Obama has a chance to break from past US policy with Latin America by meeting Morales.

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January 27, 2009 by theradicalmormon

Now that the Bolivian Constitution has passed with a solid majority vote of around 60%, it is time for Pres. Obama to signal a clean break from past US dealings with Latin American nations.  It’s time to look to these nations as equals and to deal with them with respect instead of acting punitively when they don’t bow down to our threats or our so-called “interests” in the region. 

Back in November, Mark Weisbrot wrote an insightful article urging Obama to make a break from Bush’s policies down south:

Obama has an opportunity to forge a new relationship with the region after his predecessor drove U.S.-Latin American relations into a ditch. But it will require a major change in Washington’s attitude toward our southern neighbors.

Most importantly, as the Brookings Institution recently noted, the Obama administration will have to abandon Bush’s efforts to divide the left-of-center governments into a “good left” and “bad left,” rewarding the former and punishing the latter. Most recently, the Bush Administration decided to punish Bolivia by suspending their trade preferences and threatening tens of thousands of jobs there – allegedly for not co-operating in the “war on drugs.”

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was in Washington this month and met with Senator Richard Lugar. Senator Lugar is the most influential Republican on foreign policy issues and is very close to President-elect Obama – who, according to rumors here, offered him the position of Secretary of State. Lugar issued a very positive press statement on the meeting with Evo: “The United States regrets any perception that it has been disrespectful, insensitive, or engaged in any improper activities that would disregard the legitimacy of the current Bolivian government or its sovereignty,” he said. “We hope to renew our relationship with Bolivia, and to develop a rapport grounded on respect and transparency.”

Although Evo Morales handed this statement to the Washington Post, neither the meeting with Lugar nor Lugar’s statement made it into the print edition of the Post’s article on Evo’s visit. This indicates that the Obama administration will have to confront not only the State Department but also some of the major media if it wants to change relations with Latin America.

Bolivia expelled the U.S. Ambassador in September because of Washington’s support for opposition groups there. The US State Department spent $89 million in Bolivia last year. Some of it went to opposition groups; we don’t know exactly how much because our government does not provide full disclosure. Washington is also supplying millions of dollars to undisclosed organizations in Venezuela, where it supported a military coup in 2002.  Imagine if China or Russia were pumping $100 billion (the equivalent here) into in the United States, and some billions went to undisclosed groups. We would not allow that.

(Source: email contact from the Center for Economic and Policy Research 11/26/08)

Joshua Gross of the Foreign Policy in Focus site writes that this may be difficult to kick-start though as relations between the US and Bolivia have been a bit rocky lately:

Unfortunately, the United States has no means to influence this process and help guide Bolivia toward equity and prosperity. Diplomatic relations are at an all-time low. Morales set the tone for political polarization in his inaugural speech, where he promised Bolivia’s indigenous majority that, “we will take power for 500 years.” Populist majoritarianism reigns supreme, while the executive seldom takes responsibility for policy failures, choosing to blame foreign conspiracies for economic woes. In this politically sensitive climate, there is a risk that Bolivia will be drawn into the war of words between the United States and Venezuela, which in its latest manifestation had Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accusing Obama of having the “same stench” as former President George W. Bush following Obama’s criticism of Chavez during a Univision interview.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia has shown more interest in counseling regional leaders and business elites who have been threatening to secede than serving as a good faith mediator between the parties in conflict. After a series of blunders, including an embassy official’s exhortations to Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar to keep an eye out for Cubans and Venezuelans, both the U.S. Ambassador and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency were thrown out of the country last year, while the U.S. Agency for International Development was expelled from the coca-producing Chapare region. Morales recently encouraged his fellow Latin American leaders to follow suit.

With so much bad blood, some commentators claim that the United States has “lost” Bolivia. When the head of state routinely leads cheers of “Death to the Yankees” before crowds of thousands, is there any common ground to stand on? The answer is yes, but a new approach is needed. At a recent visit to New York’s Columbia University, Morales expressed hope that relations with the United States would improve with Obama’s election and emphasized their analogous rise to power from historically marginalized communities. The symbolism of the first indigenous Bolivian President and the first African-American U.S. President shaking hands would not be lost on the millions of young people across Latin America who are losing their faith in American-style democracy.


There is so much we need to rectify with Latin American nations.  We’ve done horrible stuff there for decades that have ended up in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people if not more.  One only has to read something like “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins:


or something like Noam Chomsky’s “Deterring Democracy”:


or to watch some of John Pilger’s work in Nicaragua  etc.:

in order to realize that we need to make a serious break from our psychotically ill policy of the past.  Obama can break from the past and make a real difference in North-South relations.


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