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False Start on Latin America: Obama’s First Year

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As I advocate for a U.S. policy towards the region based on justice and human rights, I’ve had easier years during the Bush Administration. For an administration that promised hope and change, both are in short supply.

As Tim Padgett writes in Time magazine , “After months of delay, Arturo Valenzuela was finally confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs last month. But for a job with such a long title, he may find it's short on clout these days. Ostensibly, Valenzuela is President Obama's new point man on Latin America; in reality, that job looks to be under the control of Republicans in Congress and conservatives inside Obama's own diplomatic corps. In fact, when it comes to U.S. policy in Latin America — as events this week in Honduras suggest — it's often hard to tell if George W. Bush isn't still President…..  as he ends his first year in office, Obama seems to have ceded Latin America strategy to right-wing Cold Warriors whose thinking — including the idea that coups are still an acceptable means of regime change — is no more equipped to help bring the region into the 21st century than the ideology of left-wing Marxists is.

“That's been most apparent in Honduras,” continues Padgett, “where the country's congress this week refused to reinstate democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, a leftist who was ousted in a June 28 military coup. The Obama Administration condemned Zelaya's overthrow as an affront to Latin America's fledgling democracies. But conservatives led by GOP South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint — who blocked Valenzuela's confirmation to protest Obama's stance — and Bush Administration holdovers such as the U.S.'s ambassador to the Organization of American States, Lewis Amselem (who was finally replaced this week), pushed Obama into brokering a deal in which the U.S. effectively condoned yet another armed putsch in the region. In an about-face, Obama recognized last Sunday's presidential election in Honduras, even though almost every other government in the world didn't because they consider the current regime there illegitimate.”

Now, I’d like to recognize that the Obama Administration started off on the right foot with Honduras—condemning the coup, if always too timidly, and applying some sanctions. The previous administration would simply have welcomed it—or even worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork.  Had the State Department not suddenly caved in October, we would have seen the United States, still wavering, but basically on the right side, standing against a coup and for democracy.

Thankfully, the administration took the first step of lifting the inhumane restrictions preventing Cuban Americans from visiting their families.

And President Obama has sometimes got the words right.  His speech at the Summit of the Americas promised a new era of better relations with the region.  He raised human rights and democracy concerns with Colombian President Uribe, a marked shift from the medal of honor President Bush bestowed during his last White House visit.  The administration appeared to be moving towards a more balanced policy that raised human rights issues when needed and at least mentioned problems of poverty and inequality while playing fair with governments of all stripes.

But the about-face on Honduras, the tone-deaf decisions to cavalierly certify that Colombia and Mexico were meeting human rights conditions, the expansion of bases in Colombia which escalated regional tensions and dealt a blow to hopes for a more peaceful policy….

It’s been a false start on Latin America, Mr. Obama.  But we will give you one more chance. 

We’d like to see:   a budget for Latin America rolled out in February that focuses on reducing poverty and strengthening justice, not increasing military might.  An end, finally, to the senseless travel embargo to Cuba.  The start of a serious reexamining of failed and hypocritical counternarcotics policy. And a principled stance on human rights issues throughout the region, towards governments left and right, where needed. And yes, that includes close U.S. allies, like Colombia and Mexico.

And that includes Honduras, where a careful attention to the full restoration of civil liberties and human rights protections is the very least the United States could do.

You finally have your team in place.  Next year, we expect better.

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