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November 24, 2008

What Will the Obama Doctrine be in Latin America?

Anyone hoping to tease out how the Obama White House will deal with the complex, multi-faceted and in many ways seemingly insoluble problems facing America in its relations with its neighbors on the southern subcontinent has his work cut out for him.

For example, in his essay "Renewing American Leadership," written for Foreign Affairs during the campaign, Obama made only one direct mention of Latin America at all:
To renew American leadership in the world, I intend to rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security. Needed reform of these alliances and institutions will not come by bullying other countries to ratify changes we hatch in isolation. It will come when we convince other governments and peoples that they, too, have a stake in effective partnerships...In Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina, we failed to adequately address concerns about immigration and equity and economic growth.
No mention was made of corruption, crime, or human rights violations—which along with immigration, economic disparity and entrenched poverty are endemic problems throughout most of the region.

The only discussion of Latin America during the presidential debates concerned Colombia, when Sen. John McCain faulted Obama for his opposition to the Free Trade Pact with that country, calling Colombia our best ally in the region. Obama responded that before he signed off on the treaty he wanted his concerns addressed regarding human rights violations, specifically with respect to the several thousand union leaders and organizers who have been murdered in Colombia over the past two decades—with no one prosecuted for these crimes. McCain, as regrettably happened far too often during the debates, made a face of contemptuous disgust, as though such concerns were naive, misbegotten and dangerous. (McCain's situational concern for human rights in America's foreign policy should come as no surprise; he was an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan Contras, who were notorious for murdering teachers, doctors, nurses and other civilians, as well as abducting and raping teenage girls, rather than confronting Sandinista troops in the field.)

This issue has come to a head, with the New York Times, in a November 17th 2008 editorial, urging passage of the Colombian Free Trade Pact, arguing that:
[The] trade pact would be good for America's economy and workers. Rejecting it would send a dismal message to allies the world over that the United States is an unreliable partner and, despite all that it preaches, does not really believe in opening markets to trade. There is no more time to waste. If the lame-duck Congress does not approve the trade pact this year, prospects would dim considerably since it would lose the cover of the rule (formerly known as fast track) that provides for an up-or-down, no-amendment vote.
The Times further argued that trade preferences linked to the war on drugs already exempt most Colombian exports to the U.S. from tariffs. The Pact before Congress would eliminate tariffs on American exports to Colombia, a good deal for American workers and companies, they contend.

As for human rights concerns:
We, too, have strong concerns about human-rights violations committed by the government of President Alvaro Uribe. But Democrats opposing the trade pact on these grounds are ignoring undeniable improvements. Violence has abated considerably during the Uribe administration as it has taken on the left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and right-wing paramilitaries. The number of trade unionists killed, a major Democratic concern, is still too high but has dropped sharply.

Washington must keep pressing Bogotá to reduce abuses by Colombia's Army, ensure the prosecution of paramilitary thugs and further rein in violence against union members. It has a powerful tool to do that: $600 million a year in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid.

Failing to approve this trade agreement would do nothing to improve Colombia's human-rights record. Walking away from it now would alienate many people in Colombia and undermine Washington's credibility.

How Sen. Obama responds to this challenge as a member of the lame duck Congress may tell us much of how he will approach Latin America as President. The key balance to be struck is this: Are human rights concerns being responsibly dealt with, or are our clients' responses largely cosmetic?

In the case of Colombia, the Times makes a legitimate point: The Uribe government has been far from perfect on a number of fronts, but it has the allegiance of a strong majority of its own population, largely because of the reduction of violence it has achieved—violence which in the 1990s reduced cities such as Cali and Medellin to urban war zones. There is considerable concern as to whether the dismantlement of the paramilitaries was anything more than window dressing, for many of these armed groups have reconstituted themselves as non-aligned paramilitaries linked to the cocaine and kidnapping trades.

However, the Times omits mention of the recent scandal that resulted in the cashiering of 27 military officers linked to the murder of civilians lured from poverty-stricken slums by false claims of job opportunities. The victims were killed by military units who then dressed them up in guerrilla garb to inflate their own kill rates to enhance prestige and promotion opportunities. This is an incredible embarrassment to the U.S. advisors who have worked hard to professionalize the Colombian military and rid its ranks of thugs, fascists, opportunists and gangsters. It is also an excellent reason to regard the trade pact mindfully and not rush it through without addressing what progress we are realistically making in the reform of Colombia's military and in the war against drug traffickers, remembering that the lion's share of cocaine reaching the U.S. comes from "our greatest ally in the region."

And here is the crux of the matter, the one Obama will have to address. Simply put, is the glass half empty or half full? Are our current efforts making real progress—albeit halted and non-linear progress—toward stable democracies in the region? Or are we simply holding up regimes which use democracy as a fig leaf to conceal hopelessly corrupt and intransigent governments that make only token efforts to eliminate the influence of international crime cartels within their borders? (And the fact that international crime groups are willing and able to aid terrorist groups if the price is right is lost on no one.)

A test case could be El Salvador, another vaunted ally in the region, and the only Latin American country still providing troops to the effort in Iraq. With a violent crime rate equal to or exceeding that of any nation in the world, not just the region—despite several years of zero-tolerance la mano dura policies that elevate police measures over prevention—as well as entrenched poverty, chronic un-and-under-employment, an unacceptably high emigration rate, a troubling increase in political violence against government opponents and other problems, El Salvador serves as a cautionary tale as to the degree to which U.S. wishful thinking concerning its Cold War strategies can blind it to the actual realities that people living in the region face.

Andres Oppenheimer, a long-time observer of Latin America for the Miami Herald, noted in a recent piece that it is this increase of crime in the region that will be the focus of Obama's Latin American policy. However, to focus on gang-related crime without looking at the corrupt governments and judiciaries that turn a blind eye to well-connected criminal operators, some linked to socially or politically well-connected citizens—or military officers—would be to put on the same ideological blinders that have made the Bush administration's policy so ineffective. Yes, gangs create serious social disruption, weaken civil society, threaten investment, and they have gained international reach to some extent. But to focus the regional crime war on gangs will be to perpetuate an illusion that serves no one so well as the mafiosos who truly control the narcotics traffic and other major rackets. The gangs are the foot soldiers in the narcotics and human trafficking rackets, not the leaders. Focusing solely on them will in no significant way decrease the level of major crime and corruption in Central America.

Take Mexico. As a recent New York Times piece (November 2nd 2008, by Marc Lacey) noted:
Among the greatest challenges in Mexico's drug war is the fact that the traffickers fit no type. Their ranks include men and women, the young and the old. And they can work anywhere: in remote drug labs, as part of roving assassination squads, even within the upper reaches of the government. It has long been known that drug gangs have infiltrated local police forces. Now it is becoming ever more clear that the problem does not stop there. The alarming reality is that many public servants in Mexico are serving both the taxpayers and the traffickers.
This problem is not unique to Mexico nor is it by any stretch of the imagination new. And it is this corruption at all levels of government and civil society that should be the real focus of Obama's regional foreign policy.

Oppenheimer provided a quote that was one of the few other direct statements Obama the candidate made about the region during his run for the presidency:
In a May 23 campaign speech in Miami, Obama rightly stated that "The Mérida Initiative does not invest enough in Central America, where much of the trafficking and gang activity begins."
Well, fine, as far as that goes. But as Oppenheimer also rightly notes:
But it's also time to step up transnational anti-gang efforts, take stronger actions to prevent U.S. arms trafficking, and change the focus of U.S. anti-crime measures toward more education and crime prevention programs.
Even this, though, as I've already noted, puts too much emphasis on gangs and not enough on institutional corruption. Here, I hope Obama's focus on partnership does not blind him to making agreements with governments unable or unwilling to address the corruption crippling their anti-crime efforts. Blaming Hugo Chavez and other leftist populists in the region may placate certain elements here and abroad, but it won't change the fact that most of the cocaine reaching the U.S. comes from Colombia, not Venezuela (though Venezuela is demonstrably assisting the international trafficking of drugs), or that corruption at the highest levels undermines all our anti-crime strategies in the region.

The Obama administration will have to assess who our real friends and allies are with a cold eye—non-ideological, non-partisan—with an understanding that a friend on one issue may be intransigent on another. The fact that Obama is fundamentally a pragmatist is grounds for reassurance. But what the region requires is a wholesale reform of its police and judicial apparatus, with a new focus on transparency in anti-crime efforts and prosecutions, the de-politicization of such efforts, plus generous funding of the kinds of education and social programs that prevent youths from turning to gangs. Currently, it's hard to tell which countries in the region have a genuine commitment to such policies. One of the first things an Obama administration should do is determine which countries these are—whether they're leftist regimes like those of Chile and Argentina and Brazil, or avowedly rightist regimes such as Mexico and El Salvador and Colombia—then enhance our partnerships with those truly committed to real reform and deal honestly and realistically with the pretenders.

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