There were great hopes in Latin America when President Obama was elected. U.S. standing in the region had reached a low point under George W. Bush, and all of the hemisphere’s left-leaning governments expressed optimism that Obama would go in a different direction.
These hopes have been dashed. President Obama has continued the Bush policies and in some cases has done worse.
The military overthrow of democratically elected President Mel Zelaya of Honduras on June 28 has become a clear example of Obama’s failure in the hemisphere. There were signs that something was amiss in Washington from the beginning, when the first statement from the White House failed to even criticize, much less condemn, the coup. It was the only such statement from a government to take a neutral position. The General Assembly of the United Nations and the Organization of American States voted unanimously for “the immediate and unconditional return” of President Zelaya.
Conflicting statements from the White House and State Department emerged over the ensuing days, but last Friday the State Department made clear its “neutrality” as between the dictatorship and the democratically elected president of Honduras. In a letter to Senator Richard Lugar, the State Department said that “our policy and strategy for engagement is not based on supporting any particular politician or individual,” and appeared to blame President Zelaya for the coup: “President Zelaya’s insistence on undertaking provocative actions contributed to the polarization of Honduran society and led to a confrontation that unleashed the events that led to his removal.”
This letter was all over the Honduran media, which is controlled by the coup government and its supporters, and it once again strengthened them politically. Congressional Republicans who have supported the coup immediately claimed victory.
On Monday President Obama repeated his prior statement that Zelaya should return. But by then nobody was fooled.
Obama has said that he “can’t push a button and suddenly reinstate Mr. Zelaya.” But he hasn’t pushed the buttons that he has at his disposal, such as freezing the U.S. assets of the coup government leaders and their supporters, or canceling their visas. (The State Department cancelled five diplomatic visas of members of the coup government, but they can still enter the United States with a normal visa — this gesture had no effect.)
With Clinton associates such as Lanny Davis and Bennett Ratcliff running strategy for the coup government, the Pentagon looking out for its military base in Honduras, and the Republicans ideologically tied to the coup leaders, it should be no surprise that Washington is more worried about protecting its friends in the dictatorship than about such principles as democracy or the rule of law.
But it doesn’t make Obama’s policy any more justifiable or less disgraceful. And Washington has remained tellingly silent about atrocities and human rights abuses committed by the dictatorship: the killing of at least ten opposition activists, the detention and intimidation of journalists, the closure of independent TV and radio stations, and other repression condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and human rights organizations worldwide.
In addition to its failure in Honduras, the Obama administration drew public statements of concern last week from such leaders as President Lula da Silva of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile — along with other presidents — with its decision to increase the U.S. military presence at seven bases in Colombia. Washington apparently did not consult with South American governments — other than Colombia — beforehand. The pretext for the expansion is, as usual, the “war on drugs.” But the legislation in Congress that would fund this expansion allows for a much broader role; no wonder South America is suspicious. Obama has also not reversed the Bush administration’s decision to reactivate U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, for the first time since 1950 — a decision that raised concerns in Brazil and other countries
President Obama has also continued the Bush administration’s trade sanctions against Bolivia, which are seen throughout the region as an affront to Bolivia’s national sovereignty. And despite Obama’s world-famous handshake with President Chávez, the State Department has maintained about the same level of hostilities toward Venezuela — mostly in the form of public denunciations — as President Bush did in his last year or two.
Obama’s policies have drawn mostly only mild rebuke because he is still enjoying somewhat of a honeymoon, and he is not Bush. And the media mostly gives him a free pass. But he is doing serious damage to U.S.-Latin American relations, and to the prospects for democracy and social progress in the region.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first published as an op-ed in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune on 11 August 2009 and then made available at the CEPR Web site under a Creative Commons license.