Words and Deeds in Trinidad

stage was set for a showdown. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama exchanged
another round of insults before getting on their planes to head to
Trinidad and Tobago. Many countries came prepared for an all-court
press to admit Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS) and
demand lifting the U.S. embargo against the island. Five nations that
form part of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, vowed
not to sign the official declaration of a Cuba-less OAS.

stage was set for a showdown. Hugo Chavez and Barack Obama exchanged
another round of insults before getting on their planes to head to
Trinidad and Tobago. Many countries came prepared for an all-court
press to admit Cuba to the Organization of American States (OAS) and
demand lifting the U.S. embargo against the island. Five nations that
form part of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America, vowed
not to sign the official declaration of a Cuba-less OAS.

Those expecting
blood were not only disappointed but disoriented by what happened at
the recent Fifth Summit of the Americas. What happened at the summit
wasn't exactly a lovefest, but it was a far cry from the last meeting
in Mar del Plata in 2005.

At that summit,
the Bush strategy fell to pieces as nations divided over creating a
Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. The Bush-driven fiasco at Mar del
Plata launched an era of more innovative, independent national, and
regional development efforts in many Latin American countries. But it
also marked the beginning of a U.S. government strategy to drive a
stake through the heart of the continent. Washington rewarded the
"good" nations that accepted the neoliberal model with aid and
bilateral trade agreements - a dubious prize for all but the national
elite - and punished the "bad" nations with economic retaliation and
"democracy promotion" programs.

The Trinidad and
Tobago Summit ended with more smiles and backslapping than anyone
expected, even considering the region's positive response to Obama's
election. The U.S. president brought a new face and a new message to
the gathering of 34 heads of state.

Obama's face
made headlines across the continent. But it's his message that
potentially marks a before and after in U.S. foreign policy - and not
just in Latin America.

Obama's Message

Obama rode in on
the good will generated by the defeat of Bush politics. Latin Americans
didn't expect a blazing revolutionary or even someone who completely
understood their nations and their politics. They hoped for a new era
of tolerance, and dialogue over imposition.

The new U.S. president began
by recognizing the hurdles of mistrust to be overcome. "I know that
promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that
trust has to be earned over time," he said. "While the United States
has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, 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." He added
"There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there
is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and
shared values."

That in itself
is a sea change from Bush-era pretensions to impose its military and
economic might in what it considered its backyard. The language echoes FDR's Good Neighbor Policy, a comparison not lost on nations that still recall when U.S. policy took a turn for the better.

Obama went on to list a series of new orientations for U.S. policy in the region. On the economic crisis, he stated:
We recognize that we have a special responsibility, as one of the
world's financial centers, to work with partners around the globe to
reform a failed regulatory system - so that we can prevent the kinds of
financial abuses that led to this current crisis from ever happening
again, and achieve an economic expansion, not just in the United States
but all across the hemisphere that is built not on bubbles, but on
sustainable economic growth.

There were also
some new messages on security. Although the president reaffirmed the
failed "war on drugs" model in Mexico, he also recognized it was
important "in our interactions not just here in the hemisphere but
around the world, that we recognize that our military power is just one
arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and
development aid in more intelligent ways so that people can see very
practical, concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary persons as a
consequence of U.S. foreign policy." Mexican media had "leaked" that
Obama would present a hemisphere-wide security measure, but instead the
president vowed to focus on reduction of drug demand and gunrunning in
the United States.

When asked how
he would describe the "Obama doctrine," Obama recognized the special
status of the United States, but stated that global problems "can't be
solved just by one country. " He pledged to listen, and impressed
leaders at the summit by doing just that. While defending U.S.
interests, he noted that "other countries have good ideas, too, and we
want to hear them."

Here he was
willing to incur the domestic political price of being friendly with
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. At the opening ceremony, Obama
crossed the room for the historic handshake with Chavez, a move that
threw the right into a tizzy. When asked about it at the press
conference he replied, "Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is
probably 1/600th of the United States'. They own Citgo. It's unlikely
that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite
conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic
interests of the United States." This is a far cry from the Bush
administration's demonization of the Venezuelan leader.

Obama also
stated that the United States must be an example by "practicing what we
preach, and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our
values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to
speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues."

Words and Deeds

President Obama
was fresh from a pit-stop in Mexico, where he confirmed trade and
security policies championed by the Bush administration and repudiated
by most of the nations of the hemisphere. While there he reiterated his support
for the free-trade model and the militarized "war on drugs" embodied in
the Merida Initiative. The vague statements and whitewashed publicity
events in Mexico looked like more of the same.

His summit
appearance, however, dispelled fears that nothing new would happen. Yet
the juxtaposition of the old with the new leaves questions that can
only be answered in deeds.

Obama offered
some actions to back up his words. In committing to "combating
inequality and creating prosperity from the bottom up," he noted his
request to Congress for $448 million in immediate assistance for
nations pummeled by the crisis.

He also
announced a new Microfinance Growth Fund for the hemisphere, saying
"this is not charity," and a commitment to increase lending from the
Inter-American Development Bank and study the need for its
recapitalization. At the press conference he acknowledged the need to
create a "set of international financial institutions that provide
additional flexibility, provide more voice and vote to developing

Playing the Cuba Card

Cuba, the only
country absent since being expelled from the OAS, took top billing at
the summit. The ALBA nations - Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras,
Nicaragua and Venezuela - met before the summit and announced they
wouldn't sign the final declaration because "it unjustifiably excludes
Cuba, without mentioning the general consensus that exists in the
region to condemn the embargo and the attempts at isolation to which
its people and its government have been incessantly and criminally

Since Obama's
election, leaders of the region stated that readmission of Cuba and an
end to the embargo would be the standard by which "change" would be
measured. Speakers at the summit, including Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua
and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, repeated the demand.

The Obama
administration played its Cuba card before the summit by announcing the
lifting of Bush restrictions on family travel and sending remittances
to the island. Obama's gesture was held forth as an olive branch to
Latin America. "The crack in the door Mr. Obama had opened for new
engagement with Cuba felt more like unlocking a floodgate," reportedThe New York Times. "For the first time, some diplomats said, the question being asked was when - not whether - the next move will be made."

At the ALBA conference before the summit, Raul Castro
responded to the Obama administration's overtures by saying, "We've
told the North American government, in private and in public, that we
are prepared, wherever they want, to discuss everything - human rights,
freedom of the press, political prisoners - everything, everything,
everything that they want to discuss."

Both sides are
still holding on to their bargaining chips though. At the press
conference on Cuba, Obama called on the country to make specific moves
to advance relations: "They could release political prisoners. They
could reduce charges on remittances to match up with the policies that
we have put in place to allow Cuban-American families to send

Wayne Smith of
the Center for International Policy, a former diplomat and longtime
analyst of U.S. relations with the island, noted that Obama may, in
fact, have overplayed his hand on the Cuba issue. Although the move to
remove restrictions on remittances was considered a positive step, he
warned, placing conditions on Cuba would not be. Sure enough, on April
21, Fidel Castro claimed that it's the United States, not Cuba, that should take steps toward thawing relations.

Much depends on
the follow-up to the summit. Smith noted that the announced changes in
Cuba policy haven't yet been implemented. If Obama isn't just
grandstanding to gain the good will of other Latin American countries
and truly seeks reform, the United States must move in all three
branches of government to bring its policies into accordance with
international law and the OAS consensus. Symbolic gestures might work
for a summit, but not for a long-term relationship.

Warning Signs: Mexico and Colombia

Obama's visit to
Mexico was a message that U.S. military allies on the right will remain
just that, even with renewed good relations in the rest of the
hemisphere. Pluralism is fine, but the basis of the relationship with
the Mexican and Colombian right-wing governments poses a threat to the
expressed strategy of non-intervention. Under Plan Colombia and Plan
Merida, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have established a
level of intervention and influence in sovereign affairs that
contradicts the promise of "equal partners" Obama presented at the

These two
nations also receive the lion's share of U.S. aid, most of it military.
In addition, the U.S. government has traditionally overlooked grave
human rights violations in these countries in order to preserve special
alliances, while severely punishing perceived violations in countries
less ideologically aligned. To be consistent with the "new era"
announced at the summit, aid and alliances must be based on transparent
and equitable criteria.

During the
summit, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk met with Colombian president
Alvaro Uribe to discuss the proposed free-trade agreement (FTA) between
the two nations. Obama has objected to the agreement based on
Colombia's record of assassination of union leaders. Conceding to an
FTA with Colombia would violate both the commitment to human rights in
the hemisphere and to "bottom-up development," supported by thousands
of indigenous and poor Colombians who oppose the agreement.

The Obama
administration has a chance to build solid and truly beneficial
relations with both countries. But the foundation of the relationships
would need to shift to be consistent with the values the president
expressed at the summit. This depends on both the Obama
administration's next moves, and the mobilization of U.S. and Colombian
civil society groups.

Rhetoric or Reality

There are many
skeptics among U.S. progressives, who argue that all this is empty
rhetoric. But here, perhaps, we have something to learn from the right.
When President George W. Bush announced his new national security
doctrine, who among the hawks and neocons complained that it was mere
posturing and that Bush would never really carry out the plan to
project the United States as a global hegemon, defending the use of
unilateral action, first-strikes, and torture? Very few, as they would
have been shooting themselves in the foot. Instead, by providing Bush
with meticulously thought-out documents and organizing public opinion,
they converted a president who entered the office saying the United
States would play a more modest role on the international scene into an
unabashed champion of planetary empire.

forces are far from the compact group of powerful interests and
economic elites that created the disastrous Bush era. And it goes
without saying that no principled person would advocate employing the
lies and manipulation of tragedy that went into selling the Bush

But with an
immensely popular president, backed up by mobilized new sectors of the
population throughout the country willing to work for change, it's
sensible to begin by taking him at his word.

Barack Obama's
words at the Summit of the Americas charted a new course for U.S.
foreign policy. They reflected, in many ways, the directions
progressives have been trying to move in for years.

Next Steps

If we really
want to see the country move in these directions, it makes much more
sense to push for follow-through than to sit back and speculate on what
the administration will do. Taking Obama at his word does not mean we
should be complacent. A few examples from his speech illustrate ways in
which we can take action:

  • Bottom-up development: Free-trade
    agreements don't create bottom-up development. This is why the poor are
    nearly unanimously opposed to them, as seen in Colombian "minga" demonstrations against the free trade agreement and the Mexican 2006 elections. U.S. citizens should oppose the Colombian FTA
    based not only on labor rights but also because it's the wrong kind of
    development, particularly in times of crisis. NAFTA should be
    renegotiated to create a more equitable distribution of wealth in
    Mexico and enhance labor rights, and a moratorium on free trade agreements should be established, pending a full review of impact and reforms of the NAFTA model.
  • Reform multilateral financial organizations: If
    these institutions are recapitalized as major actors in confronting the
    crisis, they must be reformed to prevent the errors of the past. Fixing
    problems of skewed representation, conditionality, and negative lending
    priorities will be a huge task. U.S. citizen groups can join with Latin American organizations to make a difference.
  • Regulation: The Obama government didn't emerge as a champion of regulation at the recent G-20 meeting.
    U.S. citizens must organize to insist on regulation to avert future
    crises and curtail illicit fortunes made off speculation. One place to
    start is by regulating commodity speculation that led to the food crisis.

The Fifth Summit
of the Americas showed a tenuous coming to terms among nations in a new
political and economic context, reflected in the fact that the obsolete
declaration was signed only by the host country. But Latin American
countries were willing to give the new U.S. president the benefit of
the doubt, and prepare to engage in tough political negotiation and
dialogue. Their response to this "new era" in hemispheric relations
serves as a good lesson in strategy for advocates of U.S. foreign
policy reform in the United States.

It's important
to remember too that timing is a crucial part of politics. Most of the
reforms proposed are vague, fall short of what is needed, or are even
counter-productive. At a time of economic crisis in the United States,
this doesn't mean abandoning pressure for needed reforms, but we do
need to understand the support among the public is an essential aspect
of reform. That is a job for the citizen groups that have so long
fought for a new U.S. foreign policy.

These actions
would form a much more constructive strategy than naysaying and sterile
debates over whether or not the three-month-old Obama administration is

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