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A New Attitude at the White House?

There are early signs of change in the Obama State Department. In response to significant political victories by former Bush nemeses Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, State Department spokespersons praised the democratic processes in these countries, indicating a more open attitude toward the growing independence of Latin American nations.

Chavez won his referendum on lifting term limits for elected officials on Feb. 15 by a solid 54% at last count, with a 70% turnout. State Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid stated that, “For the most part this was a process that was fully consistent with democratic process.”

Last week spokesperson Robert Wood established the administration’s position on the referendum by calling it “an internal matter.” When asked for his opinion on the Venezuelan vote, Duguid echoed that position saying it “was a matter for the Venezuelan people.”

A similar response came out of the State Department following the Jan. 25 vote on Bolivia’s new constitution. Approved by 61%, the vote culminated a reform process that nearly tore apart the nation and left several dead in its wake due to the violent opposition of anti-Evo factions.

The day after the vote, Wood congratulated the Bolivian people on the referendum and stated, “We look forward to working with the Bolivian Government in ways we can to further democracy …” When asked if he believed the referendum furthers democracy, he replied, “A free, fair, you know, democratic process certainly does contribute positively.”

These might seem like standard-issue statements from a government commenting on matters pertaining to neighboring countries. But if the votes had taken place under the Bush watch, the response would have been much different.

The Bush administration kept a pouty silence following President Morales’ resounding victory in a recall referendum Aug. 10 as congratulations poured in from other nations. It remained similarly mute after the massacre of at least 25 peasants, supporters of the president, by opposition forces. After the U.S. ambassador was expelled, Bush cut off trade preferences to the country.

In the case of Venezuela, the active hostility against the Chavez government was well known and heavily broadcast by the mainstream press. From not condemning the ultimately failed coup against Chavez in 2002 to frequent name-calling, the administration’s relations with Venezuela reflected a permanent enmity that tended to be expressed in infantile, personal terms.

In general, Latin America has welcomed President Obama with a combination of relief—Bush had a dismal approval rating throughout—and signs of good faith, suspending judgment as the new government defines its polices toward the region. Hopes for constructive engagement with the U.S. Government rekindled after the 2008 elections, especially within the countries deemed the bad guys under the Bush division of the hemisphere.

The response to the referendums will bolster optimism that the government will move toward what Clinton, in her confirmation hearing, called a foreign policy based on “principles and pragmatism, not rigid ideology.”

There have been some other not-so-good signs though. Whether it’s a lack of consistency among high-level diplomats, or the inertia of Washington, or indecision, members of the administration have also mimicked at times a paternalistic tone toward Latin America that characterized U.S. policy for far too long.

Clinton and her second in command, James Steinberg, have on occasion described the continent as a “playing field” where a supposed lack of leadership on the part of the United States recently must be corrected so as not to cede ground to Hugo Chavez. The idea that maybe the continent’s diverse nations don’t need tutelage from anyone is absent. This is old-school thought—southern countries as geopolitical objects and not subjects in their own right. It doesn’t live up to the promise for a “new face on U.S. diplomacy” that was promised for the region.

President Obama faces a choice: to build good neighbor relations in the hemisphere or to actively oppose the democratic changes toward greater sovereignty, equality, and decolonization that are taking place. Obama and the leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela have declared a willingness to sit down and talk to one another. It is important to insist on direct diplomacy, based on mutual respect, so that the promised “change” leads to an improvement in relations that have been allowed to deteriorate for too long.

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

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