Obama Should Make a Clean Break With the Past on Latin America
President-elect Obama's historic triumph was welcomed in Latin America by left-of-center governments who saw it as a continuation of their own electoral victories. Even before the election President Lula da Silva of Brazil said: "Just as Brazil elected a metal worker, Bolivia elected an Indian, Venezuela elected Chavez and Paraguay a bishop, I think that it would be an extraordinary thing if, in the largest economy in the world, a black man were elected president of the United States."
Obama has an opportunity to forge a new relationship with the region after his predecessor drove U.S.-Latin American relations into a ditch. But it will require a major change in Washington's attitude toward our southern neighbors.
Most importantly, as the Brookings Institution recently noted, the Obama administration will have to abandon Bush's efforts to divide the left-of-center governments into a "good left" and "bad left," rewarding the former and punishing the latter. Most recently, the Bush Administration decided to punish Bolivia by suspending their trade preferences and threatening tens of thousands of jobs there -- allegedly for not co-operating in the "war on drugs."
Bolivia's President Evo Morales was in Washington this month and met with Senator Richard Lugar. Senator Lugar is the most influential Republican on foreign policy issues and is very close to President-elect Obama -- who, according to rumors here, offered him the position of Secretary of State. Lugar issued a very positive press statement on the meeting with Evo: "The United States regrets any perception that it has been disrespectful, insensitive, or engaged in any improper activities that would disregard the legitimacy of the current Bolivian government or its sovereignty," he said. "We hope to renew our relationship with Bolivia, and to develop a rapport grounded on respect and transparency."
Although Evo Morales handed this statement to the Washington Post, neither the meeting with Lugar nor Lugar's statement made it into the print edition of the Post's article on Evo's visit. This indicates that the Obama administration will have to confront not only the State Department but also some of the major media if it wants to change relations with Latin America.
Bolivia expelled the U.S. Ambassador in September because of Washington's support for opposition groups there. The US State Department spent $89 million in Bolivia last year. Some of it went to opposition groups; we don't know exactly how much because our government does not provide full disclosure. Washington is also supplying millions of dollars to undisclosed organizations in Venezuela, where it supported a military coup in 2002. Imagine if China or Russia were pumping $100 billion (the equivalent here) into in the United States, and some billions went to undisclosed groups. We would not allow that.
The consensus in Washington is that we have the right to do all kinds of things in Latin American countries that we would never permit here. The new governments there do not agree. They also think they have the right to an independent foreign policy. Brazil's foreign minister went to Iran this month, where he publicly defended Iran's right to enrich uranium, and announced that expanding commercial and other ties to Iran were "a foreign policy priority" for Brazil. The State Department and U.S. media ignored these statements because they came from Brazil, but when Venezuela does the same thing it is considered impermissible.
These are the kinds of double standards that the Obama administration will have to abandon if it wants a new relationship with Latin America. The left governments of Latin America have all reached out to our new President-elect with great hopes and expectations. It will now be up to our new government to break with the past, and respect the sovereignty and dignity of our neighbors to the south. That's all they are asking for.
This op-ed was was distributed by McClatchy Tribune Information Services on November 26, 2008