Obama and America Latina

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by Jack Random
The United States Civil War – a war that cost over 600,000 lives – was a blessing to the indigenous tribes of the North American continent.  While the white people were killing each other over the right to keep black people enslaved the natives west of the Mississippi enjoyed a period of relative peace.  When the war ended however the American nation turned its attention west and employed its new war machine, soldiers and weaponry, to the grand design of manifest destiny, a destiny that necessarily included the eradication of the indigenous tribes.  

Like the indigenous tribes of the American north, after over a hundred and fifty years of American interventionism, Latin America has enjoyed a period of relative calm in the first decade of the war on terror.  America’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the abject failure of global free trade economics brought a wave of progressive democracies to Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Honduras.  

For those who believe that America’s engagement is necessary to economic, social and democratic development in Latin America, history suggests the opposite is true.  
“We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. I am here to launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration."
Barrack Obama,                             
Summit of the Americas, April 2009

Since the respite of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, succeeding administrations have employed military intervention, economic coercion and clandestine operations to undermine democratically elected governments (Guatemala, Chile, Haiti, Venezuela) and prevent popular uprisings (Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, El Salvador) in favor of military dictators.  We have overseen the corporate usurpation of Latin American resources (fruit, rubber, metals, gas and oil) through exploitive trade policies and we have armed and trained terrorists to secure our interests.  Like the strange fruit of Billie Holiday’s soulful lament, the fruits of our labor in Latin America include the corpses of some 40,000 in Nicaragua, 70,000 in El Salvador and 200,000 in Guatemala.  

When the citizens of Latin America hear the American president promise to replace an era of benign neglect with a new era of engagement they run for cover.  

One would think that a Democratic government, presumably representing the progressive element of the American political system, would welcome the emergence of the left in the southern portion of the hemisphere.  One would think they should be partners united by democratic ideals but one would be wrong.  For while it is true that Republican governments have generally been more militaristic the Democrats have done their fair share of harm.  

The first significant test of the Obama administration’s Latin American policy came in the form of a military coup on 28 June 2009.  The elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was seized and transported by force to Costa Rica.  Speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti was immediately sworn in as interim president, civil liberties were suspended and Zelaya’s allies in government were rounded up and detained.  

The Honduran Supreme Court, fifteen politically appointed partisans with limited terms, gave its stamp of approval to what they denied was a coup d’etat.  The international community did not agree and after some delay and equivocation the United States joined the demand for Zelaya’s reinstatement.  

Since the coup the purge of political opponents has continued but at a less zealous pace.  International pressures have served to soften the stance of Micheletti and his coup conspirators.  As in Honduras politicians in the United States have aligned themselves according to their political interests.  The arguments are as tangled and convoluted as a double helix but it all comes down to the fundamental fact that there was no cause for a coup.  The original statement of the coup leaders cited Zelaya’s call for a referendum on whether there should be a constitutional convention.  As students of American democracy will know, without a constitutional convention our republic might have failed.  All the legal arguments that have followed are simply padding and cover for an act in flagrant violation of Honduran democratic interests.  It seems clear the conspirators were counting on direct or indirect American support but they miscalculated.  

Manuel Zelaya was thrown out of office by the economic elite, which in Honduras amounts to two percent of the general population.  They were disturbed by the president’s transformation from a rightwing lackey to a progressive populist who actually wanted to do something for the poor, which in Honduras accounts for 60% of the population.  Among his real crimes was raising the minimum wage.  

So why would the conspirators count on American support in this affair?  Because it runs contrary to the corporate interests our foreign policy has supported for at least the last four American administrations.  Ironically it is that global free trade policy that is responsible for the success of progressive movements throughout the hemisphere.  

This was a test to see if Obama’s promise of change was real or as many suspected only lip service.  If Obama had supported the coup it would serve notice that he was not only more of the same but so much so that he was willing to throw the principles of democracy under the bus for the continuation of global free trade.  From the perspective of the elite he failed the test but from the perspective of anyone who supports democracy he stood up.  

This does not mean that Obama has replaced the free trade mandate with a fair trade policy that considers the rights of labor as well as human rights in the trade equation but it does mean that he is playing it straight.  He will not support a military coup because the usurpers of power represent corporate American interests.  He has joined hands with the international community on principle and that is something we have not seen from an American government in decades.  

For those who scoffed at the notion that Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush consider what might have happened had Bush and his Cold War mentality neoconservative brain trust still been in office.  We would surely have supported the coup and sponsored the conspirators just as the Bush administration did in Venezuela before the coup in that nation failed and Hugo Chavez was restored to power.  

By not being George Bush and not reacting as the Neocons would have we have avoided a situation that could have escalated into civil war, drawing in other Latin American nations militarily and otherwise.  We could have been faced with what the Bush people would surely have sold as another front in the war on terror.  We would not of course have the troops for such an adventure but when did reality ever stop the Neocons?  

The situation in Honduras has not yet been resolved.  Manuel Zelaya has not been returned to power.  Nevertheless, to this point, the Obama administration has handled it well and formed a working relationship with our neighbors to the south that is less about confrontation and more about diplomacy.  He is working toward a partnership founded on fairness and principle rather than politics and short-term economic interests.  

For that we should give him his due.  



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