Is There a Latin American Policy?

President Barack Obama may or may not announce something new in US Cuba policy at the Fifth Summit of the Americas (April 14-19 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago). He may or may not even take part in any discussion of Cuba, which is bound to take place whether he likes it or not. The well-deserved attention given to the insane and delinquent policy is obscuring another question that deserves some attention: Does the United States even have a Latin American policy?

Leaving aside the always-switched on machinery of intervention to block center-left presidents from holding power, the chief policy initiative of the last 15 years has been hemispheric free trade. Begun in the Clinton years, free trade was eagerly embraced by President George W. Bush. By the time he left office last year, Bush had much less to say about it than in 2001, when he hoped to get 34 nations to sign up for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2003 instead of the original Clinton target date of 2005.[1]

When 2003 arrived, it turned out to be the year FTAA come apart and eventually broke into a patchwork of multilateral treaties with Central America and the Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA) and bilateral pacts with Chile with others pending. With big economies like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela in opposition, there is little likelihood that the United States will ever be able to achieve a US-dominated hemispheric economic system. This is part of the tattered policy the Obama administration has to work with.

Competing with Europe & Asia

Globalization was the preferred method of projecting US power through economic dominance in the post-bipolar world of the 1990s. FTAA was to be the hemispheric component by creating a closed system to counter the emerging trading blocs of the European Union (EU) and Asia.

“We have a choice to make,” Bush said in 2001. “We can combine in a common market so we can compete in the long term with the Far East and Europe, or we can go on our own. I submit, and I suspect the other leaders will echo with me. I hope they do, at least, that going on our own is not the right way.” [2] As Cuban scholar Jorge Hernandez described it, the FTAA strategy was to build a “closed reserve” for the United States through “an offensive of regional expansion of the transnationals of that country.”[3] Fear of being crowded by competing trade blocs is consistent with a number of policy statements issued by neoconservative think tanks since the 1980s. Perhaps the most influential was the Santa Fe Document (“A New Inter-American Policy”), which became the template for President Ronald Reagan’s Latin America policy. Written in 1980, it called for the United States to “assume the role of the unquestionably cohesive force in building a Western Hemispheric community.”[4]

This kind of thinking was residual Cold War hysteria over the spread of communism and fear of losing control anywhere in the Hemisphere whenever a government seemed about to fall into the hands of its own people. The Santa Fe Document urged Reagan to use unilateral military action to prevent the loss of power by Central American political elites.

Some self-serving conservative thinkers confused socialism with loss of sovereignty and concluded that free traders like financier George Soros were subversives and that former secretary of state Henry Kissinger was conspiring to turn the United States into a subdivision of “a global socialist state.”[5]

The Santa Fe Document failed to consider the possibility that free traders were not giving up US sovereignty but rather the sovereignty of others and that US international strategies would be boosted into orbit beyond constitutional reach where a military controlled by a US commander-in-chief could preserve economic dominance continent-wide.

Still, the Santa Fe Document was more honest about the military component of free trade than were US trade representatives with their clichés about common aims, values and destinies of Canada, Mexico and the United States under the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA was less about eliminating tariffs than about the free flow of transnational capital and intellectual property rights. It had little to do with a common market that Bush mentioned and more to do with gaining US access to Mexican markets and resources.

The FTAA was not intended to be a supersized NAFTA. If adopted in its early form, FTAA would have allowed infinitely greater penetration of national sovereignties by transnationals asserting such rights as the “liberalization” of services, an idea supposedly killed off in its previous incarnation as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

MAIs would have given transnational corporations extraordinary access to public services in FTAA member countries. They could exercise “investor-state” rights against attempts by a host government to regulate private commercialization of a service like potable water. In other words, a foreign corporation could bypass the US government and, acting as though it were a state, seek redress in special tribunals. Defeated in the late 1990s, MAI proposals reappeared in early FTAA drafts.

A Canadian public advocacy group warned that the resurrected MAI “will give unequalled new rights to the transnational corporations of the hemisphere to compete for and even challenge every publicly funded service of its governments, including health care, education, social security, culture and environmental protection.”[6]

2003: A bad year for FTAA

The FTAA was doomed in September 2003 at a FTAA Technical Negotiating Committee (TNC) meeting in Trinidad and Tobago, when Brazil refused to agree on the services, investment and intellectual property rights sections of the draft.

Almost simultaneously, at the Doha Round of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led an insurgent group of South nations against the US agenda. The resulting stalemate carried over into FTAA negotiations. A surprised US delegation, led by Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced that the United States would shift its strategy to negotiating bilateral treaties.

Analysts William Greider and Kenneth Rapoza described the angry aftermath as a display of US bluster and threats. “The impoverished island nations of the Caribbean were told they could forget about their newly negotiated US trade agreement. They folded. Central American countries were threatened with loss of the modest trade preferences already granted to their products. Costa Rica, one of Lula’s original allies, was hammered —  privatize your energy and telecommunications sectors or be left in the cold — and gave in.”[7]

What was left of FTAA came to be called “FTAA lite,” and the word “flexibility” crept into the drafts. “Ministers also recognize the need for flexibility,” said a TNC declaration in November 2003, “to take into account the needs and sensitivities of all FTAA partners,”[8]

2005: A worse year

Who remembers that the official theme of the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005 was “increased job creation to fight poverty and strengthen democratic governance”? What the summit actually did was to make even a flexible FTAA untenable. The Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) nations of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, joined by Venezuela, forced the inclusion of a dissenting view in the final declaration.

“Other member states,” said the minority opinion, “maintain that the necessary conditions are not yet in place for achieving a balanced and equitable free trade agreement with effective access to markets free from subsidies and trade-distorting practices, and that takes into account the needs and sensitivities of all partners, as well as the differences in the levels of development and size of the economies.”[9] Once you take all those considerations into account, there is no FTAA.

A symbolic end to FTAA was a December 2008 conference in Brazil to which the United States was not invited, though Cuban President Raul Castro was. Media coverage of the event described the tone as decidedly critical of the United States, FTAA and the blockade of Cuba. The New York Times said the United States had become “a punching bag at the three-day conference.” One commentator told the Times, “The United States is no longer, and will not be ever again, the major interlocutor for the countries in the region.”[10]

This is the situation Obama faces at the Fifth Summit of the Americas; a string of defeats and humiliations for the centerpiece of US Latin American policy stretching back to 2003. The shriveling of the free trade concept coincides roughly with the general decline of US power and influence in the region. FTAA came about too late, for by 2003, neoliberalism, its central economic principle, was seen nearly everywhere as the capstone of US economic imperialism. At the January 2004 Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, Lula said neoliberalism had turned the 1990s into “a decade of despair” in Latin America.[11]

FTAA and its satellite programs were brazenly — even stupidly —  counter to Latin America’s sovereign interests. Yet, Bush pressed on, apparently unmindful that a hegemonic plan largely negotiated in secret with limitless input from transnational corporations was likely to provoke a backlash that might help bring about an anti-FTAA.

Rather than locking Latin America and the Caribbean into a free-trade agreement favoring US interests, the push for FTAA contributed to the regional integration movement. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) was founded by Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2004 as a direct response to FTAA. It has gone the furthest in creating trade, investment, communication, banking, energy and other regional ties.[12] Thus, Bush left office facing the possibility that Latin America could become a third independent trade and investment bloc for the United States to worry about.

The undead FTAA

Some observers believe, however, that multilateral negotiations may not be so bad for Latin American interests as long as they proceed along the lines that now appear to be acceptable to the United States under FTAA lite. These include a willingness by the United States to drop services and other features. Bilateral free-trade agreements pit weaker economies against the United States, which is still in a position to offer inducements to sign up for dubious one-sided deals.

Jurgen Kurtz, director of the International Investment Law Program at the Melbourne Law School, said, “In bilateral negotiations, individual developing countries have significantly less leeway to negotiate concessions in areas of interest to them.” Besides, the United States has a way of introducing some of the more objectionable proposals such as services and foreign investment into bilateral draft treaties, says Kurtz.[13]

The United States has lately been following multiple paths to achieve what FTAA failed to achieve. The official line at the State Department under late Bush was that a string of bilateral treaties adds up to a stealth FTAA. Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon claimed that once Congress approved the pending Panama and Colombia treaties, the United States “will effectively have an unbroken line of Free Trade Agreements stretching from Canada to the tip of Chile.”[14]

This had being done by combining the less ambitious trade pacts with some of the weaker states with military and security programs ostensibly to promote peace and democracy. The militarizing of the free-trade has not gone unnoticed. The final declaration of Cuba’s most recent FTAA counter summit (encuentro) equates the trade content of the neoliberal agenda with regime change. As examples, it cites denunciations by Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales of alleged US attempts to destabilize their governments through security programs attached to free trade.[15]

A scholarly argument for militarized free trade is a study by the US Army War College recommending “soft-power architecture” for the Americas. “An incipient economic community (Free Trade Area of the Americas) within an existing democratic community,” says the study “requires a new security structure that can support and defend it, now and in the future.”

This security imperative requires “standing multinational forces (SMFs) that can handle humanitarian assistance missions, peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and other small-scale contingencies (SCCs).”[16]

It is doubtful that many of us knew that, as the study suggests, “It is time to bring back the First Special Service Force (FSSF),” a commando outfit from World War I. There would an FSSF (N) for the northern countries of the hemisphere and an FSSF(S) for the southern. Thus, the SMFs that would take care of the SCCs would be the FSSF (N) and FSSF(S). Now you know.

A Not-Plan Colombia for Mexico

An example of how military and security issues merge with free trade is the US-Mexico Merida Initiative (also called Plan Merida). Officially, we are not supposed to compare it to the infamous Plan Colombia, which, since 1996, has tied the United States to the permanent train wreck that is Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

Already connected to the United States and Canada through NAFTA, Mexico is now enlisted in the wars on terror, drugs, gangs and the other US fears regularly investigated in congressional hearings.

Bush signed the multiyear $1.4 billion program into law in June 2008. It combines economic assistance with a lot of weapons, technology and training for Mexican military and police forces. It is essentially the security arm of NAFTA.

The plan also includes provisions that sound like FTAA “disciplines” to bring other countries into line with US “practices and interests.” It requires Mexico to reform its legal and judicial systems to harmonize them with those of the United States.

The military and security aid portion of Plan Colombia has varied between 80% and 100% of the total, which is currently over $600 million per year. Likewise, little of the Plan Merida money goes to purely economic and social uses in Mexico. For fiscal 2009, 83% is for the Mexican military and police.

The United States has somewhat similar arrangements in Central America through the United States-Central American (SICA) Dialogue on Security. All of this is loosely tied together militarily by the US Southern Command, part of the geo-military subdivision of the world that turn[17]s anything south of the Rio Grande into the military equivalent of a US county. The Southern Command holds regular joints exercises in security, counterterrorism and disaster relief.

The Greater North American Co-Prosperity Sphere (17)

If Plan Merida is the security arm of NAFTA, the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) is the supra-national trade and security umbrella for all of North America. Though held mostly in secret, its meetings look like an attempt to enlarge NAFTA into a northern “soft-power architecture.” Secretary Shannon has called SSP the “armoring of NAFTA.”[18]

These meetings have been misrepresented as non-substantive talks. While Congress has complained of not being informed of these summits, major transnational corporations are not only consulted but are direct participants in setting agendas. The SPP’s secretariat is the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC), a private-enterprise association representing Wal-Mart and 29 other corporations.

The SPP’s website lists extensive progress on agreements on border, traveler and cargo security, bioprotection, cross-border information and intelligence sharing and energy production to supply the US market.[19] The SPP gave rise to conspiracy theories that Canada, Mexico and the United States were going to build a NAFTA super highway from the Mexican port of Lazaro Cardenas to Toronto to truck cheap goods from China into the United States and to haul away its sovereignty on the way out.[20] The State Department’s description of SPP does not mention a highway but refers to protecting the economic spaces of the NAFTA states, not at their national borders but at continental boundaries.

To understand the purpose of SPP requires that out-of-date conservatives must put aside their Cold War texts and understand that US policymakers are trying to address the dangers to the United States from democratic populism and regional cooperation developing in Latin American and the Caribbean. This is the American phobia. Secretary Shannon said, ” how countries in the region address poverty, how they address inequality, and how they address social exclusion affects the well being of the United States and the well being of U.S. citizens.[21] This view gives context to US hostility to the way Morales and Chavez have addressed their countries’ social and economic problems.

Pathways to “Prosperity”

Bush launched Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas (PPA) in September 2008, meeting with ten current or pending free-trade partners from Latin America plus Canada. This was Bush’s final effort to make some sort of soup out of the FTAA leftovers. The delegates pledged allegiance “to the long-term goals of free trade in the hemisphere,” and vowed, “to pursue other efforts to promote economic integration in the hemisphere.”[22] In December 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended a PPA ministerial session in Panama. Rice apparently thought free trade was still on the table as she declared her delight at being with ministers “who share a fundamental .. belief that open markets and free trade [lead] to  growth.”[23]

There are allusions to some core FTAA ideas in the final communiqué from the December meeting, such as the always-treacherous phrase “best practices” in connection with protecting and enforcing intellectual property rights and labor and environmental standards. Best practices can mean anything one wants it to mean. For example, it can mean encouraging optional compliance with the law. Thus, the communiqué recommends improving corporate environmental practices by “community and voluntary incentive-based activities for environmental protection.”[24]

As if the regional rejection of neoliberal doctrine never happened, Rice and the other ministers thought, “Reducing or eliminating barriers, including administrative ones that hinder investment and the trade of goods and services in the Hemisphere,” would be desirable as would, “Increasing the links of our countries with multilateral financial institutions, including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.”

The communiqué stresses the progressive-sounding idea of helping small businesses and farmers integrate into the international market. However, in doing so, the ministers point to the benefits of “the liberalization of trade and investment flows,” which, of course, is part of the sulfuric vocabulary of hegemonic neoliberalism rejected since 2001.

Apparently unaware that to sell wine gone bad you are supposed to put it in new bottles, the ministers go on using the defiled word “liberal” as in “neoliberalism.”

Mind you, this meeting took place in December 2008, when the unfolding financial and economic crisis took liberalization off the table in US domestic conversations about the economy and forced Bush to make the secretary of the treasury the practical czar of the automotive, finance, investment and real estate sectors.

Under the terms of the long forgotten Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, much of the US government’s actions in the current crisis would probably qualify as a “contract or combination in restraint of trade.” Accordingly, it is doubtful that the United States could qualify for membership in its own FTAA or meet the PPA spirit of the “liberalization of trade and investment flows.”

ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This essay was written for Cuba-L Direct and CounterPunch.


[1] Clinton first proposed FTAA at the First Summit of the Americas in Miami, 1994. Negotiations began in 1998.

[2] Quoted in Carl Teichrib, “The Merging of the Americas in a New Global Order,” Forcing Change, />.

[3] Jorge Hernandez, “Hegemonía y política latinoamericana de Estados Unidos en la era de ALCA,” Cuba Socialista, septiembre 2003. .

[4] The Santa Fe Document was privately printed. See excerpts in .

[5] William F. Jaspers, “A NAFTA/FTAA Rogue’s Gallery, The New American, 04/05/04, .

[6] Maude Barlow, “Stop the FTAA and the Threat to Social Programs, Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice in Canada and the Americas,” The Council of Canadians, 01/18/01, .

[7] William Greider and Kenneth Rapoza, “Lula Raises the Stakes, The Nation, 02/01/03,

[8] Ministerial Declaration, Free Trade Area of the Americas, Eighth Ministerial Meeting, Miami, 11/30/03, .

[9] Declaration, Fourth Summit of the Americas, 11/05/05, <>.

[10] New York Times, 12/17/08.

[11] The Guardian, 01/14/04, .

[12] See “The Other Revolution,” Cuba-L Analysis, 04/21/07, < http//>.

[13] Jurgen Kurtz, “Developing Countries and Their Engagement in the World Trade Organization: An Assessment of the Cancun Ministerial, Melbourne Journal of International Law, December 2004,

[14] U.S. Department of State, “Remarks by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon to the Americas Society Council of the Americas, New York, NY,” 04/03/08, < [15] Declaración del VII Encuentro Hemisférico de Lucha Contra los TLCs y por la Integracion de los Pueblos. La Habana, 11 de abril de 2008, .

[16] Joseph R. Nunez, “A 21st Century Security Architecture for the Americas: Multilateral Cooperation, Liberal Peace, and Soft Power,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, August 2002, .

[17] People who make up these names really ought to avoid the word “prosperity” attached to expansionist doctrines. See the 1940 announcement of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, “Laying the foundation of national defense economy, of which the keynote is to lie in the autonomous development of the economy of Japan, Manchoukuo and China with Japan as the center.”

[18] Shannon, Remarks.


[20] For a debunking discussion of the superhighway, see Christopher Hayes, “The NAFTA Superhighway,” The Nation, 08/27/07, . A believer is Pat Buchanan, “The NAFTA Superhighway,” Townhall Finance, 08/29/08, <>/.

[21] Ibid.

[22] White House, “In Focus: Global Diplomacy,” Fact Sheet,

[23] U.S. Department of State, “Remarks at Pathways to Prosperity Plenary Session,” 12/10/08, .

[24] Communiqué, Peace and Prosperity for the Americas Plenary, December 2008, .



ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.