President-elect Obama and Latin America 12/14/08 |

President-elect Obama and Latin America 12/14/08

Guy Farmer
Special to the Appeal

Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Emma Sepul-veda last Sunday urged President-elect Barack Obama to give priority attention to Latin America in the early days of his administration. With everything else that’s going on in the world these days, however, Latin America is likely to remain on the back burner for the time being.

“Obama didn’t have a clear position on U.S. policy toward Latin America when he began his campaign for the presidency,” Prof. Sepulveda acknowledged in her column, but he did offer a few ideas on inter-American relations when he spoke to the politically active Cuban-American Foundation in Miami last May.

In that speech Obama proposed “A New Partnership for the Americas,” which sounds suspiciously like President Kennedy’s overblown “Alliance for Progress,” which promised to guarantee social justice and eliminate poverty in Latin America. But that’s not our responsibility, and Prof. Sepulveda knows it.

Nevertheless, she endorsed Obama’s grandiose, 13-page plan because it would “open the road to hope and change for Latin America.” Give me a break! The only people who can put our neighbors to the south on the road to hope and change are the Latin Americans themselves. They need to stop looking to the United States, which has big troubles of its own, for pre-packaged solutions to their problems.

Over the years American presidents have made a series of pie-in-the-sky promises to Latin America, ranging from Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy to Kennedy’s “Alliance” to Jimmy Carter’s selective human rights crusade. Although some of them were tempted to propose a new Marshall Plan for Latin America – as is Prof. Sepulveda – none of them came anywhere close to fulfilling their promises.

Some of those lofty goals are admirable but they’re totally unrealistic in our troubled 21st century world. Obama’s plan talks about promoting democracy and the rule of law in Latin America and the need to combat poverty, hunger, health problems and global warming, all of which are valid goals but politically difficult to achieve.

Prof. Sepulveda also wants Obama to open conversations with “Socialist” (i.e. Marxist) leaders like presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

No way, Jose! With ominous challenges to our national security looming in the Middle East and South Asia, why should Obama spend his time talking to our sworn enemies? If and when such conversations are held, they should be between Spanish-speaking American diplomats and mid-level officials in those countries.

Obama could immediately improve relations between the U.S. and Latin America by rewarding our friends, like presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. Our new president should urge Congress to approve the long overdue Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) and to increase security assistance to Mexico to help President Calderon in his uphill battle against the heavily armed drug cartels that have murdered thousands of innocent Mexicans, and a few Americans, in recent years.

These are the real priorities in U.S.-Latin America relations, not vague promises to promote human rights and eliminate poverty. We should work toward those noble goals of course, but it’s important to take care of first things first.

CFTA, blocked by congressional Democrats because of alleged Colombian human rights abuses against labor leaders, would be worth nearly $700 million to hard-pressed American farmers. And increased aid to Mexico would be in our national interest because Mexican drug violence is beginning to spill over the border into the U.S. That’s how President-elect Obama could improve U.S. relations with Latin America, not with lofty rhetoric and empty slogans.

– Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, lived and worked in Latin America for 20 years during his U.S. Foreign Service career.