Obama’s Speech, Latin America, and the World as It Should Be

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

This blog originally appeared in Huff Post. Click here to read the original posting. 

There’s much in Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point that resonates for those who would like to see a just foreign policy towards Latin America.

“But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

p052814ps-0437PHOTO CREDIT: Official WH Photo by Pete Souza

“What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions. And that’s why I will continue to push to close Gitmo — because American values and legal traditions do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.”

I am not going to quibble with the words in this fine speech. Let’s go to deeds.

In his remaining time, there’s a lot President Obama could do to build a foreign policy towards Latin America and the border region that would fulfill these shining words: “American leadership also requires us to see the world as it should be — a place where the aspirations of individual human beings really matters; where hopes and not just fears govern; where the truths written into our founding documents can steer the currents of history in a direction of justice.”
President Obama, here’s a checklist to turn your words into action:

  • Bring home the peace in Colombia. Government and guerrilla negotiators have passed the halfway mark in achieving a peace agreement that would end this half-century old war in which more than 218,000 people, 81 percent civilians, have been killed. And the Obama Administration wisely supports the negotiations. But the peace agreement is at risk if a new Colombian president decides to scuttle it. Whoever wins the runoff in Colombia, the United States should firmly advocate for concluding peace with truth and justice—and refuse to back the war if it continues. You want a foreign policy home run, Mr. President? Here it is for the taking.
  • Open up dialogue and travel with Cuba. Open up a high-level dialogue between the United States and Cuba to address a wide range of issues, including the situation of Alan Gross. Issue a general license to permit people-to-people travel in all categories, and open opportunities for U.S. citizens to support the emerging small business and cooperative sector in Cuba. Remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, an unnecessary irritant in a tense relationship. Finally, recognize Cuba’s positive role in hosting the Colombia peace process.
  • Protect the human rights of migrants and border communities. Strengthen the accountability over the U.S. Border Patrol, including reforms to irresponsible use-of-force policies. End inhumane deportation practices that needlessly place migrants at risk. Protect the rights of the estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors attempting to enter the United States, many fleeing violence in Central America, including by carefully screening for asylum claims.
  • Advocate firmly for human rights in the here and now, and for justice for historic abuses—as in Guatemala, and stand up for human rights defenders at risk. Too often, U.S. ambassadors in Latin America and State Department officials do not talk the talk of human rights strongly enough. Don’t be afraid to talk about human rights problems, in any country where needed.
  • Support labor rights in the region, starting with actually implementing the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan (LAP), signed by both governments prior to the trade agreement’s passage. The two governments should work for the next several years hand-in-hand with workers to strengthen LAP implementation, especially the ineffective labor inspection system, lack of adequate protection from and justice for anti-union violence, and the use of subcontractors that leaves workers without protections.
  • Oppose the use of militaries in Latin America for law enforcement, and enforce human rights conditions on security assistance. In countries like Honduras and Guatemala, oppose the mano dura approach which is leading to violations of citizens’ basic rights. In Mexico, encourage accountability for security forces that commit abuses by applying the new reforms to the military code of justice. Stand firm for the difficult, long-term solutions of accountable justice, rights-respecting law enforcement, offering programs for at-risk youth and building sustainable communities.
  • Take off the drug policy lens for U.S.-Latin America policy. Using this single-focus lens has led the United States to back abusive practices, like aerial spraying in Colombia and turning a blind eye to mano dura policies. Take the lens off, and start talking with and listening to partner governments and civil society about a new approach.
  • Close Guantanamo. You have said you would; now make it happen. Nothing casts a shadow on U.S. relations with Latin America like U.S.-sponsored indefinite detention on a Caribbean island. While you are at it, end the drone strikes. It’s hard to oppose extrajudicial executions by security forces elsewhere when the United States is committing such abuses.

One part of Obama’s speech raised a red flag. Using partner forces to carry out the counterterrorism tasks the United States does not do directly has its own concerns and costs. The United States must make sure that forces it trains and equips do not commit abuses with impunity, screening out abusive units using the Leahy Law and where gross abuses are pervasive and unpunished, suspending assistance to a nation’s security forces.

President Obama, steer the currents of history in a direction of justice. We cannot do that without you.

Mavis Anderson, Jennifer Johnson and Omar Martinez contributed to this article.