¿Si se puede?
In the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Hillary Clinton laid out her foreign policy blueprint for a Clinton-Clinton presidency, declaring rather blandly that her stance was one of “vigorous engagement” with Latin America. The strategy behind this statement was twofold: first, to call attention to Bush’s failed promise to build stronger relations throughout the continent (and perhaps to critique the administration’s Cold War approach to the so-called ‘rogue’ Latin American socialist states) and also to cater to her active and substantial Hispanic voter base. Not to be outdone, America’s soon-to-be presumptive democratic nominee then followed suit, also calling for more vigorous engagement within the continent, and distinguishing himself from Clinton only in terms of his views on Cuba. Through the subject of Latin America, Obama found a means of emphasizing his focus on diplomacy but ultimately said little, withholding any mention of what an Obama presidency would look like with regard to the more complicated question of Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Clinton’s Foreign Affairs article was published several months after she promised to uphold the administration’s draconian approach towards travel restrictions to Cuba, a stance that Steve Clemons has aptly described as “a policy in which people have to choose between attending their mother’s funeral, or their father’s.” (The current restrictions allow Cuban-Americans to return to the island once every three years, and only after clearing a veritable Olympic course of bureaucratic hurdles). Smelling blood, at a Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami in late May, Obama unveiled his own approach towards Cuba, one which emphasized greater leniency towards travel and a willingness to relax the 46-year trade embargo (a policy only a year younger than Obama himself).
But aside from these scuffles over Cuba policy and a senate speech preceding Bush’s six-day trip throughout the Americas (a speech that steers clear of addressing any of the ‘bad’ countries) Obama has generally remained silent on the details of his approach towards Latin America, leaving everyone to wonder whether or exactly how his policies will differ from the current administration.
In a recent article for OpenDemocracy, Ivan Briscoe observed that Obama appears to have captured the hearts (and also perhaps the minds) of Latin America’s rogue socialists, winning over many of the countries the Bush administration has worked so hard to stigmatize.
“…The beatific outreach of a peace-making mulato has proved very seductive. Fidel has praised the candidate from his bed, while Chávez cannot quite muster the splendid fury of his anti-imperialism when ticking off “the little gentleman”. How Cristina (Kirchner) would like to do as Obama does, and as her husband did, and dissolve the resentments of black and white in a hard stare at the operations of global banks and corporations. Or travel from one country to the next, as Chávez did last year, and stir up mass devotion with the spine tingle of substantial political change.”
Briscoe is on to something. For many, Obama represents a radical departure from the conservative, old-white-man policies that the US has staked it’s politics on as of late; and for anti-World Bank and anti-US socialists, that’s a big deal. Although he has been the target of criticism for his vacillating position on Venezuela, Caracas newspapers have taken to emphasizing Obama’s pro-labor positions and populist rhetoric over that of John ‘Five Million Dollar’ McCain. Even in countries such as Brazil, where racial hierarchies remain some of most entrenched in the world, a black American leader may be less disagreeable than the more-of-the-same brand of politics that McCain seems to represent.
What’s more, Obama’s veep choice seems to be working in his favor. In a fawning piece about Joe Biden, Argentina’s La Nación described a brief encounter between Biden and the country’s then first lady, Cristina Kirchner, in which Biden “conveyed a great deal of knowledge” about the Argentina’s recent economic woes, and praised her husband for setting the country on the right track. Similarly, in their coverage of the story, Bolivia’s conservative El Diario approvingly featured Biden’s remarks about Bush destroying the American dream as the site’s headlines.
While Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia might not exactly be the right bedfellows for an aspiring American president to have right now, their willingness to at least take him seriously could mark a major shift in US-Latin American relations, and potentially reverse the growing breach between these two camps. Although Obama has largely kept quiet on the topic, he has gestured towards a readiness to negotiate with these countries, an indication that he won’t be following in the footsteps of the current administration. So while Obama may not say much about Latin America, for the time being, at least he’s moving silently in the right direction.