Barack Obama and Latin America

by Nikolas Kozloff, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

As the US presidential campaign heats up, Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has not been very eager to comprehensively address Latin America as an issue. In recent years, the region has undergone a major tectonic shift towards the left, surely prompting many to wonder how the young Illinois Senator might deal with progressive change throughout the hemisphere were he elected to the White House.

Would he seek to continue the rabidly hawkish stance of the Bush administration towards such nations as Venezuela, or could he be convinced to broker a rapprochement? Given his statements to date, it’s unlikely that Obama would be as militaristic or confrontational as McCain. However, Obama’s vagueness is a little troubling, and unfortunately a compliant press corps has failed to aggressively pressure him to state his positions more clearly. Oddly, Obama doesn’t even mention Latin America on his campaign website.

Colombia: Some Cautious First Steps
Though you wouldn’t know it from watching TV news or reading most newspapers, the Colombian civil conflict continues even today, and the US government still funnels billions of dollars in military aid to the right-wing regime of Álvaro Uribe. The policy is a complete and total misuse of US taxpayer funds, not to mention a means of support for human rights abuses in that unfortunate Andean nation.

What does Obama have to say about this serious matter? He has stated that the flow of drugs from Colombia should be reduced, and has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with the Uribe administration (which has been tied to right-wing paramilitary death squads). In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.

“The problem,” Obama wrote, “is compounded by the Colombian government’s questionable implementation of the paramilitary demobilizations.” To his credit, Obama took a strong stance in his letter advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks. The government, Obama argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then “maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify.”

When push came to shove, however, Obama failed to join his liberal colleague Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in pressuring the Colombian government to address these problems. In July 2005, Feingold, as well as Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), called on Rice not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions until greater progress was made on a series of issues. Where was Obama? Unfortunately, the Senator failed to sign the letter.

On the other hand, Obama did join Dodd and Leahy in criticizing Nicholas Burns, the outgoing undersecretary of state for political affairs, who played down the Colombian problem on the pages of the Miami Herald. The Illinois legislator also gave his support to a letter signed by Dodd and Leahy and addressed to Uribe. In it, the senators expressed concern over public statements by some government officials, including President Uribe, which have led to attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and other members of civil society. “A more peaceful, just, and stable Colombia is undoubtedly in our national interest,” Obama has remarked.

Those are surely compelling words, but Obama’s critics may very well be right when they accuse Obama of not offering tangible solutions. Colombia’s problems are rooted in historic and social inequities, and the unequal distribution of land. The War on Drugs prosecuted by Washington and Bogotá has exacerbated such tensions.

How does Obama intend to resolve the intractable civil conflict in Colombia? Would he continue the counterproductive War on Drugs for an indefinite period, even though it has proven tremendously costly in human terms? The Illinois Senator needs to do more than simply offer up polite and diplomatic protestations to the Bush White House and must come up with a plan of his own.

From Bush to Obama
All of this is not meant to suggest that Obama would be incapable of articulating a more creative foreign policy in the region. To his credit once again, Obama praised Latin American countries for carrying out recent elections which have brought left-leaning governments to power. “In many ways,” Obama noted in a March 2007 speech, “these election results symbolize the important political, economic, and social changes occurring throughout the Americas. As many have noted, the elections gave voice to a yearning across the hemisphere for social and economic development—a yearning among tens of millions of people for a better life.”

In contrast to John McCain, who excoriates the rise of leftist regimes such as those of Chávez and Evo Morales in Bolivia, Obama views some of these political developments in Latin America positively. Though he did not state the names of individual regimes in his speech, Obama remarked that recent electoral trends in Latin America were a “welcome development.” In a jab perhaps aimed at the Bush administration’s interventionist regional foreign policy, Obama added a new twist: “Too often, change in the Americas has occurred in an anti-democratic fashion. Those days must permanently be put to rest.”

Continuing to lash out at the President, Obama noted that “our [United States’] standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush Administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by six years of neglect and mismanagement of relations.”

On a high note, Obama added that, “If we pay careful attention to developments throughout the region, and respond to them in a thoughtful and respectful way, then we can advance our many and varied national interests at stake in the Americas.” Moreover, Obama hit Bush hard for neglecting Latin America and failing to deliver much-needed economic aid. Obama remarked that with the exception of HIV/AIDS funding, Bush has slashed assistance for both economic development and health programs in the Americas. In contrast, Obama pledged to help alleviate poverty in the region, an initiative “which is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values.”

Obama and Afro-Latinos
Though Obama has not focused on Latin America nearly as much as some of his Senate colleagues, such as Patrick Leahy, have urged him to do, the Illinois lawmaker has taken a long-standing interest in the plight of Afro-Latinos. Early in his Senate career, Obama declared that “From Colombia to Brazil to the Dominican Republic to Ecuador, persons of African descent continue to experience racial discrimination and remain among the poorest and most marginalized groups in the entire region. While recent positive steps have been taken in some areas—for example, giving land titles to Afro-Colombians and passing explicit anti-discrimination legislation in Brazil—much work still needs to be done to ensure that this is the beginning of an ongoing process of reform, not the end.”

Obama noted that Afro-Latinos were more likely to become refugees or victims of violence within areas of conflict in their own countries. Obama went on to detail the many problems faced by Afro-Latinos, such as a lack of access to health services and a high risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. Moreover, Obama added that Afro-Latinos were subject to far greater rates of aggression from local police forces than are generally perceived.

Obama lamented the fact that in the previous Senate, there was not one mention of the millions of Afro-Latinos who continued to experience widespread discrimination and socioeconomic marginalization. “Emerging civil society groups are growing stronger throughout many countries in Latin America, and this growth should be encouraged as it presents important opportunities for partnerships and collaboration,” Obama said.

In another speech, Obama spoke eloquently on the subject of Afro-Latinos. “In the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” he said, “our own country is being awakened to a great divide in our midst. As we struggle with troubling intersections of race and class, and how we have failed the most vulnerable members of our population, I hope we will be able to take a moment to reflect on similar struggles in places such as Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela.”

Obama has praised the Uribe government for creating a cabinet-level position on Afro-Colombian issues and appointing an Afro-Colombian to fill the post. He noted the political importance and symbolism of the move: Afro-Colombians have long been subject to racial and economic discrimination in the country.

“It is my hope that this will encourage other governments in Latin America to consider taking additional measures to address racial discrimination,” Obama said, “as well as economic and social marginalization, faced by Afro-descendants in their countries.”

However, as the Senator is surely aware, the Chávez government has made great strides in addressing the plight of Afro-Venezuelans, while Uribe only began to confront this problem recently. Chávez, for example, has created a special commission to address racism in Venezuelan society—and has seen fit to include a special provision in his constitution that protects the rights of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous peoples. In Barlovento, a coastal region populated mainly by Afro-Venezuelans, one can vividly witness the degree to which the poor have benefited from the government’s health and education programs.

Chávez: The Political Hot Potato
While praising Colombia, a controversial US ally, for its positive steps to address the racial divide, Obama is wrong to show such caution when it comes to Venezuela. Chávez has done far more to help people of African descent than Uribe, but the Senator hasn’t singled out the Venezuelan leader for his excellent track record. That’s not surprising given the virulently anti-Chávez mood in Washington on both sides of the party divide, but it raises questions about Obama’s level of sophistication regarding political developments in Venezuela, not to mention his strategy for dealing with Chávez. What does Obama think about the National Endowment for Democracy, for example, and the US role in the April 2002 coup? Would Obama seek to fundamentally reorient US policy and end its prejudicial support for anti-Chávez groups in the country?

Obama’s foreign policy advisers, such as Samantha Power, have been frustratingly (and some might say infuriatingly) vague as to what Obama’s policy might be. When Power was specifically asked on “Democracy Now!” to elaborate on Obama’s views about Chávez, she only said that her candidate would engage with the Venezuelan leader “in a more intelligent way.”

Obama, claimed Power, was very aware of the troubled history between the United States and Latin America, as well as the latter’s “suspicion of US motives.” Obama, she added, would respect both the right to self-determination and the dignity of Latin American countries. On the other hand, Power said that she found Chávez “problematic” on the issue of human rights. If this is truly her point of view, she risks being on the wrong side of the debate, because Chávez’s human rights record compares favorably with most of his hemispheric counterparts.

In his public statements, Obama hasn’t cleared up his fundamental problem of vagueness regarding Chávez. Speaking with his supporters, Obama said Chávez had “despotic tendencies” and was using oil money to fan anti-Americanism. The Illinois Senator did, however, stir ripples when he declared in a CNN-YouTube debate that he would open diplomatic channels to “rogue nations” such as Venezuela. Though certainly mild, Obama’s remark quickly embroiled him in a political firestorm with his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, who labeled him as “naïve.”

In the current political milieu, Obama deserves some praise for going out on a limb in the debate. Although he is still short on specifics, Obama has at least opened up a space for dialogue on both Venezuela and the relationship between the United States and newly emerging left-leaning regimes throughout the region. He’s still a relatively unknown on foreign policy but at least he hasn’t staked out a hawkish stand like John McCain—a politician who would surely continue the Bush legacy by antagonizing, bullying, and pushing around smaller, poorer countries who don’t go along with Washington’s traditional agenda.

In the wake of John Edwards’ departure from the presidential race, Senator Obama and Clinton have been struggling to floor each other with anti-NAFTA rhetoric. Edwards had been a leading critic of corporate free trade on the campaign trail and Obama now seeks to capture the former North Carolina senator’s backing by sounding a more populist note. “Our diplomacy with Mexico must aim to amend NAFTA,” Obama has said. “I will seek enforceable labor and environment standards—not unenforceable side agreements that have done little to curb NAFTA’s failures.”

But Obama doesn’t stop there.

“To reduce illegal immigration,” Obama says, “we also have to help Mexico develop its own economy, so that more Mexicans can live their dreams south of the border. That’s why I’ll increase foreign assistance, including expanded micro-financing for businesses in Mexico.”

That kind of rhetoric is right on the money. For far too long, progressives have failed to prevent the right from hijacking issues such as NAFTA and trade. Media pundits like CNN’s Lou Dobbs rail against NAFTA, but typically from a nationalist, xenophobic perspective. Obama has taken a more principled stand, and makes the obvious point that migration has been fueled by dire poverty.

Obama also has spoken out in favor of several corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 2005, he declared that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) did little to protect US labor and was bad for the environment in Central American. “So far, almost all of our energy and almost all of these trade agreements are about making life easier for the winners of globalization, while we do nothing as life gets harder for American workers…Our failure to respond to globalization is causing a race to the bottom that means lower wages and stingier health and retiree benefits for all Americans.”

To his credit, Obama voted “no” on CAFTA. Some of the other main players in the current election cycle, notably Clinton and McCain, voted “yes,” thus guaranteeing CAFTA’s passage.

Campaigning in Iowa, Obama continued to harp on the issue of unfair trade agreements. Speaking to the United Auto Workers, he pledged to fight initiatives such as CAFTA in future. “We’re not going to stop globalization in its tracks, but we shouldn’t be standing idly by while American jobs are shipped overseas,” the Illinois Senator remarked. “It’s time to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street when it comes to trade. The only trade agreements I believe in are ones that put workers first–because trade deals aren’t good for the American people if they aren’t good for working people. That’s why I opposed CAFTA.”

Concern over Colombia
On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal with the Andean nation that the Bush White House so aggressively backs. Obama states that “I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers.”

According to an analysis by the American Friends Service Committee, Colombia will have to reduce tariff barriers for most imports under the agreement, as well as agree to new rules on intellectual property, government purchasing, investment, labor and environmental protection among others. “The twenty-three percent of Colombia’s population employed in agriculture could be displaced by competition with strict subsidies [on] US imports and some may turn to coca production or affiliate with armed groups rather than migrate,” notes the organization.

Critics say that Obama is justified in his reluctance to consent to the Colombia agreement. Bogotá has done its utmost to ram the agreement home with a minimum of democratic participation. Once Nasa Indians, from the southwestern Colombian department of Cauca, organized a referendum on the free trade agreement that mobilized 51,330 voters out of a total of 68,448 registered voters (signifying that 98% voting against the free trade agreement); President Uribe declared that there were “dark forces of terrorism” organizing such plebiscites and accused indigenous peoples of being ignorant on matters pertaining to trade.

What’s more, in an effort to prepare itself for the negotiation and implementation of the free trade agreement, Bogotá is “reforming” its constitution. Because of US demands that local laws be changed to facilitate the implementation of the new trade agreement, Uribe has seen fit to change the country’s laws to create a more secure investment environment. However, in order to do this Uribe has eroded inalienable constitutional rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.

In addition, the free trade agreement would do little to protect domestic workers. Colombia is one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a trade unionist. Most Colombian trade unionist murders are committed by paramilitaries with links to the Colombian military. More than 800 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia over the past six years, with such killings rarely being solved.

To his credit, Obama recognizes the need to rethink the nature of trade agreements. “I think it is very important for us in our free trade agreements with any country to ensure that basic human rights are being observed, basic worker rights are being observed, basic environmental rights are being observed,” he has remarked.

Obama’s Puzzling Peru Position
Given Obama’s consistently critical stance on Latin American free trade deals, his position on trade with Peru is puzzling. Despite the fact that a majority of House Democrats, 12 of 18 House committee chairs and every Democratic presidential candidate opposed the Peru NAFTA expansion (except for Clinton), Obama publicly backed the measure (though he did not cast a vote on the Senate floor). The deal, which passed the House by a vote of 285 to 132 and the Senate by a vote of 77 to 18, eliminates tariffs and sets rules of investment between the world’s largest economy and the Andean nation.

But the measure only came to a vote after Democrats were able to persuade the Bush administration to toughen labor and environmental provisions. Trade between the US and Peru, which totaled $8.8 billion in 2006, is now scheduled to increase by $1.5 billion once the accord is implemented. Peru will ship more asparagus and apparel, while American producers export more meat and grain.

The agreement proved contentious in Peru, as it was strong-armed through the Peruvian legislature. In April 2006, the National Electoral Council of Peru received a petition with nearly 60,000 signatures submitted requesting a referendum on the pact. However, when elections two months later handed anti-free trade parties a legislative majority, the outgoing Congress decided to ignore the petition. Despite widespread calls for a re-vote by the newly elected legislature, the lame-duck Congress approved the agreement.

Last month, Peruvian farmers went on a national strike against the deal. Fearful that the US would flood the Peruvian market with subsidized rice imports, thus spelling disaster for the area’s producers, local activists blocked roads in protest of the agreement. The government then declared a state of emergency and sent in security forces. Four farmers were killed in the ensuing violence.

Obama said that he supported the agreement because it contained improved labor standards. But the Senator’s comments do not withstand close scrutiny: it is by no means clear that the Bush administration will act to enforce new provisions within the agreement guaranteeing greater workers’ rights. Some Democrats also claim that the new trade agreements will cost US workers jobs as cheaper products from other nations drive American companies offshore or out of business. In the early stages of the presidential race, John Edwards stumped against the Peru pact, and prominent unions such as The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, International Association of Machinists, and United Brotherhood of Carpenters have campaigned against it as well.

Labor unions, however, say that changing regulations regarding the workplace and the environment do not make up for outsourcing manufacturing jobs. “This deal was not a good deal for workers and should never have been put forward,” Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said. “I hope that the Democratic leadership tells the Bush administration that Congress will now focus on job-creating trade policies and no more of these job-killing agreements.”

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, had nothing but withering scorn for Obama on the Peru vote. In a recent press release, it stated, “The fact that Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to announce his support for the Peru NAFTA expansion…makes his recent attacks on Clinton regarding NAFTA bizarre.” Overall, even though not one US labor, environmental, Latino, consumer, faith or family farm group supported the Peru free trade agreement, a majority of Senate Democrats such as Obama “broke with their base, dismissed widespread public opposition to more-of-the-same trade policy and joined Republicans to deliver another Bush NAFTA expansion to the large corporations pushing this deal.”

Nevertheless, it should be recognized that Obama has been right on three out of four Latin American free trade deals. Many of his supporters fervently believe that his Peru stance will prove the exception rather than the rule and that he will push for a progressive trade policy if he is elected President.


Nikolas Kozloff is a Senior Research Fellow with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008)


Latin America and the US Presidential Campaign:
Nikolas Kozloff on John McCain

Public Citizen statement on passage of Peru FTA, Dec. 4, 2007

AFSC statement on Colombia FTA, February 2006

Plan Colombia: Stunning recovery warrants continued US support
by R. Nicholas Burns, Miami Herald, April 26
Online at the Colombia Presidency website

From our daily report:

Peru: five killed in trade protests
WW4 Report, Feb. 26, 2008

New Yorkers confront Colombian trade minister on FTA
WW4 Report, March 10, 2008

Peru trade pact enacted; Uruguay holds out
WW4 Report, Dec. 26, 2007

From World War 4 Report’s Obama Watch:

White House bashes China torture, vetoes bill banning torture
WW4 Report, March 12, 2008


Special to World War 4 Report, April 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution