By Rodrigo Acuña
3 December 2008
The former Cuban leader Fidel Castro once said that when it came to Washington, he preferred the Republicans in power because with Democrats it was difficult to know who he was dealing with.
Despite Castro's semi-favourable comments on US President-elect Barack Obama, who he described before the election as "no doubt more intelligent, educated and level-headed than his Republican rival", his past remarks on the unpredictability of Democratic administrations may still be relevant for Latin American countries.
South of the Rio Grande, Obama's victory has certainly been welcomed as a change from eight years of George W Bush's diplomatic and economic bullying. In Colombia, the number of human rights abuses increased during the Bush years. A brief military coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president Hugo Chávez in 2002 was also publicly supported by the Bush administration. In 2004, the neoconservatives in Washington were again up to more tricks, occupying Haiti militarily after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in questionable circumstances.
According to most polls, throughout Latin America Bush will be remembered as one of the most loathed US presidents in history, with the invasion of Iraq touching a particularly raw nerve.
In contrast, during his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly portrayed himself as a man of consensus who would seek to build better diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Liberal commentators — whether in the US, Europe or the Hispanic world — could not praise Obama enough.
A more critical look at the policies on Latin America likely to be adopted by an Obama administration suggests that the current optimism is unwarranted. Yes, relations will hopefully improve, but a sharp break with the past seems unlikely — especially in view of the number of ex-Clinton officials Obama has thus far signed on board.
Latin American leaders have already clearly articulated their priorities to the President-elect. Following Obama's election to the White House, Brazil's President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva stated "I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity."
An hour later in La Paz, Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who earlier this year expelled the U.S. ambassador for his alleged support for local opposition groups made his own statement: "My greatest wish is that Mr Obama can end the Cuba embargo, take troops out of some countries, and also that surely relations between Bolivia and the United States will improve."
Hugo Chávez and Cuban president Raúl Castro have both indicated they will be willing to engage in dialogue with a new Democratic administration in Washington.
Unfortunately, although Obama has promised he will close down Guantánamo Bay as a detention camp, and is even — under certain circumstances — willing to open a dialogue with Havana and Caracas, there is little evidence to suggest he will lift the embargo on Cuba. The embargo has now endured for close to half a century; in the aftermath of the island's recent hurricanes, the consequences were particularly devastating.
In a speech delivered on 23 May 2008 to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, Obama said that while he would not lift the embargo on Cuba he would as President "immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island."
Furthermore, the senator from Illinois described Hugo Chávez as a demagogue and stated that he would "fully support Colombia's fight against" the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while working with the government "to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries". There will, however, be some problems pursuing the latter given the vast body of evidence linking the incumbent president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez to paramilitaries and the drug cartels.
According to Stuart Grudgings, reporting for Reuters on 5 November, Obama "also voiced support for US ally Colombia when it launched a military raid against guerrilla forces camped inside neighbouring Ecuador in March even though it was condemned by many Latin American governments".
Following the Colombia-Ecuador and Venezuela crises, right-wing opposition groups attempted to violently disrupt — if not overthrow — the leftist Morales Government in Bolivia in September. South American countries took an unprecedented move and met under the banner of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), sidestepping the Organisation of American States (OAS) — traditionally the forum to resolve such disputes and historically heavily influenced by the US.
With Venezuela often at the helm, many Latin American countries are pushing for their continued economic and political integration. Like its Republican predecessor, the new Obama administration will not be able to ignore this challenge to Washington's traditional role in the region. Organisations like UNASUR and the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur), a joint South American venture aimed at withstanding the influences of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are a reality.
Several countries in the region are also calling for the establishment of a unified currency to challenge the US greenback. Although falling oil prices have put a dent into Chávez's funding plans for these projects, many social movements and governments are still committed to seeing the region unified in a similar manner to the European Union, albeit with a much more radical socio-political agenda.
While not explicitly acknowledging these trends, Obama made it clear in his Miami speech that he would only be talking to some Latin American leaders, hardly a show of support for regional unity. Through an initiative called the Energy Partnership for the Americas, Obama stated that he intended to "establish a program for the Department of Energy" with US "laboratories to share technology with countries across the region".
He added: "We'll assess the opportunities and risks of nuclear power in the hemisphere by sitting down with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. This is a unique role that the United States can play. We can offer more than the tyranny of oil."
The comment on the "tyranny of oil" was, of course, aimed at Venezuela.
Though some of his speech may have been designed to placate his right-wing Cuban Miami audience, Obama's remarks on a possible US-led proliferation of nuclear power in the region do not seem responsible. In November — and most likely in response to the Obama initiative — Chávez and Russian president Dimitri Medvedev signed a cooperation accord whereby Moscow will aid Caracas in developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes — or so they claim.
Whether an Obama administration will be able to deflate the hopes of many Latin American countries for regional unification remains to be seen. In the current parlous financial climate, the actions of the US in the region may be limited, although organisations like UNASUR and the Bank of the South have not yet been consolidated to their full potential.
Reflecting on Obama's victory, Rafael Correa — president of Ecuador and a strong ally of Venezuela — summarised these issues succinctly. With the Democrats in power, Correa said he expected relations between the US and Latin America to improve. His real dream? That one day "Latin America really doesn't have to worry about who is the president of the United States because it is sovereign and autonomous enough to stand on its own two feet."