Obama's Big Choice in Latin America

President Obama makes the first visit of his life to Latin America this week. For some time now the thirty-four-nation continent has been ignored by the United States, in comparison with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine and now North Africa, not to mention Europe. The irony is that Latin America has experienced a wave of democratic elections and a new era of independence after a generation of US-backed dictatorships. Obama has a choice between establishing a genuine "good neighbor" policy in the anti-interventionist tradition of Franklin Roosevelt or, more likely, building a bloc of moderate allies to offset Venezuela in the region and China in global power politics.

The United States has not exactly slept through Latin America's democratic era, as some might say. Obama has eased travel restrictions slightly towards Cuba, and US prosecutors have used Cuban investigators and doctors to go after Luis Posada Carriles in an El Paso courtroom. And Obama has shared warm handshakes with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez at a hemispheric summit.

But Obama switched from criticizing to accepting the military coup in Honduras, which was widely condemned across the region. The United States currently is lobbying to prevent the return to Haiti of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, deposed in a 2004 US-supported coup. Suspicions still exist about US ties to the police who threatened Ecuador's Rafael Correa earlier this year. Latin America opposes the expansion of US military bases placed in Colombia after Correa removed them from his country. And despite the campaign talk of direct dialogue, the United States has pulled its ambassadors from Venezuela and Bolivia. Finally, Obama has continued assistance to the drug war from Central America to Mexico, where 34,000 have been killed since 2006.

All while the Obama team has invested huge political capital to "reset" relations with Russia, but none so far with Latin America, until this week.

Obama will hold meetings in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, three countries that have achieved the transition from dictatorship to democracy that the president frequently celebrates. Brazil's new president, Dilma Rousseff, is a former insurgent who was imprisoned and tortured under the military dictatorship of 1964-85. Her ally the previous president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was jailed under the same military regime.

In Chile, Obama will meet the conservative billionaire president, Sebastian Piniera, in a country where thousands died under the Pinochet dictatorship strongly supported by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In El Salvador, Obama will be greeted by the highly popular president, Mauricio Funes, an independent elected on a platform with the FMLN, the guerrillas opposed by the United States in a civil war that claimed 70,000 lives. Funes's brother was one of those killed by the Salvadoran right during the conflict. The party of the FMLN now leads the National Assembly, and Obama will surely meet its leadership.

According to Raul Hinojosa, a Latin American specialist at UCLA, "It would be great if the US realigns itself with the social democratic project underway in the region, instead of the former right-wing and neoliberal agendas. It will be very interesting if the new US allies include the people they fought with in the sixties." In other words, a positive relationship with Latin America could require Obama to show his progressive side, a reversal of the dynamics of US politics pulling him to the right.

Hopefully, Obama is aware that another divide-and-conquer strategy, pitting the allegedly "good left" against the "bad left," will not work. There is a shared consensus towards integration across Latin America, including opposition to Washington-dominated trade agreements, military bases and the embargo of Cuba. Brazil has positive ties with Venezuela, and Obama's visit will be an opportunity for the Brazilians to encourage rapprochement between Washington and Caracas. (Chavez will meet with Brazil's Rousseff the week after Obama leaves.)

Obama may be venturing into a new phase of US diplomacy, with his customary centrism, in a region where the mainstream is well to his left. The Obama strategy of global realignment is to engage and compete with China, which requires--in addition to leveraging India, Brazil and the Latin American bloc as a huge counterweight to Asia--what Hinojosa and others call a "rebalancing of the world economy and geopolitics."

China already is the top purchaser of exports from Brazil and Chile, two of Obama's stops. And China has huge investments in Brazil's mining and energy sectors. America's close military ally President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia stunned US observers recently by saying, "China is the new motor of the world economy." That said, Brazil's economy is the world's eighth largest, and its government and corporations are becoming global players. In February, the White House sent Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, not a State Department diplomat, to advance Obama's trip to Brazil. Geithner called Brazil a "major economic and financial power on the global stage," and went on to call for "open and fair trade," a subtle distinction from "free trade" terminology. Like the United States, Geithner said, Brazil favors a strategy of state investment in infrastructure in addition to a dynamic corporate sector. It was a message many Brazilians were longing to hear.

While Brazil rejects neoliberalism, it has an ambitious capitalist sector and has good relations with US-dominated international financial institutions. But it also is a "social-democratic project," in Hinojosa's terms, having significantly boosted its minimum wage, embraced a zero-hunger policy, proposed a tax on international financial transactions and weapons sales and defined itself as the defender of developing nations within the world economy. Brazil may be willing to cut a deal with Obama to revive global trade talks stalled since the Seattle protests of 1999 and the demise of the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas not long after.

But if Obama needs Brazil as a counterweight to China, he will have to accept a historically new arrangement with Latin America, in which Brazil and the hemisphere are no longer submissive to the "white, blue-eyed" financial elites that Lula blamed for the global recession in 2009. Brazil will want Obama to improve relationships with all of Latin America, including rapprochement with Cuban and Venezuela, and adopt a far more progressive economic agenda than anything currently contemplated by movers and shakers in Washington.

A hemispheric New Deal will not satisfy the needs of the poor, of civic society reformers or of environmentalists. If it happens, it will be a center-left arrangement with a larger place at the table for popular movements, something similar to the Workers Party's up-and-down relationship during Lula's presidency. Even that would be unsettling to Latin America's oligarchies, not to mention the political establishment in the United States. At the moment, US and Arizona officials cannot prevent the transfer of automatic weapons sold in Phoenix to the drug cartels over the border with Mexico, nor adopt legislation legalizing the status of Latin American immigrants.

The precedent for a new deal in hemispheric relations is not the 1960s Alliance for Progress, which was designed as an alternative to the Cuban Revolution and proved too much for the oligarchy to accept, in any event. It would be a profound mistake for Obama to think that he can compete with Hugo Chavez for the allegiance of Latin America's poor. Rather, the precedent for Obama to follow may be the Good Neighbor Policy briefly adopted by President Franklin Roosevelt when World War II was drawing near. Seeking a counterweight to Germany, Roosevelt turned to Latin America and terminated the long-standing policies of Yankee military intervention. Further, FDR stood up to Big Oil when Mexico nationalized its oil fields in 1937. The era produced, if only briefly, a social democratic project in both the United States and in Latin America.

Could it happen again? It's not likely, given the present tilt of American politics. But the rest of the world is moving on, leaving Obama with a growing choice between isolation and catching up.

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