Obama has a Latin American obligation

Becquer Medak-Seguin

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Jesús Vásquez forlornly wrote last week that “all we (the U.S.) have is the audacity of hope that freedom will survive in Venezuela.” This contentious statement, like the rest of his article, falsely assumes two things: that the U.S. has little, if anything, to do with Hugo Chávez’ rise to power in Venezuela and that the U.S. can do little to preserve Venezuelan democracy.

The United States should not write off Venezuelan democracy. Nor should the U.S. exculpate itself from having anything to do with Chávez’ rise or the durability of his regime. But in order to understand why Venezuelans approved Hugo Chávez’ referendum to abolish term limits, one must remember her contentious history with Latin America. Only then will the U.S. have the capacity to revise its policy towards Latin America and help preserve democracy.

The U.S. is effectively still inebriated from the patriarchal binge of the Monroe Doctrine. Enacted in 1823, the doctrine declared the Western hemisphere closed to recolonization and emphasized that the U.S. would view any attack on Latin America as an attack against the U.S. The doctrine (perhaps) had good intentions initially, but soon became a sorry excuse for unwarranted U.S. intervention in the region.

In the nearly two centuries since the doctrine, the U.S. has illegitimately occupied Mexico (1848), Cuba (1898), Puerto Rico (1898), part of Panama/Columbia (1903), Nicaragua (1912), Haiti (1915) and the Dominican Republic (1916) and impelled military coup d’états in Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976), among others. These coups have wrought as much political damage as they have mortal damage upon Latin America. Argentina’s euphemistically labeled “Dirty War,” for example, resulted in between 22,000 and 30,000 deaths, according to Argentine Military Intelligence and several human rights organizations, respectively.

And, after all this, the U.S. somehow remains bewildered that Latin Americans would elect anti-American, leftist leaders. I don’t get it.

President Barack Obama told Mexican President Felipe Calderón in January that he would “turn the page” on the U.S.’s relationship with Latin America. Though it went largely unnoticed by the press, this statement will be one of Obama’s most difficult promises to keep: not because of the difficulty of changing the policy, but because it goes against nearly two hundred years of history.

The U.S. can begin preserving Venezuelan democracy by supporting all democratically elected Latin American leaders regardless of ideology and not allow the C.I.A. to spy and intervene in countries whose ideology is not in line with ours. Obama should speak to his Latin American ‘enemies,’ notably Raul Castro and Hugo Chávez, without any preconditions. He should talk to Latin Americans about economics. He should push to include Brazil in major global economic conferences such as the G-8, lift the nonsensical U.S. embargo on Cuba and pardon many Latin American countries’ debt to the World Bank before they default on it.

Above all, the U.S. should listen.

The U.S. and Latin America need each other. One cannot function without the other and, thus, a policy of ignorance will lead to more harm. The U.S. has an imperative role to play in Latin America’s politics. It can help preserve the already existing democracies and keep several governments from falling into the authoritarian trap by merely listening to them rather than using them as media through which the U.S. can uphold its interests.  

A new administration that wishes to be the world’s CEO (rather than the world’s owner) cannot turn its back on its Latin American neighbors without risking its own political wellbeing. Obama took the first positive step of talking the talk, soon he should begin to walk the walk.

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