Supporters of Hugo Chavez. (Photo: Reuters Pictures)
US-Latin American relations fell to record lows during the Bush years, and there have been hopes - both North and South of the border - that President Obama would bring a fresh approach. So far, however, most signals are pointing to continuity rather than change.
President Obama started off with an unprovoked verbal assault on Venezuela. In an interview broadcast by the Spanish language television station Univision on the Sunday before his inauguration, he accused President Hugo ChÃ¡vez of Venezuela of having "impeded progress in the region" and "exporting terrorist activities."
These remarks were unusually hostile and threatening even by the previous administration's standards. They are also untrue and diametrically opposed to the way the rest of the region sees Venezuela. The charge that Venezuela is "exporting terrorism" would not pass the laugh test among almost any government in Latin America. José Miguel Insulza, the Chilean Secretary General of the OAS, was speaking for almost all the countries in the hemisphere when he told the U.S. Congress last year that "there is no evidence" and that no member country, including the United States, had offered "any such proof" that Venezuela supported terrorist groups.
Nor do the other Latin American democracies see Venezuela as an obstacle to progress in the region. On the contrary, President Lula da Silva of Brazil - along with several other presidents in South America -- has repeatedly defended ChÃ¡vez and his role in the region. Just a few days after Obama denounced Venezuela, Lula was in Venezuela's southern state of Zulia, where he emphasized his strategic partnership with ChÃ¡vez and their common efforts at regional economic integration.
Obama's statement was no accident; whoever fed him these lines very likely intended to send a message to the Venezuelan electorate before last Sunday's referendum that Venezuela won't have decent relations with the US so long as ChÃ¡vez is their elected president. (Voters decided to remove term limits for elected officials, paving the way for ChÃ¡vez to run again in 2013.)
There is definitely at least a faction of the Obama administration that wants to continue the Bush policies. James Steinberg, number two to Hillary Clinton in the State Department, took a gratuitous swipe at Bolivia and Venezuela during his confirmation process, saying that the United States should provide a "counterweight to governments like those currently in power in Venezuela and Bolivia which pursue policies which do not serve the interests of their people or the region."
Another sign of continuity is that Obama has not yet replaced Bush's top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, Thomas Shannon.
The U.S. media plays the role of enabler in this situation. Thus the Associated Press ignores the attacks from Washington and portrays ChÃ¡vez's response as nothing more than an electoral ploy on his part. In fact, ChÃ¡vez had been uncharacteristically restrained. He did not respond to attacks throughout the long U.S. presidential campaign, even when Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden called him a "dictator," or Obama described him as "despotic" - labels that no serious political scientist anywhere would accept for a democratically elected president of a country where the opposition dominates the media. He wrote it off as the influence of South Florida on U.S. presidential elections.
But there are few if any presidents in the world that would take repeated verbal abuse from another government without responding. Obama's advisors know that no matter what this administration does to Venezuela, the press will portray ChÃ¡vez as the aggressor. So it's an easy, if cynical, political calculation for them to poison relations from the outset. What they have not yet realized is that by doing so they are alienating the majority of the region.
There is still hope for change in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, which has become thoroughly discredited on everything from the "war on drugs," to the Cuba embargo to trade policy. But as during the Bush years, we will need relentless pressure from the South. Last September UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) strongly backed Bolivia's government against opposition violence and destabilization. This was very successful in countering Washington's tacit support for the more extremist elements of Bolivia's opposition. It showed the Bush administration that the region was not going to tolerate any attempts to legitimize an extra-legal opposition in Bolivia or to grant it special rights outside of the democratic political process.
Several presidents, including Lula, have called upon Obama to lift the embargo on Cuba, as they congratulated him on his victory. Lula also asked Obama to meet with ChÃ¡vez. Hopefully these governments will continue to assert -- repeatedly, publicly, and with one voice -- that Washington's problems with Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela are Washington's problems, and not the result of anything that those governments have done. When the Obama team is convinced that a "divide and conquer" approach to the region will fail just as miserably for this administration as it did for the previous one, then we may see the beginnings of a new policy toward Latin America.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.