Obama’s Answer to Brazil and LatAm: the Audacity of Being Vague

US senator Barack Obama As the U.S. presidential campaign heats up, Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has not been very eager to comprehensively address Latin America as an issue. In recent years, the region has undergone a major tectonic shift towards the left, surely prompting many to wonder how the young Illinois Senator might deal with progressive change throughout the hemisphere were he elected to the White House.

Would he seek to continue the rabidly hawkish stance of the Bush administration towards such nations as Venezuela, or could he be convinced to broker a rapprochement? Given his statements to date, it's unlikely that Obama would be as militaristic or confrontational as McCain.

However, Obama's vagueness is a little troubling, and unfortunately, a compliant press corps has failed to aggressively pressure him to state his positions more clearly. Oddly, Obama doesn't even mention Latin America on his campaign website.

Colombia: Some Cautious First Steps

Though you wouldn't know it from watching TV news or reading most newspapers, the Colombian civil conflict continues even today, and the U.S. government still funnels billions of dollars in military aid to the right-wing regime of ílvaro Uribe. The policy is a complete and total misuse of U.S. taxpayer funds, not to mention a means of support for human rights abuses in that unfortunate Andean nation.

What does Obama have to say about this serious matter? He has explained that the flow of drugs from Colombia should be reduced, and has questioned President Bush's close alliance with the Uribe administration (which has been tied to right-wing paramilitary death squads). In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.

"The problem," Obama wrote, "is compounded by the Colombian government's questionable implementation of the paramilitary demobilizations." To his credit, Obama took a strong stance in his letter advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks.

The government, Obama argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries' financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then "maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify."

When push came to shove, however, Obama failed to join his liberal colleague Russ Feingold in pressuring the Colombian government to address these problems. In July 2005, Feingold, as well as Senators Christopher Dodd and Patrick Leahy, called on Rice not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions until greater progress was made on a series of issues. Where was Obama? Unfortunately, the Senator failed to sign the letter.

On the other hand, Obama did join Dodd and Leahy in criticizing Nicholas Burns, the outgoing Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who played down the Colombian problem on the pages of the Miami Herald. The Illinois legislator also gave his support to a letter signed by Dodd and Leahy and addressed to Uribe.

In it, the senators expressed concern over public statements by some government officials, including President Uribe, which have led to attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and other members of civil society. "A more peaceful, just, and stable Colombia is undoubtedly in our national interest," Obama has remarked.

Those are surely compelling words, but Obama's critics may very well be right when they accuse Obama of not offering tangible solutions. Colombia's problems are rooted in historic and social inequities, and the unequal distribution of land. The War on Drugs prosecuted by Washington and Bogotá has exacerbated such tensions.

How does Obama intend to resolve the intractable civil conflict in Colombia? Would he continue the counterproductive War on Drugs for an indefinite period, even though it has proven tremendously costly in human terms? The Illinois Senator needs to do more than simply offer up polite and diplomatic protestations to the Bush White House and must come up with a plan of his own.

From Bush to Obama

All of this is not meant to suggest that Obama would be incapable of articulating a more creative foreign policy in the region. To his credit once again, Obama praised Latin American countries for carrying out recent elections which have brought left-leaning governments to power.

"In many ways," Obama noted in a March 2007 speech, "these election results symbolize the important political, economic, and social changes occurring throughout the Americas. As many have noted, the elections gave voice to a yearning across the hemisphere for social and economic development – a yearning among tens of millions of people for a better life."

In contrast to John McCain, who excoriates the rise of leftist regimes such as those of Chávez and Evo Morales in Bolivia, Obama views some of these political developments in Latin America positively.

Though he did not state the names of individual regimes in his speech, Obama remarked that recent electoral trends in Latin America were a "welcome development." In a jab perhaps aimed at the Bush administration's interventionist regional foreign policy, Obama added a new twist: "too often, change in the Americas has occurred in an anti-democratic fashion. Those days must permanently be put to rest."

Continuing to lash out at the President, Obama noted that "our [United States'] standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush Administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by six years of neglect and mismanagement of relations."

On a high note, Obama added that, "If we pay careful attention to developments throughout the region, and respond to them in a thoughtful and respectful way, then we can advance our many and varied national interests at stake in the Americas." Moreover, Obama hit Bush hard for neglecting Latin America and failing to deliver much needed economic aid.

Obama remarked that with the exception of HIV/AIDS funding, Bush has slashed assistance for both economic development and health programs in the Americas. In contrast, Obama pledged to help alleviate poverty in the region, an initiative "which is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values."

Obama and Afro-Latinos

Though Obama has not focused on Latin America nearly as much as some of his Senate colleagues, such as Patrick Leahy, have urged him to do, the Illinois lawmaker has taken a long-standing interest in the plight of Afro-Latinos. Early in his Senate career, Obama declared that "From Colombia to Brazil to the Dominican Republic to Ecuador, persons of African descent continue to experience racial discrimination and remain among the poorest and most marginalized groups in the entire region.

"While recent positive steps have been taken in some areas-for example, giving land titles to Afro-Colombians and passing explicit anti-discrimination legislation in Brazil – much work still needs to be done to ensure that this is the beginning of an ongoing process of reform, not the end."

Obama noted that Afro-Latinos were more likely to become refugees or victims of violence within areas of conflict in their own countries. Obama went on to detail the many problems faced by Afro-Latinos, such as a lack of access to health services and a high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Moreover, Obama added that Afro-Latinos were subject to far greater rates of aggression from local police forces than are generally perceived.

Obama lamented the fact that in the previous Senate, there was not one mention of the millions of Afro-Latinos who continued to experience widespread discrimination and socioeconomic marginalization. "Emerging civil society groups are growing stronger throughout many countries in Latin America, and this growth should be encouraged as it presents important opportunities for partnerships and collaboration," Obama said.

In another speech, Obama spoke eloquently on the subject of Afro-Latinos. "In the wake of Hurricane Katrina," he said, "our own country is being awakened to a great divide in our midst. As we struggle with troubling intersections of race and class, and how we have failed the most vulnerable members of our population, I hope we will be able to take a moment to reflect on similar struggles in places such as Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela."

Obama has praised the Uribe government for creating a cabinet-level position on Afro-Colombian issues and appointing an Afro-Colombian to fill the post. He noted the political importance and symbolism of the move: Afro-Colombians have long been subject to racial and economic discrimination in the country.

"It is my hope that this will encourage other governments in Latin America to consider taking additional measures to address racial discrimination," Obama said, "as well as economic and social marginalization, faced by Afro-descendants in their countries."

However, as the Senator is surely aware, the Chávez government has made great strides in addressing the plight of Afro-Venezuelans, while Uribe only began to confront this problem recently. Chávez, for example, has created a special commission to address racism in Venezuelan society, "and has seen fit to include a special provision in his constitution that protects the rights of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous peoples.

In Barlovento, a coastal region populated mainly by Afro-Venezuelans, one can vividly witness the degree to which the poor have benefited from the government's health and education programs.

Chávez: The Political Hot Potato

While praising Colombia, a controversial U.S. ally, for its positive steps to address the racial divide, Obama is wrong to show such caution when it comes to Venezuela. If anything, Chávez has done far more to help people of African descent than Uribe, but the Senator hasn't singled out the Venezuelan leader for his excellent track record.

That's not surprising given the virulently anti-Chávez mood in Washington on both sides of the party divide, but it raises questions about Obama's level of sophistication regarding political developments in Venezuela, not to mention his strategy for dealing with Chávez.

What does Obama think about the National Endowment for Democracy, for example, and the U.S. role in the April 2002 coup? Would Obama seek to fundamentally reorient U.S. policy and end its prejudicial support for anti-Chávez groups in the country?

Obama's foreign policy advisers, such as Samantha Power, have been frustratingly (and some might say infuriatingly) vague as to what Obama's policy might be. When Power was specifically asked on Democracy Now! to elaborate on Obama's views about Chávez, she only said that her candidate would engage with the Venezuelan leader "in a more intelligent way."

Obama, claimed Power, was very aware of the troubled history between the United States and Latin America, as well as the latter's "suspicion of U.S. motives." Obama, she added, would respect both the right to self determination and the dignity of Latin American countries.

On the other hand, Power said that she found Chávez "problematic" on the issue of human rights. If this is truly her point of view, she risks being on the wrong side of the debate, because Chávez's human rights record compares favorably with most of his hemispheric counterparts.

In his public statements, Obama hasn't cleared up his fundamental problem of vagueness regarding Chávez. Speaking with his supporters, Obama said Chávez had "despotic tendencies" and was using oil money to fan anti-Americanism.

The Illinois Senator did, however, stir ripples when he declared in a CNN-YouTube debate that he would open diplomatic channels to "rogue nations" such as Venezuela. Though certainly mild, Obama's remark quickly embroiled him in a political firestorm with his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who labeled him as "naí¯ve".

In the current political milieu, Obama deserves some praise for going out on a limb in the debate. Although he is still short on specifics, Obama has at least opened up a space for dialogue on both Venezuela and the relationship between the United States and newly emerging left-leaning regimes throughout the region.

He's still a relatively unknown on foreign policy but at least he hasn't staked out a hawkish stand like John McCain, a politician who would surely continue the Bush legacy by antagonizing, bullying, and pushing around smaller, poorer countries who don't go along with Washington's traditional agenda.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008) and is a COHA senior research fellow. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: coha@coha.org.


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