Obama and McCain have devoted a lot of rhetoric to Latin America, but they've both shown themselves to be hopelessly out of date
guardian uk, Friday June 13 2008
Few governments in the world are waiting with greater expectation for the new US president than those of Latin America. No continent has experienced such benign neglect during the past eight years of Republican rule, a period in which every country in the region, bar Peru and Colombia, has taken the opportunity to elect governments of a leftist persuasion that the US would not have permitted during most of the 20th century.
Conveniently forgetting that unfortunate record of support for military dictatorships, the US is now committed to sustaining democracies wherever they may appear, foregoing any attempt to secure regime change with the assistance of friendly conservative generals.
Yet the new president will find himself faced with a continent that relishes its newly-acquired freedom, and enjoys its chance to poke fun at Uncle Sam. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are in the vanguard of a leftist "Bolivarian" movement hostile to the model of democracy and capitalist development that the US has mapped out for the world, while Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and most recently Paraguay, all have governments of a social democratic persuasion. The new president will have few arrows in his quiver to combat these changes, although economic coercion remains a possibility. If they wish to make an impact, John McCain and Barack Obama will have to come up with something new. Their preliminary sketches are disappointing.
Both candidates have little direct knowledge of Latin America, but they have set out their rival stalls in recent speeches to the faithful, both, as always, in Spanish-speaking Miami, sometimes seen as the unofficial capital of the hemisphere.
Both are loth to move far from the mainstream, yet both are conscious of the desperate need to suggest something fresh. McCain talks of forging "a new policy", while Obama, echoing John Kennedy's soundbite of nearly half a century ago, has called for "a new alliance of the Americas". So far, neither sounds very convincing.
Obama proffers a harsh indictment of the impact of the Bush years on Latin America, declaring that since the start of the "misguided war" in Iraq, US policy in the Americas has been "negligent towards our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in peoples' lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the region." He clearly recognises that the continent has changed dramatically, and is concerned that the US has failed to change with it.
Top of the agenda for both candidates, as always, is the island of Cuba, now under new management. Against all the odds, Raúl Castro will celebrate the half century of the revolution at the New Year, shortly before the inauguration of the new president. McCain, with a crude sense of imperial history that dates back to Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican who joined the US force that invaded Cuba in 1898), made his most recent speech on Latin America on May 20, a day that the Americans, but not the Cubans, celebrate as "Cuba's Independence Day".
He talked blithely of the "courageous men" who "found their calling at the beginning of the last century in winning for Cuba its independence". This may still evoke ancestral memories among Cubans in Miami, but on the island the date in May 1902 is recalled as a day of infamy, when Cuba lost the independence gained from Spain in 1898, and came under the colonial tutelage of the US. The Cubans were obliged to accept the so-called "Platt amendment" which gave the Americans the right to intervene in their affairs, both financial and political, and to seize portions of their territory for use as permanent US military bases, of which the prison harbour of Guantánamo on Cuba's south coast exists to this day.
McCain went on to echo the policies of the Bush years, calling for the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners "unconditionally", and "to legalise all political parties, labour unions, and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections." He declared that he would maintain the US economic embargo on the island first imposed years ago by President Kennedy (and reinforced by President Clinton) "until these basic elements of democratic society are met". So not much change there then.
Obama is also obsessed by Cuba, but he jumped ahead 30 years, from 1902 to 1933, to recall a time when another Democrat, Roosevelt, called for freedom from want and fear. He adopted what was called a "good neighbour" policy towards Latin America in the 1930s. Obama is calling for "a new strategy" in dealing with Cuba after "eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush", and he has repeated an earlier promise "to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions". He does not rule out meeting Raúl Castro, but insists that "there will be careful preparation, we will set a clear agenda". The real way to bring about change in Cuba, he argues, is "through strong, smart and principled diplomacy".
This marks an important change in the rhetoric of US politicians, for strong and smart diplomats have been conspicuous by their absence on the state department's Cuba desk over the past half century. Obama says that he will maintain the economic embargo, since this, he claims, will provide him with leverage. But he promises a significant unilateral initiative, reversing President Bush's clampdown on travel and foreign remittances to Cuba, unpopular both in Cuba and in Miami.
Fidel Castro has rightly complained about Obama's ignorant criticisms of Cuban reality, ruefully recognising that it would be politically unwise to defend him, yet there must be some quiet optimism in Havana since, for the first time in half a century, a US presidential candidate has outlined a possible step-by-step way out of the morass that successive presidents have lacked the courage to deal with.
Second on the agenda for both candidates is the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez. McCain accused Chávez last year of using "the cloak of electoral legitimacy to establish a one-party dictatorship", while Obama attacks him as "a demagogue" whose "perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and chequebook diplomacy" harks back to an earlier era.
To deal with this perceived problem, McCain has few suggestions, apart from reducing US reliance on imported oil and strengthening ties "with key states like Brazil, Peru and Chile", while Obama has hardly given the subject more thought. With the ever-popular and regularly-elected Chávez in his sights, he calls for "a vision of democracy that goes beyond the ballot box." This would include US support for "strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law." George Bush has had a similar programme and got precisely nowhere.
Apart from Obama's initiative on Cuba, the two candidates sound desperately out of date. There is nothing in their recent remarks to suggest that their advisers have any understanding of the new mood in Latin America in the 21st century. They do not seem to have noticed that huge social movements protesting against US-backed privatisations have destroyed governments, or that a tidal wave of indigenous opposition has entirely altered the enforced ethnic consensus that has sustained the status quo of centuries. Whoever wins in Washington in November will pay dearly for their ignorance and lack of preparation.