Waiting for Change: New Report on the Obama Administration’s Military Focus in Latin America

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A year ago, at a summit of Latin America’s leaders, President Obama hit a note that resonated well with his counterparts: “I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations.”

After that hopeful moment, though, the new administration stumbled at the starting gate. 2009 was a rough year for U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Many governments accused the Obama Administration of inattention, vacillation on democracy and human rights, and arrogance, especially after it secretly negotiated a defense agreement with Colombia.

But there is still opportunity to reset the relationship. In our new publication, Waiting for Change, (PDF in English or Spanish) released by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Center for International Policy, and the Washington Office on Latin America, we take a critical look at the past year and explore possibilities for the future. This publication a product of the joint military-assistance monitoring project, “Just the Facts,” which we have maintained over the past 12 years with WOLA and CIP through a constantly updated online regional security resource at www.justf.org.

“In 2010, 47 percent of the United States’ more than $3 billion in aid to Latin America is going to militaries and police forces,” says Adam Isacson, senior associate for security policy at WOLA and one of the authors of Waiting for Change. “That’s the highest proportion in a decade. Add to that a new military-basing agreement signed last October with Colombia, and the main face that most of the region is seeing from the Obama administration is a military one.”

“The Obama Administration’s human rights policy in Latin America has been missing in action,” adds Lisa Haugaard, executive director of LAWGEF. “With the weak, contradictory response to the coup in Honduras, and a stand-by-our-man approach towards allied governments in Mexico and Colombia, the first year has been disappointing. Now that the President’s human rights team is in place, we’re hoping to see a greater willingness to take action. The Obama Administration must be strong on human rights, especially with allied governments receiving large amounts of security assistance.”

Adds Abigail Poe, deputy director of CIP, “Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s visit to Washington made clear that our anti-drug policy needs fixing, and that our neighbors’ proposals offer a starting point. From Mexico to Bolivia, we are hearing that U.S. aid should be less narrowly focused on short-term drug-supply reductions, more oriented toward strengthening governance and justice, and more open to alternative approaches to the entire problem — including demand reduction at home.”

“We continue to see an increasing U.S. military role in relations with the region,” says Joy Olson, executive director of WOLA. “This is true whether the issue is military presence on the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. Southern Command’s effort to lead an inter-agency approach, the emergence of new aid programs in the defense budget, or a declared U.S. military interest in helping the region confront internal threats like gangs.”

The report notes that some signs of positive change began to emerge in early 2010, as Obama Administration nominees finally entered posts with Latin America responsibilities. Waiting for Change lays out recommendations for how these officials can set things right: in earthquake-battered Haiti, Honduras, Cuba, the annual foreign aid budget, human rights, counternarcotics, and immigration.

Waiting for Change calls for a renewed emphasis on diplomatic engagement, including with governments considered to be adversaries, less emphasis on military-to-military ties, generous disaster relief and development assistance, and greater transparency and consultation about U.S. military intentions with the region.

Click here to read it in English o haga clíc aquí para leerla en español.