformed relations with it southern neighbors, it must come to the realization that to be a true friend of the hemisphere, it must approach the table with a policy in which each constituent nation must be allowed to go in its own direction and generate its own autonomous choice of global options, in order to service each one’s unique perspectives, as has not been the case of Washington’s style of dealing with Cuba and Venezuela. This means that it should not be automatic, or necessarily entirely kindred to the White House’s hypertrophied passion for control and definition.

Washington’s regional policy today is one frozen in time, concretized by a non-stop effort to defame and marginalize, as has been the case with its attempts to war in this matter against Cuba and Venezuela, as well as to try to tarnish individuals and movements throughout the continent whose mortal offense could begin with their rejecting the thesis that what is private is intrinsically superior to what is public, and that the private corporation should be equal to the state in its legal personality. This is not so much a policy as it is a self-indulgent wayward gambol that has little appeal to either Latin American leaders or their multiple publics.

To initiate a policy of relevance which at the same time is hallmarked by gravitas, while it reaches out for opportunities for constructive engagement with Latin American nations that previously have been demonized as rogue powers, Washington must first honestly address its differences with Cuba and Venezuela. This must be carried out not through imposing some Miami-pandering Republican-authored diktat, but by means of a convergence of a mature application of traditional diplomatic skills.

The result of such efforts should, in turn, be fused to a balanced policy based on addressing some of the main economic, political and social issues plaguing the entire hemisphere. Some of the latter could involve the heavy hand of debt burdens, the shortage of investment capital, or the snares of profound differences over immigration policy.

This trajectory could at least provide U.S. negotiators and those speaking for an increasingly united Latin America, with some basis for hope for a successful resolution of some of the most long-lived differences existing today between Washington and its two Caribbean basin foes. Even if one is quick to dismiss such musings as a pipe dream, it still remains critically important that an awareness of the debilitating impact of a series of misguided State Department policies on the hemisphere must be nursed in order to reverse the detrimental effects.

Perhaps Latin America could appeal to the U.S. Democrat leadership to take a bold move inspired by the Baker-Hamilton mission to tackle the regional problem as a cluster project, but this time applying the formula in the Western Hemisphere rather than the Middle East. Here the Democrats can say that we will solve the Cuba and Venezuela issues, but we will do it as a cohort involving all of the regional players, similar to the proposal, that Iran, Syria and Palestine are included in solving the question of Iraq.

The Democratic Alternative

U.S.-Latin American relations under President Clinton now seem barely discernable from the harshly politicized bad patches of the Bush era. It is this seamless fusion that is so disturbing, as well as the conviction that little is likely to change in the near future under those who will continue to control the White House until early 2009. This is reason enough to treasure the few instances where Democrats showed more than random spunk and some slightly less formulaic insights into the complexities of the triangular relations between the U.S., Cuba and Venezuela.

Generally, the Democratic leadership has either ignored or all too often trivialized the importance of regional relations, numbly accepting an obsolescent and grossly sterile manner of relating to Cuba. It might be useful to prescribe a more simple approach to the Democrats on how to make amends – simply do everything opposite of what was done yesterday when it comes to U.S.-Latin American strategies.

Meanwhile, the combative rhetoric borrowed from a Republican lexicon will soon be handed over to Democratic counterparts. The question is whether the Democrats will make use of it or unlikely enough decide to go their own way. For example, presidential contender John Kerry, during his last presidential race, found that Hugo Chávez’s "close relationship with Fidel Castro has raised serious questions about his commitment to leading a truly democratic government."

Could they not say the same about Kazakhstan or thirty or forty other countries, some of them close allies of the U.S.? This relatively unlettered remark may have been one of the few occasions that Kerry has referred to the region at all.

In general, mainstream Democratic speechmakers consistently used dismissive language when it came to references to Chávez, let alone Castro. Anti-Chávez rants peaked with his recent "devil" speech delivered at the UN on the occasion of the duel between the U.S. and Venezuela, over who would fill the two-year Latin American seat on the UN’s Security Council.

For Nancy Pelosi, "Hugo Chávez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar but all he is an everyday thug," while the venerable House Democrat and Black Caucus leader, New York’s Charles Rangel, contributed the shameless piece of puffery that "You don’t come into my country; you don’t come into my congressional district and you don’t condemn my president."

U.S.-Venezuelan and Cuban relations deserve better than that, especially because there are a number of knowledgeable senators, which would include Kennedy, Leahy, Dodd and Harkin, who readily come to mind, as well as Congressman Delahunt of Massachusetts.

The Irreducible Agenda

The issues of immigration, terrorism, drugs, energy questions and incipient rivalries with China over resources and new investments in Cuba, should afford a lively time for U.S.-Latin America relations in the near future, even though it is likely to generate more heat than light. It is not too much to say that the incoming Democratic leadership remains sadly under-equipped to coherently debate a range of serious issues that deserve to be ventilated beyond sound bites and canned quips.

When it comes to regional ties, with only few exceptions, the entire U.S. Congress is all but functionally illiterate, so that an attempt to ferret out a "Democratic" as distinguished from a Republican Latin American policy will likely be a thankless task. When it comes to hemispheric relations, the Democratic leadership is hardly more conversant than its Republican colleagues.

If there is any way to improve U.S. policy, it must be as a result of more than happenstance. It must come about due to specific people responding to specific needs that are being recognized at the highest places in governance. An array of important hemispheric issues must be made the subject of a free-wheeling, and constructive debate that would serve the common interests of the entire hemisphere.

This process hopefully will end up conveying a spirit of flexibility, mutual respect, and a recognition that no one nation, including the U.S., has a monopoly on good thinking or upon gracious vision, or possesses the unique capacity to innovate and move the region along its own natural path in friendship and mutual respect. It is something that has to be worked towards.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns, and is a slightly modified version of an article appearing in the winter issue of the Democratic Left, a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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