Latin America Sends Obama a Piece of Its Mind

Congratulations have poured in from Western Hemisphere leaders, press, and citizens. Most celebrate how the United States “has broken racial barriers” by electing the first African-American president. In countries struggling with issues of diversity and discrimination, this is major news—and news they didn’t expect to come out of the inertial U.S. political system. Afro-American populations in Brazil and elsewhere greeted the occasion with added enthusiasm.

But fascination with the 2008 U.S. elections in Latin Americans goes beyond race. After watching from afar as Americans elected George W. Bush amid accusations of fraud that were buried by the courts, and then did it again in 2004, any suggestion that the U.S. electoral system could generate change in that country would ordinarily be met with skepticism. For many, the election of Barack Obama showed a capacity for changing course and a level of citizen participation not thought possible.

Latin Americans really despise George W. Bush. There, Bush popularity hit some of its lowest marks in the world. Obama has a tremendous leg-up in Latin America simply for not being George Bush—or of his ilk. Most believe that the president-elect will at least to some degree turn away from the radical foreign policy of unilateralism and U.S. hegemony in the region.

While Bush policy did not include military interventions, it did consist of relentless bullying to force nations to accept Washington economic models, as codified in Free Trade Agreements, and Bush foreign policy, as expressed in the counterterrorism paradigm and the invasion of Iraq. When nations like Bolivia or Ecuador refused to toe the line, the Bush administration applied measures designed to economically and diplomatically isolate those nations, divide the continent, and promote domestic opposition. The inflexibility and unwillingness to enter into real dialogue deepened resentments, even among allies.

Congratulations—With Conditions

An improved U.S. global image is not the same as on-the-ground policies and actions. Although statements from the region welcome change and the new profile in the White House, Latin American leaders still aren’t running to the mountaintop to proclaim the dawn of a new era in U.S. relations. The response can be characterized more as hope seen through the ever-leery eye the continent keeps on its northern neighbor. The U.S. government has a long way to go to undo the damage done to its relations and its reputation through decades of both Republican and Democratic presidencies.

Latin American leaders placed conditions and qualifications on their congratulations. Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia called for an end to the “unjustifiable” embargo against Cuba. Morales added a demand for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region. Mexico’s Felipe Calderon sent a brief congratulatory note, calling for strengthening bilateral relations and emphasizing the role of Mexican-Americans in the elections and the U.S. economy. This was his way of insisting on action toward legalizing the status of Mexican immigrants and creating legal frameworks for future immigration flows.

Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner called Obama’s election “a great moment on the journey against discrimination and for equality of opportunities” and urged the new president to commit to multilateralism in confronting the financial crisis: “… those who faced the challenge of the world war understood the importance of multilateralism, and we should also … deepen the needed and urgent changes so multilateralism can respond to the complexities of our realities.”

Hugo Chavez stated his hope “to build a constructive bilateral agenda” with the new President Obama, while getting his last digs in at Bush. The U.S.-Venezuela relationship embodies the major challenges facing regional foreign policy, and has been particularly fractious. The two nations are critical to each other’s economies as trade partners, and Venezuela oil imports play a key role in U.S. energy security. Yet relations between Hugo Chavez and Bush deteriorated to the point of breaking off diplomatic (but not economic) relations last September. Chavez has spearheaded a move to regional integration sans Uncle Sam that the Bush administration considers a threat to its interests, and espouses “socialism of the XXI century.”

Obama has offered to sit down and talk with Chavez and Chavez says he’s ready to reciprocate the offer, “and work together against the evils of the world, hunger, AIDS, poverty, malnutrition.” He hailed Obama’s promise to “close the torture center at Guantanamo, withdraw troops from Iraq, and converse with the presidents who have been pointed to as the evil axis” (a tongue-in-cheek allusion to himself and other world leaders so designated by President Bush).

Rafael Correa offered declarations regarding his moderate expectations for new relations with the U.S. government. “I think that the foreign policy (of the United States) will be more reasonable, more human, less imperialist; I believe that there will be more attention to Latin America, but I don’t believe there will be radical changes,” he said on a television interview.

Even Pres. Alvaro Uribe of Colombia tagged petitions on his congratulations note. And Uribe is painfully aware that he’s in no position to ask for favors. Uribe openly supported John McCain for the presidency, hosted his visit to South America, and bitterly criticized the Democratic candidate for his refusal to support the Free Trade Agreement now stalled in Congress over Colombia’s dismal human rights record.

In spite of being the nation most dependent on U.S. aid, Uribe painted himself into a Republican corner just as the Democrats were poised to gain control of the White House and Congress. Analyst Daniel Garcia Peña quoted by AFP notes, “(In these elections) President Uribe also loses because he took on the ideological and bellicose agenda of George W. Bush, a politics that was defeated by U.S. citizens … Obama has a very different set of priorities from Bush in the agenda with Colombia.” Uribe’s “asks” included continuation of funding for Plan Colombia and passage of the FTA, citing dubious statistics on reduction of the Colombian cocaine flow to the U.S. market, and ended stating that given the successes Plan Colombia “… must be considered before it’s abandoned.”

The phrase indicates he’s really worried about the future of the controversial military aid plan. Unless he knows more than he’s letting on, it’s hard to understand exactly why. If there is one point where Obama has followed in the Bush footprints, it’s security issues. He supports Plan Colombia and extension of the regional drug war under Plan Mexico (the Merida Initiative). For Colombian human rights activists, indigenous protesters, and union leaders, Uribe’s expulsion from the haven provided by his primary financial and political supporter in the hemisphere offers an opportunity to seek more peaceful solutions. But so far Obama’s campaign statements give them mostly just hope for a different attitude in Washington.

Correa said his real dream is that “the day will come when Latin America, really, doesn’t have to worry about who is in the presidency of the United States, because it will be sovereign and autonomous enough to stand on its own two feet.” In the meantime, Latin America remains highly dependent on what happens in the United States. The interconnectedness of not just markets but human lives, make U.S. politics more than a game of idle speculation.

President Obama rides in on a wave of enthusiasm from the South and the North. He has a huge agenda awaiting him. He should quickly appoint new ambassadors in Latin America, diplomats with greater knowledge and sensitivity to the region. Currently Bolivia and Venezuela have no ambassadors at all and other Bush appointments represent old and repudiated ways of doing business.

By far the most important challenge will be to listen. Bush imposed an agenda that sought to divide the continent in the narrow pursuit of the economic interests of transnational corporations and political interests of his own administration.

When Mexicans say: “If you don’t develop a fair and legal immigration system, you push migrants into the hands of human smugglers and feed organized crime. We have to do something differently.”

When Bolivia says: “Our constitutional process is a long-overdue historical reckoning with an indigenous majority suffering poverty and discrimination. It deserves a chance.”

These are messages worth listening to.

Latin America is a good place to start to lay out a new foreign policy approach of non-intervention, multilateralism, and mutual respect. The region poses no real threats, and is not a hotspot for war or international terrorism. Democratic societies there are on the cutting edge of redistribution efforts aimed at what Obama tepidly suggests with his theme of dismantling policies that “help Wall Street but hurt Main Street.” A good neighbor foreign policy could create more horizontal relations directed toward shared objectives like peace, justice, stability, security, and well-being rather than the pursuit of the narrow interests of the rich and powerful.

This is the kind of change many people down here are hoping for under an Obama presidency.

LAURA CARLSEN (lcarlsen(at) is director of the Americas Policy Program ( in Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two decades.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .