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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Empire and Latin America in the Obama Era

April 1, 2009 ·

The new administration needs to move beyond the nation's imperial tradition in this hemisphere.

Barack Obama's rise to the U.S. presidency has left most Latin Americans suspended between skepticism and hope. That's bound to make the V Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, to be held on April 18 and 19, especially interesting.

A promising sign of meaningful change in U.S. foreign policy toward the hemisphere would be the official demise of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America, whose apparent failure none of the three governments so far have dared to acknowledge. This creature of Bush's imperial presidency was agreed to and announced with great fanfare by the U.S., Canadian and Mexican presidents in 2005. Since then, it has been an obscure process in which the executive powers of the governments, along with the CEOs of 30 of the largest corporations in the three countries — many of them military contractors — have extended the security perimeter of the United States to "ensure that North America is the safest and best place to live and do business."

The strongest sign that this trinational militaristic and deregulation project is dead may be that some of its strongest proponents, including Robert Pastor in the United States and Tomas D'Aquino in Canada, have declared it so. A close second may be that during Obama's meetings with President Felipe Calderón and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper the SPP was not mentioned once.

Why did it fail? It rapidly became evident that the SPP wasn't going to perform as advertised to provide more security and prosperity to "North American" people. What better proof of this than the failed war on drugs in Mexico that took about 6,200 lives in 2008 alone? The SPP has failed also thanks to the opposition of a wide array of civil society groups in the three countries — Canada, the United States, and Mexico — that denounced its secret dealings.

This apparent victory of civil society groups hasn't eliminated the need for skepticism, however. Wholesale change won't happen without further struggle. Economic, corporate, and military interests remain largely the same, and several militaristic and deregulation initiatives are well underway. First among them is the Mérida Initiative with which the United States is providing military hardware to Mexico. This program, while intended to fight drug traffic, is much more likely to exacerbate violence, since it doesn't address structural problems like widespread corruption, deficiencies in Mexico's police and judiciary system, arms smuggling from the U.S. into Mexico, or money laundering.

And since the Mexican economy is more dependent on the United States than is any other Latin American economy, it's going to be the hardest hit by the economic crisis. In addition, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains in place, privileging major corporate interests and making it harder for small and medium business to participate in the export sector. Therefore, enormous challenges for civil society organizations remain.

Neoliberal Backlash

Despite the economic crisis of epic proportions, right-wing ideological supporters of U.S.-led neoliberalism are exerting enormous pressure on Obama to continue projecting the United States as the hemisphere's "natural leader," and maintaining the course of economic deregulation. For instance, the Inter-American Dialogue, which labels itself as the "leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on issues in Western Hemisphere," and counts among its members many of the region's conservative former government officials, says that Obama must "concentrate on completing the unfinished agenda left by President George W. Bush," and "honor trade agreements that it has agreed to." It also warned Obama to "leave campaign rhetoric aside," such as his promise to open up free trade agreements so they work for the working people and become fair trade agreements.

Most Latin Americans however, applaud the fact that Latin American countries themselves have already shifted the power balance in the region. It's not really up to Obama whether Latin America will break from the U.S. empire. New emerging leaders, coupled with a renewed and assertive integration process in South America, have left the United States with little choice but to become a good neighbor. The recent victory of the FMLN party in El Salvador's presidential elections is just the latest addition to the growing throng of countries governed by the left in the hemisphere.

Although Latin Americans also applaud some first steps taken by Obama, such as his order to close the vile Guantánamo prison, a broad-based, concrete agenda for Latin America is still pending. And the new administration will need to resist efforts from the right to thwart an agenda that serves social rather than corporate interests.

A History of Imperial Interventionism in Latin America

The Monroe Doctrine is considered the foundation of U.S. hegemony in Latin America. In 1823 President James Monroe directed the European powers to leave the "Americas" for the Americans. What he meant was that henceforth, the United States would absorb the hemisphere into its sphere of influence. Since then, U.S. political dominance and economic expansionism in Latin America hasn't been based on formal, old-style colonial domination of its European predecessors, although military invasions and occupations have been the order of the day. Rather, the United States has exerted political control in collusion with oligarchic ruling classes, and U.S. economic interests have been protected through "open market" regimes.

U.S. intrusions have included military coups to reverse social, economic, and political transformations not in accordance with Washington's interests. In the 1970s and 1980s, both military invasions and open military support to dictatorships paved the way for U.S. corporations to dominate the region, reaping the natural riches, exploiting cheap labor and inundating local markets, while displacing both internal and external competition.

U.S. interventionism prevailed in the '70s and '80s to confront communist and socialist experimentation throughout the region. Many atrocities were committed in the name of "democracy and freedom" in countries such as Haiti, Guatemala and Chile, with the open support of the U.S. The heyday of the anticommunist surge might have been the 1973 destruction of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Allende was murdered by a U.S.-backed military coup that left dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. According to Noam Chomsky, Nixon's National Security Council concluded in 1971 — while considering the paramount importance of destroying Chilean democracy — that "If the U.S. cannot control Latin America, it cannot expect 'to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.'" The same rationale applies today to the economic blockade of Cuba, and other militaristic and interventionist efforts in the region.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War in the late '80s, the threat of socialism and communism spilling into the United States' backyard receded, and direct military intervention became less thinkable. Today, though, terrorism and drug trafficking have become the new raisons d'êtres for intervention, concretely with the Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative.

During the '90s, the United States began viewing the hemisphere as mature enough for "democracy" and "good governance," since most countries had adopted the principles and "disciplines" of the Washington Consensus imposed by the international financial institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank) and the international trade regime, now embodied by the World Trade Organization. These economic policies have had the effect of guaranteeing to the U.S. and its economic European allies the continuous payment of debt from Latin American countries. The creation of a constant state of financial indebtedness has been the principal economic mechanism of modern-day imperial domination. From the late '80s onwards, the U.S. empire felt it could count on Latin American docility and stability, and looked towards other regions to satiate its ever growing thirst for oil and engage its military might in other conflicts.

The empire's use of force was paired with an ideological victory that has also represented a major challenge to Latin Americans: the theory of "inevitable and irreversible globalization." This theory was promoted through euphemisms like "deregulation," "reform," "modernization," "productivity," and "competiveness," intended to justify economic measures that concentrate wealth among a few powerful elites in different nations. In the present financial crisis, this language, with its tints of Orwellian newspeak, is finally being subjected to serious challenge.

Models of Resistance

Until the second half of this decade, the United States felt confident that it would achieve the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) modeled after NAFTA, which went into force between Mexico, the United States, and Canada in 1994. However, NAFTA is more than simply "free trade"; it's the U.S. model for locking in "structural adjustment" policies, enhancing investors rights vis-à-vis the state, and submerging the economic role of the latter under the fundamentals of "market discipline" (another example of newspeak). In Latin America, NAFTA has served as a model for U.S. free trade agreements with Chile, Peru, and (via a regional pact) the Dominican Republic and Central America. But the expansion has stopped there. In many other Latin American countries, people have said "Enough." Hemispheric-wide resistance to U.S. attempts to force the FTAA on every nation on this continent led to its eventual defeat at the fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005.

Since 2005, U.S. hegemony in the region has steeply waned. South American countries in particular have affirmed their detachment from U.S. leadership with the creation of the UNASUR. This union of nations, although still in an incipient phase, sees the European Union as a model and aims to achieve gradual economic equalization based on common political and economic institutions, as an alternative to the subservient NAFTA model. Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela lead this project. Already, South American countries are trading more among each other than ever before, and also trading more with partners outside the hemisphere, like the European Union, South Africa, and China. Because of their diversification and broader globalist perspective, including in some cases South-South relations, those countries haven't succumbed to the economic crisis that originated in the United States — or at least not as harshly as Mexico has.

Latin Americans have confronted the collusion of U.S. hegemony with local oligarchies in myriad ways: from upheavals of indigenous peoples in, for example, Chiapas, Mexico and Cochabamba, Bolivia, to massive street demonstrations in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and finally with the democratic election of governments in many countries that represent national interests and have moved decisively away from control by dictates from Washington.

Contending alliances

This emancipation is far from hemispheric, however. In fact, two distinct but overlapping alliances are forming. Twelve South American countries and Cuba have signed onto UNASUR. But at the same time, there's a string of Pacific Rim countries that have been corralled by the United States into committing to pro-market deregulation and security initiatives, via the Bush-led Pathways for Prosperity in the Americas (PPA). PPA is based on the failed Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP), which allowed NAFTA to be extended into the realms of security, and Plan Colombia, which has resulted in a military strategic base in that country that monitors all challenges to empire in South America.

The PPA was launched in 2008 by Bush and 11 compliant governments in the hemisphere — not surprisingly those with which the United States already signed a free-trade agreement or has one pending. Unmistakably it was Bush's Plan B for the failed FTAA, with the added "security" component. The PPA bears many of the hallmarks of the SPP: an agenda for further economic, mercantile and financial deregulation covered by the term "prosperity," and a "security" agenda of enhancing military and police powers to combat "terrorism," drug traffic and "illegitimate" migration. In short, the PPA is an attempt to push further economic deregulation and to promote an escalation of militarism in the region. The return of the mothballed U.S. IV fleet to Latin American waters is an example of this and a threat to any aspiration of officially putting an end to the archaic Monroe Doctrine.

The PPA is also a highly divisive strategy designed to defeat processes of Latin American integration. According to former President George W. Bush, the PPA "is open to all countries, as participants or observers, in the Western Hemisphere that share our commitment to democracy, open markets and free trade." Equating open markets and free trade to democracy is a worn out formula the U.S. uses to advance its interests in the region.

Instead of pursuing a U.S.-centered free-trade model in the region, with a militaristic approach, the hemisphere urgently needs innovative approaches to tackle the wealth disparities that make it the most unequal region in the world. Latin Americans have read with hope Obama's "New Partnership for the Americas" document, which rejects "eight years of failed policies" and "top down reforms," and puts forward instead an "agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up."

To fulfill this promise, Obama should begin by laying to rest the divisive Bush legacy embodied in the PPA — as well as the SPP, the Mérida Initiative and Plan Colombia. This would signal that the United States is turning from a bullying empire into a good neighbor, from foe to friend; and that the Monroe Doctrine is finally repealed. A first test to see whether the United States is making these changes will be at the forthcoming Summit of the Americas, where Obama will meet with all of the hemisphere's other leaders except Cuba. In parallel, civil society organizations from across the hemisphere will hold a People's Summit, from which voices for change will be conveyed to the leaders. When the summit begins, just one day before Obama marks the end of his first 100 days in office, we'll learn whether he's listening to voices that demand a more respectful and a more humble attitude towards Latin America, honoring his commitment to "bottom-up" approaches to change — or whether he'll give in to clamors from the right that demand he maintain the course of U.S. imperialism towards the region. We hope it will be the former.