SAO PAULO – Even before its Lincolnesque inauguration, the Barack Obama presidency and Latin America already seem to be on a collision course.
This Tuesday, in a groundbreaking, wide-ranging, 33-country Latin American and Caribbean summit coordinated by the Brazilian government, Raul Castro – in his first trip abroad since taking over from Fidel in 2006 – saw Cuba accepted as the 23rd member of the Group of Rio political forum, a body created in 1986 to promote Latin American cooperation.
All the leaders at the summit said in unison, “This is a historic moment.” Then the forum immediately condemned and demanded the end of the US embargo against Cuba in effect since February 1962.
So it’s not an accident that on the same day, President George W Bush’s Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, a fierce anti-Castro Cuban-American, declared the US would not lift the embargo. The leaders gathered at the summit took it for what it is: not only as a “message” to Latin America but as a torpedo launched towards the Obama submarine. But one thing is certain: “The wall has been pierced,” as Argentinian daily Pagina 12 headlined it. The US strategy towards Latin America has completely failed – and Obama will have to pick up the pieces.
Even before the Obama inauguration, Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, stressed, “The issues that have dominated Latin America relations – immigration, US trade barriers on agricultural products and Cuba – remained in dispute.” Shifter said, “Latin America wants the US to be engaged, but in very different terms that it has in the past. In any case, they’re not waiting around for the US to change its mindset.”
The New York Times was reduced to carping about the US being “dismissed” from the summit in Brazil. No wonder: for anyone who had not already noticed, the summit buried for good the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which declared Latin America off-limits to European powers.
Not only the US was not invited – the same happened to former colonial powers Spain and Portugal. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim praised “countries of all ideological strands harboring the common desire of integrating Latin American and the Caribbean as their common space”. Amorim does not see hegemony as a good deal even for the US itself, “They don’t want it, and it’s not feasible. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a very good relation with the US.”
The only absent heads of state happened to be two close Bush administration pals, Peru’s Alan Garcia and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe. As for Raul Castro, he was the true star of the show. Very diplomatic, he did not attack the US frontally, but roundly condemned neo-liberal policies and attributed the global financial crisis to an “unjust and selfish economic order”.
Castro is nonetheless hopeful, “If Mr Obama wants to have a discussion, we will. It’s increasingly difficult to isolate Cuba. We are small, but we have shown we cannot be easily dominated.” He denied that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has offered to be a mediator between himself and Obama.
For his part, Lula did send a clear message to Obama, saying his US presidential victory would truly become historic only when he lifted the US blockade on Cuba: “This has no economic explanation, no political explanation, it is meaningless.” Lula definitely has his eyes set on the big picture. The Foreign Ministry considers Brazil to be one of the very few countries in the world capable of establishing a simultaneous dialogue with Cuba, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and any US administration, be it Bush or Obama.
Raul Castro, compared with legendary “Comandante” Fidel, is more of a moderate, politically and economically. After a groundbreaking visit to Fidel by Lula in early 2008, Raul started to consider the possibility of Cuba distancing itself a teeny bit from Venezuela without of course hurting Chavez’s feelings. Lula’s Workers Party’s close ties with Cuba and Fidel have been very solid since the 1970s. What the Brazilian Foreign Ministry has suggested is for Raul to make a gesture towards the international community – if not a gradual but significant political opening at least the release of political prisoners. This would prove Cuba has embarked on a genuine transition and is not simply reproducing the Chinese model in Latin America.
Lula has been at his optimistic best, “There was a time when brother Hugo Chavez was alone. Who could have imagined, 10 years ago, that our dear Evo Morales would be the president of Bolivia? Who could have imagined that a liberation theology bishop [Fernando Lugo] would be president of Paraguay?” Evo – stressing Latin American solidarity with Havana, and successive, anti-embargo United Nations resolutions – has proposed Latin America delivers an official deadline for the US to suspend the economic blockade.
Chavez stressed the global financial crisis “has the effect of a thousand hurricanes”, and that required Latin American and Caribbean regional integration, while Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo blamed “structural asymmetries”. Chavez, in his trademark Garcia Marquez literary character ranting mode, insisted the crisis would get worse because capitalism is not “Obama’s or Bush’s, it is evil”.
Chavez sees the capitalist world “tumbling down” as a consequence of the global crisis, and the cause is the Washington model imposed on the rest of the world; he praises instead Lula’s “Latin-Americanist” thinking.
Enter China, Russia, Iran
A case can be made that Brazil and Venezuela are fiercely positioning themselves for regional leadership. Brazil is a natural leader of Mercosur (the South American common market) and Unasur (the Union of South American nations) while Venezuela is a natural leader of ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas).
ALBA was launched in 2005 by Venezuela as a counterpunch to the Bush administration’s failed offensive of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Unasur was formed in May 2008 by 12 countries to mediate serious conflicts such as the separatists vs government clashes in Bolivia, thus bypassing the discredited, US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).
But it’s all interlinked; Mercosur, for instance, will absorb Bolivian exports boycotted by the US as “punishment” for Bolivia expelling the US Drug Enforcement Administration (whose agents were accused of conspiring to overthrow Evo). Chavez seems to be comfortable with the interlocking mechanisms – he prefers to identify an emerging collective regional leadership, “leader countries, male leaders, female leaders, people’s leaders”.
All bets are off on how the Obama presidency will adapt to the new Latin American “political-ideological profile”, as Lula put it, and that includes, of course, expanded diplomatic, economic and military ties with China, Russia and Iran. That means Russian warships – including a nuclear cruiser – in joint naval exercises with Venezuela, a first since the Cold War; Chinese President Hu Jintao signing a free-trade agreement with Peru; Lula inviting Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for a state visit; and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa refusing to renew the lease on the US’s Manta base, defended by the Bush administration as a critical platform for the “war on drugs” – an assumption widely ridiculed all over South America.
Chavez has bought $4.4 billion in weapons from Russia after the Bush administration blocked sales of aircraft parts to Venezuela. Brazil and France signed a deal for four nuclear submarines to patrol Brazil’s rich Atlantic oil basins. China, and not the US, is now Chile’s biggest copper export market; a true New Copper Road, sea lane rather, is now on from the southern Pacific to East Asia.
China is Cuba’s second-largest trading partner (after Venezuela), with annual bilateral trade at over US$2.6 billion. China has pledged $10 billion in loans to Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras to develop the Western hemisphere’s largest oil discovery since 1976. And by 2012, Caracas will be selling 1 million barrels of oil a day to Beijing. No wonder Chinese President Hu Jintao declared at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru that “China and South America have already become extremely good friends and partners”.
Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council of Foreign Relations, sums it all up, “Monroe certainly would be rolling over in his grave.”
The Bush administration’s countermove – resurrecting the Fourth Fleet from the dead after 58 years to ostensibly “patrol the Caribbean” – sent shivers all over Latin America. Chavez threatened to sink them. Lula demanded an official explanation from the Bush administration.
Chavez’ demonization anyway remains a burgeoning cottage industry in Washington. As the groundbreaking summit in Brazil went on, over 100 top experts on Latin America were sending an open letter to the board of directors of Human Rights Watch blasting a recent report on Venezuela, “A Decade Under Chavez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela”, stressing that it “does not meet even the most minimal standards of scholarship, impartiality, accuracy or credibility”. The signers included leading scholars from Harvard, Johns Hopkins and New York University and from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Britain and Venezuela.
Obama’s foreign policy attention will be totally focused on the Pentagon-coined “arc of instability” from the Middle East to Central Asia. But he has aroused enormous expectations in Latin America. During the campaign, Obama opposed a free-trade agreement with Colombia, on the – correct – grounds of vicious state repression of workers and peasants.
Obama will have to confront Alvaro Uribe and determine any meaningful change to Plan Colombia – a Pentagon “war on terror” gambit disguised as a failed, Bill Clinton-born anti-drug program. He has promised to increase US economic aid to Latin America; governments don’t want aid, they want partnerships. He also pledged to meet with Chavez and Raul Castro “without preconditions” (and then backtracked). He claimed he is “committed” to Latin America. But how will he interpret the new rules of the game – a fast integrating Latin America where the US is just another player among many?