FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama’s Vilification of Latin America

by MARK WEISBROT

President Obama went too far in throwing gratuitous insults at President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela on Friday in an interview in Miami.  By doing so, he not only offended the majority of Venezuelans, who voted to re-elect their president on October 7, but even many who did not.  Chávez is fighting for his life, recovering from a difficult cancer operation; in Latin America, as in most of the world, this wholly unnecessary vilification of Chávez by Obama is a breach not only of diplomatic protocol but also of ordinary standards of civility.

Perhaps even more importantly, Obama’s ill-timed aspersions sent an unpleasant message to the rest of the region.  While Obama can get away with anything in the major media outlets, you can be sure that his remarks were noticed by the presidents and foreign ministries of Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and others. The message was clear: Expect four more years of the same failed Cold War policies toward Latin America that President George W. Bush championed and Obama continued in his first term.

These presidents see Chávez as a close friend and ally, someone who has helped them and the region; like millions of Venezuelans they are praying for his recovery. They also see Washington as responsible for the bad relations between the U.S. and Venezuela (as well as the hemisphere generally), and these unfortunate remarks are additional confirmation.  At the 2012 Summit of the Americas, Obama found himself as isolated as George W. Bush was at the notorious 2005 summit. It was a sea change from the 2009 Summit, where everyone – including Chávez – greeted Obama warmly and saw in him the potential for a new era of U.S.-Latin American relations.

To these governments, Obama’s broadsides about Chávez’s “authoritarian policies” and “suppression of dissent” have a bad smell, even ignoring the offensive timing.  Venezuela just had an election in which the opposition, which has most of the income and wealth of the country, as well as most of the media, mobilized millions of voters.  The turnout was 81 percent of registered voters, with about 97 percent of the voting-age population registered.  The government did not “suppress dissent,” nor has it done so in other elections; or even when the dissenters shut down the oil industry and crippled the economy in 2002-2003 – actions that would have been illegal and blocked by the force of the state in the United States.  Peaceful protestors in Venezuela are far less likely to get beaten or tear-gassed or shot with rubber bullets, by security forces, than they are in Spain, and probably most other democracies.

Yes, there have been abuses of authority in Venezuela, as in all of the hemisphere — as President Obama should know. It was Obama who defended the imprisonment without trial for more than two-and-a-half years, and abuse in custody, of Bradley Manning, which was condemned by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture. It is Obama who has refused to grant freedom to Native American activist Leonard Peltier, widely seen throughout the world as a political prisoner, now in a U.S. prison for 37 years.  It is Obama who claims the right, and has used it, to kill American citizens without arrest or trial.

Venezuela is a middle-income country where the rule of law is relatively weak, as is the state generally (hence the absurdity of calling it “authoritarian”).  But compared with other countries of its income level, it does not stand out for anything in the realm of human rights abuses. Certainly there is nothing in Venezuela comparable to the abuses by Washington allies such as Mexico or Honduras – where candidates for political office, opposition activists, and journalists are regularly murdered.  And much of the scholarly research on Venezuela under Chávez shows that it is more democratic and has more civil liberties than ever before in its own history.

By contrast, we in the United States are not doing so well by comparison to our own history and income level.  We have suffered a serious loss of civil liberties under the administrations of George W. Bush and President Obama.  And of course if we count the victims of U.S. crimes abroad – the civilians and children killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example – President Obama, the one with the “kill list,” has little standing to criticize almost any foreign president.

“We would want to see a strong relationship between our two countries, but we’re not going to change policies that prioritize making sure that there’s freedom in Venezuela,” Obama said, according to the Associated Press.

I can’t think of anyone who believes that U.S policy in Venezuela, from Washington’s involvement in the 2002 military coup to continued funding today for Venezuelan opposition groups, has anything to do with promoting “freedom.”  This was just another public insult.

The Venezuelan government responded angrily to the remarks.  But perhaps they would be more forgiving if they knew just how little President Obama, who never set foot in Latin America before he was president, knows about Venezuela or the region.

When President Obama met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff he said:

“It gives me an opportunity as well to remark on the extraordinary progress that Brazil has made under the leadership of President Rousseff and her predecessor, President Lula, moving from dictatorship to democracy …”

So, if Obama (and his staff) didn’t even know that Brazil’s dictatorship came to an end more than a decade before Lula was elected in 2002, how can he be expected to know anything about Venezuela?  I mean, Brazil is a big country, bigger than the continental U.S. and the sixth largest economy in the world.

Obama fired his National Security Adviser for Latin America after the debacle at the 2012 Summit. He should fire the hack who fed him the insults for his Miami interview and the incompetent slob who made him embarrass himself in front of the President of Brazil. Then he can clean out some of the 1950s Cold Warriors from the State Department.  It’s fine if he’s not interested in Latin America – better for the region and the world – but he and his administration are creating a lot of unnecessary hostility.

Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

More articles by:
May 31, 2016
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Imperial Blues: On Whitewashing Dictatorship in the 21st Century
Vijay Prashad
Stoking the Fires: Trump and His Legions
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation
Uri Avnery
What Happened to Netanyahu?
Corey Payne
Reentry Through Resistance: Détente with Cuba was Accomplished Through Resistance and Solidarity, Not Imperial Benevolence
Bill Quigley
From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump, Sanders and the Exhaustion of a Political Model
Bruce Lerro
“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today
Robert Hunziker
Chile’s Robocops
Aidan O'Brien
What’ll It be Folks: Xenophobia or Genocide?
Binoy Kampmark
Emailgate: the Clinton Spin Doctors In Action
Colin Todhunter
The Unique Risks of GM Crops: Science Trumps PR, Fraud and Smear Campaigns
Dave Welsh
Jessica Williams, 29: Another Black Woman Gunned Down By Police
Gary Leupp
Rules for TV News Anchors, on Memorial Day and Every Day
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail