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Latin America: Obama’s Opportunity


Venezuela held regional elections on Sunday, 23 November, and opposition candidates made substantial gains against the governing party of President Hugo Chávez, winning at least five governorships (of 22), including the two most populous states and the mayorality of Metropolitan Caracas). Chávez announced that he accepted the results, and added that “these elections demonstrated that there is a democratic system here and that the decision of the people is respected here” (Cadena Global, 24 November 2008 ).

This was the second consecutive electoral defeat for Chávez: last year he lost a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would have permitted him to be reelected without term limits. Before that, he had an unbroken series of election victories dating back to his first election in 1998.

This is important because the Bush administration has consistently portrayed Chávez as a threat to democracy, even as he built impressive popular majorities and confronted several opposition attempts to force him from power by non-electoral means. That included a coup in 2002 that nearly succeeded, and that was transparently supported by the United States.

The pattern is not unusual. For more than a century, the United States has treated Latin America as its “back yard,” and has repeatedly taken action to undermine or overthrow governments that were distasteful to Washington. Democratically elected governments have never been immune from such pressure: the US orchestrated the overthrow of democratic presidents in Guatemala (1954), Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1991). There is evidence of CIA complicity in other coups, such as Dominican Republic (1963), and Brazil (1964). It is well-documented that the US intervened to undermine other governments, short of actual coups: Nicaragua (1980s), Cuba (since 1959), Venezuela (since 1998), Bolivia (since 2006).

During the Cold War, the first priority of US policy was anticommunism: whatever government would deliver on that would be supported, and any even suspected of a lack of enthusiasm in the cause were subject to subversion or direct overthrow. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has focused more on economic issues, such as access to Latin America’s raw materials and markets. But whatever the policy priorities, Latin American countries have been treated as virtual colonies.

I have earlier argued in this space (LA Progressive, September 12, 2008 ) that:

A sane foreign policy for the 21st century should begin with the principle that the United States’ interests are to be broadly conceived: a world of peace and widely distributed prosperity, a world that seriously confronts major environmental and energy challenges, is a world that serves the true interests of this country. We ought to actively pursue those interests, which can only be ill-served by the truculent militarism of the last eight years.

President Barack Obama can turn a new page in our relations with Latin America by turning away from the imperialist heritage and treating the region with respect and attention. Both have been lacking, not only under George W. Bush, but as a general pattern since the Spanish-American War of 1898. Progressive foreign policy in Latin America must begin by respecting democratically elected governments and ceasing to undermine those with which we disagree.

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Instead, we should commit to mature negotiation of differences between sovereign countries. And even though the Cuban regime is not democratic, that doesn’t give us the right to undermine its economy and threaten its political regime over 50 years. US hostility has indeed helped to keep Fidel Castro in power. We should end the embargo, recognize the Cuban government, and return the base at Guantánamo Bay to the Cuban government as its rightful owner (see “Guantánamo Bay: Don’t Just Close It, Give It Back,” LA Progressive, September 19, 2008 )

A world of peace in Latin America should begin by ceasing our support for Latin American military establishments, which uniformly act to control their own populations rather than defending their countries from outside aggression. Currently, most military aid is linked to counter-narcotics (to no discernible effect), but the repressive consequences are the same.

Latin America, with encouragement from both the US government and multinational corporations, maintains the most egregious inequality of income and property in the world, and the majority of the region’s population remains miserably poor. The US should make it a priority of its aid programs to promote a much more egalitarian distribution of resources, which in turn will enhance the prosperity of the region by giving people more purchasing power.

A major supplier of energy (oil, coal, gas, ethanol), minerals (copper, tin, nitrates, among others), and agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar cane, meat, among others), Latin America is a principal center of struggle for a world that is environmentally sustainable. The Obama administration needs to find ways to work with Latin Americans to make their environment more healthy and thereby contribute massively to the health and well-being of the whole world. What we cannot do is require them to forgo the benefits of economic development in order to save us from the consequences of our own bad management of our environment.


A foreign policy along these lines in Latin America would not only be immensely popular there, it would, by improving the quality of life there, reduce the numbers of Latin Americans who are impelled by desperation to risk the journey to “El Norte.”

John Peeler

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