U.S. sends wrong messages to Latin America

August 24, 2009

mschultze_apr09_web– Markus Schultze-Kraft is Latin America and Caribbean Program Director at the International Crisis Group. The opinions expressed are his own. –

One cannot help being taken aback by the series of wrong messages the U.S. government has been sending to Latin America this summer. Starting with Honduras and followed by Bolivia, and now Colombia, everything seems to indicate that after a promising start President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are having difficulties defining an effective Latin America policy that does not repeat the mistakes of the previous administration.

With respect to Honduras, the U.S. reacted late and did not fully grasp that reversing the civilian-military coup against President Manuel Zelaya in late June would require forceful and immediate diplomatic action together with others in the region. This lack of understanding left the U.S. vulnerable to the foreseeable and inevitably strong and potentially dangerous backlash from Venezuela and other members of ALBA, Hugo Chavez’s regional bloc, which includes Honduras. The U.S. decision to maintain the suspension of trade preferences for Bolivia under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) was not necessarily unjustified but politically clumsy. The government of Evo Morales, who is campaigning for reelection in December, both seized the opportunity to step up its anti-American rhetoric and move even closer to Chávez.

And now the new U.S.-Colombian Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA). Plain political common sense dictates that it would have been more than just cordial if the U.S. and Colombia had made the effort to consult closely with Colombia’s neighbors and other South American governments before announcing their intention to give the U.S. access to seven – or perhaps more – Colombian air force, naval and army bases. The belated explanations of Secretary Clinton and her Colombian counterpart, Jaime Bermúdez, ended up complicating things even more.

In her 18 August statement, Clinton stressed that the new agreement with Colombia is exclusively a bilateral issue that “does not pertain to other countries” and is only about “security matters within Colombia”. At the same time, she deepened suspicions of a larger design by highlighting that the hemisphere as a whole “faces a number of pressing challenges, from economic crisis … to narcotics trafficking, terrorism and organized crime.” In fact, it is widely known that given the regional and transnational nature of these challenges and threats, to be effective any security cooperation agreement between the U.S. and Colombia logically would have to be part of a broader policy with the rest of the region. In the face of transnational, hemispheric problems, clinging to the worn doctrine of prioritizing bilateral instead of regional relations equals shooting oneself in the foot.

Of course, the DCA is a continuation of a very close relationship between Colombia and the U.S. that began in the late 1990s and is epitomized by Plan Colombia, as Secretary Clinton duly underscored. However, it is questionable whether the DCA is necessary, considering that in the past years Colombia has made headway, with substantial U.S. help, in the fight against the country´s insurgents and, more recently, drug-trafficking, including the arrest of several important drug kingpins and a near 30 per cent decrease in potential cocaine production in Colombia in 2008, according to UN figures.

It is also not a sign of great astuteness to commend Colombia’s “leadership on both global and regional issues” when the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe has been utterly unsuccessful at establishing working relations and necessary minimum confidence with his country’s both most important and most difficult neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador, not least because of Colombia’s strategic alignment with the U.S. Further, it was unwise to single out Colombia for praise for its willingness to commit troops to Afghanistan or police officers to Haiti, when other South American countries, such as Brazil and Chile, can rightfully claim to be far more active in peace-keeping around the world and especially in Haiti – and clearly supersede Colombia in terms of global reach, economic weight and the quality of their democracies.

It remains to be seen how the governments of the South American countries that protested the lack of prior consultation or even explanation as to the new U.S.-Colombian agreement — in particular Brazil, Chile and Argentina — will react to Clinton’s statement. The chances are that there will be more — not less- concern about the U.S.’s apparent lack of understanding of the region’s political reality. As such, Washington may have missed an important opportunity to reciprocate on the signals of moderation that, under the leadership of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, came out of the August summit of the heads of state of the Union of South American Nations in Quito.

Clearly, those South American leaders already on an anti-American path, especially Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales, can easily use U.S. missteps to further increase regional tensions for their own political gain, and will not let go by the opportunity to once again chastise U.S. policy vis-à-vis Latin America – especially when it is served up to them on a silver platter.

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