Which Presidential Candidate is Worse for Latin America?

August 01, 2016

In an interview with journalist Abby Martin, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said that Latin America would be better off if Trump won the US presidential election in November. He was relatively gracious and diplomatic about it, praising Hillary Clinton for her positive attributes, and ended by saying that for the sake of the US and the world, he hoped that she would win. But Correa, who has done a great job in improving the lives of his compatriots and carrying out progressive reforms during his presidency, is highly educated and intelligent. He has learned much from the region’s experience with the Bush and Obama administrations. So it is worth taking his claim seriously, because it says some important things about US policy in Latin America.

The basic idea is that the US is going to play a terrible role in Latin America no matter who is president, so it is better for Latin Americans to have a US president who is widely disliked, like George W. Bush was, than someone who is charming and mediagenic like President Obama. In the short run, it is hard to counter this claim. In fact, it is quite possible that the region would have been better off if John McCain (2008) or Mitt Romney (2012) had defeated Barack Obama, and Obama is in general less hawkish than Hillary on foreign policy. The Obama administration’s policies in Latin America were no better than those of George W. Bush. The administration helped consolidate the military coup in Honduras, and did the same for the parliamentary coup in Paraguay.

They sent an OAS mission that recommended arbitrarily overturning the results of Haiti’s 2010 first round presidential election and then threatened the Haitian government with a cut-off of post-earthquake humanitarian aid if they did not accept the foreigners’ new choice of election results. Most recently, they have tried to force Haitians to accept the results of October’s fraudulent election, even after an independent election audit commission revealed massive irregularities and recommended new elections.

In March 2016 President Obama traveled to Argentina to heap praise on the recently elected right-wing president there, and the administration reversed its policy of blocking international loans to the country under the prior, left president Cristina Kirchner. Many more examples of real or attempted harm of left governments could be cited. On the positive side of the ledger, there is one item: Obama’s opening to Cuba. This is a historically significant policy change that would likely not have been done by a Republican president, but it is still part of a continued strategy of regime change by other means.

There are historical and structural reasons for the ugly continuity of US policy in Latin America, and the shameful lack of debate over it either within the government or in the media. Perhaps most importantly, it has few electoral consequences, even when Washington alienates almost all of the region’s governments, as it did with the military coups in Honduras and Venezuela.

So Correa is probably right, at least in the short run. But I would argue that in the long run, even Latin America would be worse off with a Trump presidency. That is because the two parties here do not have the same political constituencies, and the base of the Democratic Party is sufficiently different that it will continue to push overall US foreign policy in a better direction. This was more evident for Latin America in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan’s sponsorship of mass killings and atrocities in Central America caused so much opposition here that Congress cut off funding for the war in Nicaragua. (The Reagan administration then resorted to illegal funding; hence the Iran-Contra scandal). On this fight, Congress was divided along partisan lines, with Democrats against US funding for illegal wars and assassinations.

A recent example of these potential differences can be seen in the letter sent last week to US Secretary of State John Kerry by 43 Congressional Democrats, including some of the party’s leadership in the House and members close to President Obama. The letter states:

We write to express our deep concern regarding recent developments in Brazil that we believe threaten that country’s democratic institutions. We urge you to exercise the utmost caution in your dealings with Brazil’s interim authorities and to refrain from statements or actions that might be interpreted as supportive of the impeachment campaign launched against President Dilma Rousseff.

Our government should express strong concern regarding the circumstances surrounding the impeachment process and call for the protection of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Brazil.

The Obama administration is officially neutral on the impeachment, or “coup” as many Brazilians call it, but there is evidence that they are supporting it. A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told me recently that it was “pretty clear” that the Administration was in favor of Dilma’s impeachment.

It is very unusual, perhaps unprecedented, for dozens of Democratic members of Congress to push back against a Democratic administration on policy towards a country as large and important as Brazil. But the only major US news outlet that reported on the letter was the Los Angeles Times.

The major media is another structural reason for the appalling continuity and lack of debate over US foreign policy in Latin America.

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