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American Idol — for how long?

25 June 2009

Despite Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s description of U.S. President Barack Obama as an “idol” in her nation, Obama’s remarks at Monday’s meeting (22-July)between the two American presidents indicates that this administration suffers the same cultural tone-deafness towards Latin America that has affected all United States administrations.

“I’m interested in going forward, not looking backward,” said Obama, who has pledged to reinvigorate ties with Latin America, after what his advisors believe was neglect during the previous Bush administration.

“I think that the United States has been an enormous force for good in the world. I think there have been times where we’ve made mistakes,” Obama said in the Oval Office.

“But I think that what is important is looking at what our policies are today, and what my administration intends to do in cooperating with the region.”

Obama was asked by a Chilean journalist whether he would apologize for past CIA operations in the region, like an apparent [sic!!!] US-backed coup attempt in Chile in 1973.

(Agence France-Press, sombrero tip to The Latin Americanist)

While there is probably little point in quoting the Spanish-born U.S. philosopher George Santayana’s observation that “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” Mr. Obama — who is known for his rhetorical skills — might want to reconsider HOW he phrases his responses, and how they will be received everywhere  south of the Rio Bravo del Norte/Rio Grande River.

Of course, having spent several years immersed in Mexican history,  there’s a temptation to see those who say they’re not interested in “looking backwards” as a threat to my livelihood.  But, it’s not only Mexicans (or foreign writers living in Mexico) who see “looking backwards” as essential to any attempt to move forward.

Mexicans may be more obsessed with their history than some other Latin Americans, but it is in “looking backwards” that people assess policy and judge foreign administrations.  The building blocks of Latin American thinking are the made of our past… much as our buildings are.

What Mr. Obama said to Doctor Bachelet was not just ignorant, it was insulting.  Dr. Bachelet is herself a victim of those United States policies and actions that led to the 11 September 1973 tragedy, to her father’s torture and death, to her own torture and  exile.

For the President of a nation that has not “moved forward” from another 11 September… and invaded two other countries(and is still there), created an internal security apparatus that has severely damaged Latin American-United States relations, and is still pursuing policies that are rejected (sometimes violently) by Latin American citizens… this smacks of the same  “do as I say, not as I do”  attitude that has soured United States relations with Latin America for the last 200 years.

Doctor Bachelet has — to her enormous credit — “moved forward” with her own life, and her country-men and women — to their enormous credit — have emerged from the disaster of that 11 September.  But they were only able to “move forward” by coming to grips with their past, by “looking backwards”.

Michelle Bachelet is an extremely gracious lady, responding as she did to Mr. Obama’s remarks.  President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, not as suave and sophisticated as the Chilean counter-part also showed good manners when dealing with Obama… presenting, not some list of demands or statement of what particular policies must be implemented to restore traditionally amiable relations between his country and the United States… but a history book.

Chavez at least made Eduardo Galleano’s “Open Veins” a minor best seller for a few weeks, which is all to the good, but doesn’t seem to have seeped into the consciousness of the State Department, or the President.

As a Mexican historian, I have noted Obama’s “good intentions” are likely to be interpreted much as Woodrow Wilson’s were.  And Wilson — another moralist with soaring rhetoric — has gone down in Mexican history as the worst villain ever to occupy the White House (with the possible exception of James Knox Polk).  Mexico has “moved forward” from the Wilson Administration, but incompletely.  Until the United States accepts its own responsiblity for the disasterous Huerta administration (as it only begrudgingly does to its part in gun running and money laundering that fuel the narcotics trade) will there be a concerted effort to see the United States as an honest partner.

It’s ironic (and writing history requires a taste for irony):  Latin American cultures are based on a synthesis of the past (here in Mexico, several thousand years of it) and our histories are all about a struggle between the past and the present.  Yet, the president of a nation with only a few hundred years of history (and a president and a nation greatly admired by many) fails to understand his own nation’s history and traditions in this part of the world are still relevant to us.

If the United States wants “free trade” agreements with Latin American nations, the mistakes of the past need to be acknowledged, dealt with honestly and corrected.  If the United States wants better relations with Chile, it needs to acknowledge its role in what happened in 1973.  If it wants better relations with Mexico, it needs to acknowledge its role in… everything from the 1803 Burr Conspiracy to its money laundering and gun running today.

Before one builds, one lays a foundation.  And, the foundation for decent relations in the hemisphere does not lie in burying the past, but in exposing it, using the stones — as the temples were used here in Mexico — to build a new, and stronger structure.

The short quote  from Santayana’s 1905 “The Life of Reason” is incomplete.  The full paragraph, which Mr. Obama might want to ponder is as follows:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.

Your instincts… and perhaps your intentions… are good, Mr. Obama. But your country has learned nothing.

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