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Unsentimental partners: Obama goes south of the border

Obama’s trip to the stable democracies of Brazil, Chile and El Salvador beginning on March 19 is a sign of maturing relations between the US and Latin America. Nevertheless, a toughening approach towards security issues and the hard-headed calculation of US national interests will be a dominant theme.
Ivan Briscoe
17 March 2011

Of the 25,000 embassy cables that the grace of Wikileaks has now deposited in the hands of four Latin American newspapers, there are few as pearl-like and deranged as one of the very first leaks from last year. Mauricio Funes, the centre-left former journalist who now heads El Salvador, is reported to have requested through intermediaries immediate help from Washington to manage his personal security and the safety of his phone lines.

It is perhaps appropriate that El Salvador will be the last stop President Obama makes on his five-day trip to South and Central America starting on March 19. After trying to cement a strategic relationship with Brazil, and recasting US policy to Latin American in a speech in Chile on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s grand initiative, Obama might take the opportunity to sit back, and commiserate with President Funes. He could even marvel for a second at the suggestion that a US secret service unit be placed in the palace of a Central American leader to keep the peace between him and his party’s hard core of former Marxist guerrillas.

To judge from the first slew of leaked cables, El Salvador is not alone in peppering Washington with tall orders. Leaders in other capitals have apparently beseeched US embassies for all sorts of aid against narco-traffickers in Mexico, for help in slandering a rising Peruvian populist, or for arranging any form of photogenic appointment between Obama and the Argentine President.

Obama’s journey might also afford him an overview of the continent’s new sights, and persuade him that the cultural mastery of his homeland has also achieved immense heights. Vast shopping malls clog the continent. Car purchases are raging, at over five million for South America in 2010. Mexicans are fatter than ever, oil is waiting to gush from Brazil’s new deep sea finds, and up to 80 million guns, many of them from the US, are stashed across the continent. On the northern borders of Honduras, in a small town called El Paraíso, Obama could even admire a copy of the White House, constructed to serve as a town hall by a mayor with 40 bodyguards who claims to have made his fortune through dairy production.

It would seem, then, the president’s spirits might rise on seeing lands steeped in the American Way and pleading for Washington’s steady hand. Yet while he returns home and turns his back on the region to face the burning issues of foreign policy - in which Latin America definitively does not feature – there seems little doubt that the murmuring and discontent will resurface.

According to one leaked cable from September 2009, the Argentine foreign minister, Jorge Taiana, after pressing once again for a one-on-one meeting between Obama and his boss, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, vented the threat that weighs over a distracted US foreign policy establishment. “If the United States does not cultivate her, then someone else will.”

Junk and vassals

The fact of the matter is that other powers are courting Latin America with a highly effective calling card. China is the most prominent, seeking raw materials across the region and hiking its share of trade to unprecedented levels: 14 percent of Brazilian exports and imports are now with China, making it Brazil’s top trading partner. China stands as the second largest partner for Argentina, Peru and Colombia. Last year, it invested 30 billion dollars across the region, equivalent in scale to its total foreign direct investment in Latin America until 2009.

Extraordinary statistics such as these describe a change in orientation that is unsettling capitals across the region, and profoundly altering their diplomatic compass. Obama’s rush to Brazil, where he starts his trip, might well have been long in the planning as part of a deepening of a relationship that aspires to joint action on global and regional issues. It helped, however, that the new president Dilma Rousseff is due to visit Beijing in April.

The transformative influence exerted by China, complemented by the economic pull of other Asian nations as well as Africa (or Iran, in the case of Venezuela) – and matched on the military hardware front by Russia and France - must still be placed in perspective. US economic weight remains considerable, and overpowering in the case of Mexico and Central America, particularly when the contribution of remittances from immigrants in the US is also tallied.

Nor have Latin American governments undergone any conversion to a Chinese model, of the sort that can be detected in the emerging vassals of West and Central Africa. Rousseff and her government are particularly outspoken. Only days ago, she told a closed meeting of union leaders that Brazil was importing “a lot of junk (bagulheira)” from China, and is desperate to reverse the flow of manufactures. The same resentments and suspicions are very much alive in Argentina or Colombia, where the Chinese plan to create a dry canal as a rival to Panama. Beijing’s White Book on Latin America from 2008 is regarded by some as a route map towards dependency, and about as attractive as Hugo Chávez’s failed constitutional reform.

A story of estrangement

Obama and his staff can be expected to fan these concerns. Their efforts will be eased by the evident popularity of the president across the region, as well as the ever clearer entrenchment of US soft power. Whereas George W. Bush saw free trade talks implode by the sea in Argentina in 2005, and was tailed across the hemisphere by a chavista road show two years later, Obama will find a region that seems to have lost its anti-imperialist sting; his choice of countries to visit is a clear vote for the new vogue of democratic, inclusive, turbo-growth models.

Chávez is remarkably quiet, all too aware of the opposition’s rise in last year’s legislative elections and his own economic troubles. The other Bolivarians in Ecuador and Bolivia, so voluble under Bush, have their eyes trained on the complexities of consolidating power after the drama of constitutional reform and purges of the state. Both have faced uprisings in recent months as they sought to push reforms by removing the state subsidy on petrol in Bolivia, and leveling the police pay structure in Ecuador. Nicaragua for its part is absorbed by the run-up to presidential elections in November, and the possibility of a full-blown crisis over a contested result.

Curiously, the most visible signs of a weakening of US influence and of a growing knack for offending Washington come from countries that have never or very rarely adopted an anti-imperialist rhetoric. The principle hemispheric squabble of the last month began when Argentine customs authorities impounded, on suspicion of espionage, a plane-load of US military equipment that was destined for use in a course for the police on releasing hostages. Héctor Timmermans, the current foreign minister, later declared that a suitcase on which two soldiers obstinately sat “for six hours” during the inspection had contained “morphine, secret codes and an instruction manual for equipment to intercept communications.”

The bristle between Argentina and US is recent, occasioned by scandals  - notably the allegation in US courts that millions of dollars were sent from Venezuela, in suitcases, to fund Fernández’s presidential campaign – and without any ideological depth. Néstor Kirchner, ex-president and the late husband of Fernandez, espoused a foreign policy whose enemy of preference was the IMF, and whose indifference to the United States flowed from the perception that Washington has bestowed no favours in Argentina’s debt crisis. Even so, he rang the bell to open Wall Street in 2006.

Colombia remains, in the opinion of Arturo Valenzuela, assistant secretary of state and the leading US official on Latin America, one of four “especially strong” partners in the region (along with Brazil, Chile and Peru). The steps by its new president, Juan Manuel Santos, to drain Colombian politics of its poison and address systemic brakes on prosperity – including the issue of land - could not have better suited the prescriptions of Obama’s policy in Latin America. Yet the way to meet these goals has come through estrangement. The embassy in Colombia, with its 3,700 staff, was surely piqued to see its plan of seven shared military bases dashed soon after Santos made his first gesture of outreach to Chávez.

As Wikileaks has proved, such spats and misgivings are the currents that flow between capitals and US embassies across the region. The bon mot of the former ambassador to Honduras, Cris Arcos, has become a universal truth to describe this insouciance: “The right has lost its respect for us, and the left has lost its fear.”

Of course, the United States still wields huge symbolic influence, more so closer to its borders. But it faces a colossal failure in its capacity to deliver on the detailed political and policy requirements of democratic life. Its means to deal with the inner institutional frictions and wider social breakdowns seem blunt; whatever the embassies said or did, the Honduras coup stood and Guatemalan tax reform withered. It seems to know nothing of easing inequality (Latin Americans are learning for themselves), or creating harmonious and livable cities, or taming vast “feral” border areas. Perhaps, despite all its power, it cannot be expected to.

Backstepping and hedging

Obama’s response, first coined in his attendance at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, has been to talk of partnership. Sincere or not, the word has assumed the status of a thick verbal soup, poured gelatinously into every possible policy document. We find the notion “partner of choice” time and again in the Command Strategy 2020 of the United States Southern Command, also entitled Partnership for the Americas. Hillary Clinton offered partners “four pillars of our vision for the Americas” in an illuminating address in Quito in June 2010. One of the pillars was passionately introduced as social equality, redefined soon after as mobility, and translated into practice as the evergreen economic opportunity. Some of the same segues are likely to feature in Obama’s Alliance for Progress anniversary speech in Chile.

However, the rhetoric of partnership has begun to ring a little hollow, and not just because the State Department cannot deliver on the needs of a turbulent democratic era. Where moves have been made to honour commitments, to democracy in Honduras after the 2009 coup or to progressive liberalization of the embargo on Cuba, they have been sharply curtailed by the backroom movement of internal opposition.

At a crucial stage in Honduras when it seemed that US arm-twisting of the de facto president would restore the constitutional order, Jim de Mint, a Republican senator and courtesan of the Tea Party, reminded the administration that he would continue to block key appointments for Latin America (including Valenzuela) until the tune changed. It soon did. Similar obstacles are likely to be strewn in the path of reform of the Cuba policy by the presence of two hardline opponents of Castro on key congressional committees.

Where partnership does seem to be flourishing, with the approval of all sides in Washington and most governments in Latin America, is in the combat of organized crime. Speaking with the Spanish periodical Política Exterior, Valenzuela termed it “the most complicated problem of the moment.” A creeping fear of territories falling into the non-state penumbra stirred first in Colombia, and now spreads to the Petén region of Guatemala, where a UN and civil society motorcade was recently trailed throughout by the vehicles of narco-traffickers. Pacific Colombia and borderland Mexico are urgent concerns, as is northern Honduras, where the product traded by the mayor of El Paraíso is widely believed to be a white substance other than milk.

Obama’s encounter with Funes is sure to assert cooperation on crime as a priority. The sway of public opinion across the continent is unanimous as to its concern over insecurity. Yet here, in a field where the US has matched its words with major financial commitments, the sense prevails that the vital interests of the Americas may not be so harmonious. When it comes to border control with Mexico, the flimsiness of President Obama’s concoction of a “21st century border” – light on truck control, heavy on guns and drugs - is stark. The lack of meditation on the most basic structural issues shaping the crime wave, such as the regime of drug prohibition, is galling.

Should the problem scale into one of national security, or spill over onto US territory, then no government in Latin America is innocent enough of history to doubt how the US security establishment would respond. Deep within the Southern Command’s Partnership Strategy, like a bone left from another era dressed in fine Pentagonese, stands a reminder of what could still come: “we must also maintain a robust crisis planning and execution capacity to hedge against the possibility that steady-state security cooperation and persistent engagement could fail to prevent aggression.”

So long as other fires burn in the world, the precise meaning of the above may not be discovered. More than likely, the US will stay on quiet guard, watched and copied and asked for special favours: an old aristocracy, heavily armed and hunkering down.

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