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Trouble ahead in U.S. – Latin American relations?

14 November 2008

Forrest Hylton, who writes primarily on Colombia and Venezuela, is pumped about the possible selection of Colombian-born Dan Restrepo as an Obama Administration Latin American affairs specialist, possibly as Undersecretary of State for Latin American Affairs.  In his “Real News” interview, Hylton praises the theoretical appointment of Restrepo as a rebirth of the Kennedy Administration’s Agency for International Development.

Mexico, which in the 1960s was much pricklier about United States “assistance” never suffered through the tender mercies of the A.I.D., but several other Latin American nations did.  Even with the best of intentions, A.I.D. was never designed to assist countries so much as to further U.S. strategic and business interests:

Throughout its existence USAID had to respond to critics from the right, who complained that foreign aid was a waste of taxpayers’ money, and those from the left, who argued that the agency was guided more by ideological anti-communism than by the need to alleviate poverty. USAID officials responded by pointing out that four-fifths of the agency’s funds for foreign assistance were spent on goods and services provided by American businesses, and that the total amount of U.S. foreign aid was low, falling below 0.2 percent of the gross national product in the 1990s, placing the United States last among major donor countries. Ideological concerns were often apparent in the selection of recipients. For example, South Vietnam alone absorbed more than 25% of USAID’s worldwide budget in the 1960s.

I thought it had disappeared into the “dustbin of history” but it has been in the news lately, at least in Latin America, as a cover for U.S. attempts to subvert the Bolivian government, and to finance a fascist separatist movement in gas-rich regions.

Restrepo comes from the rarified world of “beltway think tanks”, but probably isn’t a bad choice, and may not be listened to at all.  Hylton may be jumping the gun, or engaging in wishful thinking.  Bolivian commentators note that the Obama transition team’s Latin Americanists include Greg Craig, who is also defending former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in his attempts to avoid extradition back to Bolivia to stand trial on genocide charges.  Sanchez de Lozada — an unreconstructed “neo-liberal” is now connected with yet another Washington “think tank” — the Inter-American Dialogue (so are a lot of ex-Presidents, including Jimmy Carter).

Neo-liberalism (which involved the wholesale sell-off of Latin American national resources to foreign buyers, basically to prop up the U.S. consumer culture) was the prevailing doctrine of U.S. policy at least since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.  While a few pieces of neo-liberalism — like NAFTA — had some positive affects (at least allowing Mexico to get out of debt… though at a cost of impeding Mexico’s overall growth, and impoverishing the middle class), the nations that are in the best position financially are those that are eschewing the neo-liberal model for a more state control and spending.  At best, the neo-liberalism of the past allowed them to pile up huge foreign reserves, that are acting as a cushion for necessary investments in infrastructure development and self-financed projects that avoid the problems with U.S. “assistance” programs.

The Huffington Post today reports that one of the most flaming neo-liberals is under consideration for Secretary of State … Hillary Clinton.  During Ms. Clinton’s recent primary Presidential campaign, several Latin Americanists worried about her stance towards the region.  Stephen Zunes, in Foreign Policy in Focus, dismissed her world-view as no different from her husbands, or either of his two predecessors.  Zunes slyly noted she has more in common with Ronald Reagan than George McGovern (who, to my recollection, never had a Latin American policy to speak of):

In Latin America, Senator Clinton argues that the Bush administration should take a more aggressive stance against the rise of left-leaning governments in the hemisphere, arguing that Bush has neglected these recent developments “at our peril.” In response to recent efforts by democratically elected Latin American governments to challenge the structural obstacles which have left much of their populations in poverty, she has expressed alarm that “We have witnessed the rollback of democratic development and economic openness in parts of Latin America.”

Apparently wishing that the Bush administration could have somehow prevented the elections of leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere, she argues that “We must return to a policy of vigorous engagement.” Though she has not clarified what she means by “vigorous engagement,” regional examples in recent decades have included military interventions, CIA-sponsored coups, military and financial support for opposition groups, and rigged national elections.

She also supports Bush’s counter-productive and vindictive policy towards Cuba, insisting that she would not end the trade embargo – recently denounced in a 184-4 vote by the United Nations General Assembly – until there was a “democratic transition” in that country. She has even backed Bush’s strict limitations on family visitations by Cuban-Americans and other restrictions on Americans’ freedom to travel.

I certainly hope this is not true (the Mex Files — if we’re listened to at all — recommends Bill Richardson), and more bad choices are emerging. Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack is widely reported to be the next Secretary of Agriculture.  It’s a step in the right direction to appoint a governor from an agricultural state to this position, Vilsack’s enthuastic support for (and from) bio-tech industries and corporate agricultural giants does not suggest any changes in U.S. farm policy.  Although President-Elect Obama has talked about some adjustments to NAFTA, they were mostly campaign rhetoric, and never suggested a fair trade deal for Mexican agriculture.  Since we don’t know who will be heading the Immigration and Customes Enforcement (ICE) bureau of Homeland Security (or who will be Secretary of Homeland Security)… and no perceived changes in agricultural policy is expected (meaning more emigration from rural Mexico), we can only hope it’s an improvment over Julie Myers… but then, anyone would be an improvement.

There are other appointments yet to be names, beyond those at Homeland Security that immediately affect Mexico.  Secretary of Energy (no one seems to mention that Mexico is the third — sometimes second — largest foreign supplier of U.S. oil), “Drug Czar”, Attorney General (who would presumably have a say in how gun-running and money laundering cases are prioritized).  Of course, whomever is in charge of the various U.S. government departments, two things have to be taken into consideration.  Mexico — and Latin America — are still vitally important to the United States, and are likely to be short-changed, no matter who runs the U.S. government.

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