The Obama Administration is plainly showing that its policy for South of the Border is equally as empty, indifferent and at times almost maladroit or inept as it has been for nearly a score of years. During last year’s campaign for the White House, Candidate Obama was judged to have a refreshing view of the world and would use ‘soft power’ like diplomacy more than George W. Bush. Latin America in historical foreign policy terms is usually relegated to the back burner at the White House and the State Department. The US has only engaged in Latin America in a serious policy way only three times in the last 60 or more years since WWII ended. First in 1954, Guatemala was the first Cold War challenge in the region. The outcome of this episodic US involvement was the long lasting policy program, the US Military Assistance Act, which enabled the military institutions of the hemisphere to become much more prepared and powerful in relative terms. The second instance was more menacing: Cuba in 1959 with the emergence of Fidel Castro and his subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union. Before the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the Kennedy Administration had formulated the short-lived Alliance for Progress. Castro and his brother, Raul, still remain in power and have become more of a domestic policy issue especially after the end of the Cold War. The third one, the Central American crisis which flared in 1979, led to the Reagan Doctrine’s roll-back policy and an intensive ten year involvement by the US in staving off Cuban and Soviet influence in Central America.
Since 1992 and the fall of the Soviet Union, US policy toward Latin America has been generally ‘insufficient’ or one of ‘benign neglect’. In fact, many observers have concluded that both the Clinton and W. Bush administrations basically handed the lead on Latin policy to the Cuban American lobby in order to secure Florida, a swing state in the Presidential elections. The Summitry Process began by Clinton which some critics considered an every four year photo op and not much more. It did have two substantive themes: a hemispheric free trade area and strongly endorsing democracy by pointing out that Cuba was the only non-democratic country in the region.
After 9/11, Latin America was readily served up and all but forgotten so it seemed. At first, the Bush Administration catered to the fiercely anti-Castro sector which had strongly voted for him. In W’s second term, the policy was pretty much given to the bureaucracy to manage and handle. This disappointed many hardliners. The objective evolved to keep the region’s problems from distracting Secretary Rice from more serious and important areas of concern. The designated hitter for Latin Policy became a fourth level bureaucrat, an Assistant Secretary was left to fend for himself without much visible top cover. Obama reached the White House and Hillary Clinton was ensconced as Secretary of State after having successfully blocked Bill Richardson from the job. Admittedly, Gov. Richardson was in the midst of a brewing scandal in New Mexico. Several political and media wags noted that all the key Latin foreign policy slots have been given to Latinos. These included Dan Restrepo at the NSC, Arturo Valenzuela at State, Frank Mora at Defense and Carmen Lomellin as Ambassador to OAS. This has been applauded notably by the Latino constituency groups. The issue has become now one of policy. Does the Obama administration care about the Latin American region? Where does it stack up? The fact is that the region once again finds itself vis-a-vis the US on the back-burner. It is not on the cutting edge of foreign policy. Yet early on Obama found himself in a tussle on two issues: Cuba and Chavez.
When Obama attended the Summit of the Americas meeting in the spring in Trinidad Tobago, he ran into unexpected or unscripted situations: is the US now ready to re-admit Cuba to the OAS? The vast majority of the Hemisphere’s countries were angling to get Cuba back into the OAS. The Obama team seemed surprised and almost unprepared for this challenge. The other one was how to deal with Chavez. Obama showed class and engaged Chavez briefly but certainly in awkward photo ops. The Cuba question dogged Hillary in the June OAS ministerial in Honduras. At the eleventh hour the Obama team was able to scramble and cobble a mutually acceptable communiqué that did not re-admit Cuba but addressed the irregularity of Cuba being absent from the OAS family. Some labeled the new Administration’s performance “Bush Light.” At the same time the US Mexico relationship was steadily moving forward. Obama revealed his support of Plan Merida to enable Mexico to better take on the drug cartels which have created enormous instability. But the funding for Merida was largely held up because of bureaucratic lack of clarity and other requirements. The other US Mexico challenge is undocumented immigration. No political bravery has emanated from the White House to wrangle with this most sensitive political public policy issue. In fact, no one is able now to predict if immigration reform will be an agenda item in the first two years of the Administration. So far it seems like the Democrats have concluded that the immigration reform bill is a lose-lose situation. The post 9/11 anti-terrorist sentiment coupled with the global economic downturn has inflicted pain on the US body politic. The US public has become more reluctant if not hostile to new immigration flows. This has plainly put a crimp into Obama team’s outlook. The continuation of building the border wall and draconian Homeland Security illegal-immigrant raids on job sites have not been seen sympathetically in Latin America and among Latino audiences in this country.
The more defining moment for the Obama Administration has been the on-going Honduras ‘golpe’ or coup crisis. The Obama team initially sided with the ousted President Zelaya and declared that the sacred principles of democracy had to be adhered and respected. Hence, Zelaya’s restoration to power became the battle cry for US interests in the initial months. Five months later the Obama administration is backtracking on the defense of democratic principles. The Administration appears to have tired of the Honduran crisis. The de facto regime in Honduras dug in and used PR and propaganda cleverly. More interesting seemed to be the Administration’s inability to persuade the defacto regime to cede power. Honduras is small with no political influence, no economic power nor military might — only diplomacy is in its arsenal. The US having all these options thinks in exhausting the first three before employing diplomacy. Hence, the Hondurans readily resorted to the old small country approach to concerns: use diplomacy but follow the rules of not speaking first, do not get angry and finally if unable to resolve favorably the problem then tangle it more. In using these tactics, Honduras wore out the US. The Obama administration slowly began to show impatience and wariness. They saw Honduras as a small pesky country becoming increasingly more annoying and troublesome on the international stage.
Finally, the US after having declared itself initially pro-restoration of Zelaya and passing the problem to the OAS and Nobel Laureate President Arias of Costa Rica to resolve saw itself being drawn back into the fray. The contentious process dragged out in the discussion of whether the ouster of the Honduran President was legal or not. It attracted Republican die-hearts who defended the coup (because of the Chavista factor against Zelaya) while the Administration and the whole international community condemned the coup as anti-democratic. Obama’s team began to see themselves politically caught between a rock and a hard place: do we support and restore a Chavista (enemy of the US ) while defending democracy? After five months, Secretary of State Clinton and her Assistant Secretary for Latin America (who was being denied confirmation as Ambassador to Brazil by the Republicans) sought to cut a deal and injected themselves finally into the process to basically extricate themselves from this tar-baby. This required an about face or a betrayal of the previous US position. This has now become most troubling in Latin America to see the young dynamic US Administration as less than gracious in this process. In fact, many pundits in and outside the US are remarking or noting that the Administration not only demonstrated confusion or ineptitude or at best a maladroit approach, but callously left most of the OAS membership holding the bag.
To shore up support and bring someone high-level from the US Administration, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis was chosen to be the senior US participant in a so-called Verification Commission to secure the recent signed accords now being hailed as the final solution. Solis, practically unwitting or unfamiliar with the situation, was carefully choreographed by the State Department to ensure that she would stick to the diplomatic script and not become a freelancer. Hilda had been initially hailed as the most liberal member of the Obama cabinet but by the time she left Tegucigalpa she was seen as apologist for the defacto ‘golpista’ government. She now takes the hit, not Hillary. Rather clever and cynical maneuvering it was indeed. As soon as Tom Shannon, the State Department’s overseer of this whole show announced that the Hondurans no longer had to restore Zelaya to get international recognition of the upcoming elections, the defacto government felt it was off the hook and home free. The Brazilians, who are housing Zelaya in their Embassy and waiting for his restoration, feel the US has behaved at best negligently and indifferent. The problem could have been avoided or minimize by having initially forceful high-level US leadership on the issue. The OAS had its Secretary General and all the countries in the region had their Presidents or Prime Minister through their Foreign Ministers decry this US perfidy. The US has had a fourth-rung bureaucrat (the Assistant Secretary) in the lead. Obama’s team failed to recognized from the beginning the limitations of the State Department if not given top White House cover. Moreover, in handing over the volatile issue in this case to the bureaucracy, it plainly did not understand that ‘diplomats seek the path of least resistance, they believe in nothing and everything to everyone’ and as bureaucrats they adhere to: never get between a bureaucrat and his/her ambitions. They mow you down….the additional factor is that while the US behaved like a world power during the Cold War: it basically ordered everyone except the Soviets to do its bidding. In Spanish it was referred to as the ‘dedazo’…now in the post Cold War-era even the tiny insignificant powers have begun to lose their fear of the US. Yet this muddle and lack of focus produce the image of a Gulliver with Lilliputians throwing ropes over his back to bring him down. The US Latino community regardless of partisan bias will feel that if this is all the Obama Administration can provide in terms of moral leadership and support for democratic ideals and most of all the lack of consistency in policy toward Latin America then a closer look at the expectations must be undertaken. Disappointment is the only word to describe the first real test of fortitude, skill and determination in dealing with Latin America. Arturo Valenzuela the new Assistant Secretary will now have to rectify, re-define as well as need to provide the real Obama vision of the region.