Barack Obama and his Latin American Vision

by Rick Rockwell

Credit where credit is due. Barack Obama has a great plan for Latin America.

Now, this may seem like an odd statement coming a day after Sen. Obama (D-IL) got thumped by almost a two-to-one margin in Puerto Rico’s primary by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY).* It is all the stranger, because this blog, in various forms, has often weighed in against Obama’s candidacy.

And it may seem stranger still because Obama has had difficulty igniting interest among Latinos, who have often voted for Clinton.

But Obama delivered a very good policy speech on Latin America in Miami about ten days ago, and unfortunately, few noticed. Some of this was the timing of the speech, just before the Memorial Day holiday. (Obama’s campaign must have thought some real news on a Friday might carry through the long weekend.)

Neither Sen. Clinton nor Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has delivered a speech that lays out this type of detailed vision for the region. And if Obama can deliver everything he promises (of course, a stretch, but even a tiny percentage would be better than what we have now) his policy toward the region would be the most progressive and forward thinking of any American president. Certainly, it would be as welcome as President John F. Kennedy’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” the last coherent policy statement set forward by a U.S. administration that at least had some positive results in the region.

Sure, Obama’s vision isn’t perfect. He trotted out the tired script that demonizes the Castro brothers in Cuba and President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. (He was speaking to the Cuban American National Foundation — CANF — which at one point was farther to the right than Ronald Reagan on Latin America.) But at least Obama didn’t pander to right-wing Cubans like former Vice President Al Gore did in the 2000 election: you might remember Gore playing on the emotions of the tug-of-war over Elian Gonzalez.

In his speech, Obama still gets it wrong on the failed Cuban embargo (he supports it) and on Venezuela (he considers Chavez an authoritarian, a one-dimensional view which ignores Venezuela’s electoral history).

However, what candidate today so clearly links the political philosophy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms to any foreign policy? In detail, in this speech, Obama laid out how he would apply that philosophy to Latin America.

Importantly, Obama seems to understand the fact that dealing with Latin America requires nuance. He realizes the region is not one big country that looks like Mexico, but rather is an intricate puzzle of unique nation-states. As he noted, U.S. policy must be tailored to each specific country of the region. Hearing any politician say that about Latin America is a major step forward.

Beyond a tailored and nuanced approach, Obama’s plan seems to have four important aspects. First, he realizes that U.S. disengagement in the region has created openings not only for Venezuela and Cuba to make policy inroads, but also for China and Iran. He also realizes that U.S. oil and energy policy has gone a long way to supporting authoritarian governments worldwide that often are enemies of the U.S. And he also understands that poor energy policy is linked to hunger and poverty in the region. His idea to have the U.S. cooperate with regional leaders like Brazil on energy policy in the region is a good one.

Smartly, Obama has opposed some regional trade pacts like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) because these agreements often lack support for unions and give corporations more power to pollute. Obama wants to tie future trade pacts to advances in labor rights and human rights. He also wants to support anti-poverty initiatives through “micro-financing, vocational training, [and] small enterprise development.”

Obama also recognized the U.S. role in providing guns to gangs and cartels in the region, another progressive admission by a U.S. politician. Obama would not only attempt to stem the flow of weapons southward, but he also wants to step up programs to fight corrupt police forces and right-wing paramilitaries in the region. He called the current Merida anti-drug initiative “hollow,” which it is.

Finally, Obama wants to bring back democracy building programs (some see these programs as “nation building”) which have been in decline in the region at least since the administration of Bill Clinton.

Barack Obama may not have all the right answers on Latin America, but he scores better than just about any American politician. At least, so far.

*That may be a moot point, because with the results of this weekend’s meeting of the Democrats’ rules committee, unless Obama loses in tomorrow’s primaries in Montana and South Dakota, he looks to be inevitably headed to the nomination.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Barack Obama campaigning in Montana in April is by Arthur Mouratidis of Missoula, MT via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. To see Senator Obama deliver his speech on Latin America in its entirety, please check below.)

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