Mar 08 2010

Clinton Bungles Latin America Tour

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clintonSecretary of State Hillary Clinton wrapped up a week long tour of Latin America last week and while she was not greeted with protests and riots like President George W Bush had been in 2005, many in Latin America acknowledge that the Obama administration seems to be continuing Bush’s policies in the region. A major part of Clinton’s trip focused on Brazil and acquiring President Lula’s support for sanctions against Iran at the United Nations. But her efforts ultimately failed with Brazil insisting on more negotiations with Iran before considering sanctions. Clinton’s trip was also intended to drum up support for the new post-coup regime in Honduras. Aside from Panama and Costa Rica, most Latin American nations were reluctant to move past the first coup in the region in decades and treated with skepticism, Clinton’s statement that “the Honduras crisis has been managed to a successful conclusion.” The government of Porfirio Lobo, elected in the months following last year’s coup has been accused of serious human rights violations. Clinton also visited the earthquake ravaged Chile where nearly 800 people have died and delivered 25 satellite phones. She also promised on behalf of the US, eight water purification units, temporary bridges, a field hospital and other medical supplies.

GUEST: Laura Carlsen, Director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy

Rough Transcript:

SK: So first, let’s talk about the Honduras situation. With the new government that was elected after the coup, President Obama’s policy seems to be to just move on, move past it and accept the fact that the coup happened and that because it was an election, that people should now accept the Lobo government in Honduras. How was Clinton met by countries other than Costa Rica and Panama?

LC: It’s absolutely unacceptable for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to be going throughout the hemisphere trying to pretend that everything is now okay in Honduras and many of her statements there were considered highly offensive to countries in the region, particularly the statement that you quoted that “it’s been brought to a successful conclusion.” I was there at the elections on November 29th and by no stretch of the imagination can you call those elections free and fair. First of all, they were held by a coup government. There was no effort at reconciliation before the elections were held. There were no official election observers on an international basis because no one could support elections that had no pre-electoral observation and that were held under those conditions. So, there are huge questions pending about democracy and, of course, about the legitimacy of this government that are still pending for most of the governments in Central America. What Hillary Clinton thought she’d be able to do and was not entirely able to do was convince countries, as you say, to just simply move on. For them, that’s extremely problematic because it means accepting the coup and not only does that mean accepting into the international community a government that lacks legitimacy and the support of many of its own people but also it means accepting a precedent that a coup can take place in a government and then be whitewashed through elections and other measures with the support of the United States government. This represents a threat for most of the countries – all of the countries in many ways – in the region. She was able to get a commitment from several Latin American countries, particularly in Central America, that supposedly later this month they will sponsor a measure to re-admit Honduras into the Organization of American States. However, it was very clear from meetings, particularly with Brazil and other countries, that they will not support that measure. There’s some sense that eventually something has to be resolved because there are real fears that the sanctions that are imposed against Honduras will cause a lot of suffering in that country and there’s a real intention that there should be some kind of engagement. But most of those countries, and particularly again, Brazil, which is the real regional powerhouse, are completely unwilling to do that unless there’s, at a minimum, conditions, one of which is the return of former President Manuel Zelaya.

SK: So Laura, Brazil was also the focus of Clinton’s trip on an issue on the other side of the world and that’s Iran. But, I understand that her attempts to get Brazil’s support for sanctions against Iran at the U.N. also miserably failed.

LC: Yes, it’s almost inconceivable in diplomatic terms that the Secretary of State would go to Brazil with this item clearly on her agenda and with no assurance whatsoever that it would be successful and, indeed, it was completely unsuccessful. What the Brazilian government said, in very clear terms, is, and I quote President Lula, ‘It is not prudent to put Iran against a wall. Sanctions are the quickest route to military action.’ So, they completely rejected the path of sanctions and Hillary Clinton left Brazil with not only an incomplete agenda but a failed agenda.

SK: What about her reaction in Chile? Much has been made of her personally delivering 25 satellite phones. And, you know, Chile has, of course, its own set of issues going on there after the earthquake. But, was there anything of note in Clinton’s response to the earthquake in Chile and do you feel that the U.S.’s reaction could have been more forthcoming in terms of aid?

LC: There were a lot of promises made about different kinds of aid that will be delivered and she also made a point to say that this would be long-term aid. However, in Chile, there’s a lot of concern, again, about the same thing that happened in Haiti – that aid is being concentrated and channeled through the military. This has not only been inefficient – we have a lot of reports that the most stricken communities are not receiving aid, that in fact, they are cut-off and isolated, that the situation is critical – but it’s also a concern for the future of the society. And, of course, this is happening right at a time when there’s a transition from the President Michelle Bachelet to the newly-elected President Pinera. So, that’s complicating the situation as well.

SK: And that’s the first conservative government elected since Pinochet, right?

LC: That’s right. And people are very interested now in what the reaction is going to be. Some people have said that this will be a typically neo-liberal government and yet, faced with the dimensions of the crisis, there’re some signs that there will be a larger focus on social programs and they’re immediately considered possible under this new government.

SK: Now, while she was in Latin America, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made some underhanded jabs at Venezuela, which, I suppose, we shouldn’t be too surprised by. But, it seems as though diplomacy is not really Clinton’s strong suit. She made suggestions that Venezuela should be more like its pro-U.S. neighbors or, at least, countries that are not as overtly critical of the U.S. as the Chavez Regime is.

LC: I completely agree with that statement and it’s an extreme disappointment for those of us who work on U.S. policy toward Latin America. In the beginning, we felt that diplomacy would be much more sensitive toward the independence and toward the needs of Latin American countries. And now what we’re seeing is a real continuation of this Bush policy of dividing the continent into the good guys and the bad guys. The statements that Hillary Clinton made were not only unfounded but they are, again, offensive to many countries in the region who have strong alliances with Venezuela regardless of how one might feel about many of the statements of President Hugo Chavez. If you look at the process, where she also attended in Costa Rica – the Pathways to Prosperity Process – this is something that President George Bush began as a way of dividing the continent into those countries specifically along the Pacific Rim who have free trade agreements with the United States and to create kind of a leverage against countries like Venezuela and others who are more independent vis-à-vis the United States. And she went to that Process. Again, countries like Venezuela and Brazil are not invited to take part in it. It had an emphasis on women but from an entrepreneurial perspective with very little attention to their specific problems and the problems of discrimination that take place in these countries and it was to fortify this division within the continent.

SK: I’m speaking with Laura Carlsen, Director of the America’s Program at the Center for International Policy. She’s based in Mexico where she’s speaking to us from. We’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s trip to Latin America. Last week she visited a number of countries in Central and South America. Now, I want to turn back to Honduras because the context of U.S. policy to Latin America must be mentioned in terms of history and the backing of many successive coups. Historically, the U.S. has had a very negative relationship with various Latin American countries and, again Honduras, turning back to that issue, is a sore point for many countries in Latin America because it could be or they see it or they fear it as the first of other coups. But Clinton, on her trip, announced the restoration of 30 million dollars of military aid to Honduras which was suspended after the coup. Does it basically seem to you that the U.S., and under President Obama, in the end, was supportive of this coup entirely and only made sort of surface pronouncements against it?

LC: Yes, that’s completely the conclusion that I’ve arrived at having watched this since slightly before the coup, almost on a day-to-day basis, and made many trips down to Honduras during the conflict, which actually, is still continuing. There are still assassinations happening in Honduras of people who are linked to the resistance. There are still beatings and harassment of people who are members of the resistance. The resistance itself is still going strong calling for a constituent assembly to finally resolve some of the issues that were a cause of the coup and that have been threatening their democracy there. What the United States did in Honduras is a new pattern of supporting right-wing coups with the help of the international right-wing and if this pattern is allowed to stand, it presents a risk to democracy to the entire continent. Basically, they forced the process into a negotiation at a time when the entire continent was already condemning the coup and trying to isolate the coup members in order to bring back the elected President Zalaya. This mediation and negotiation process failed because of the intransigence of the coup government – or actually “regime” because it can’t be called a legitimate government by any sense of the word. When it failed, it began to become more underhanded and the final move by the United States was to support the elections despite the fact that the coup government refused what was the number one point in the negotiations that the United States backed itself, and that was the return of the elected President Manuel Zalaya. All the rest played out like a farce – elections that were not recognized, elections that were not complying with any of the internationally recognized terms for free and independent elections. And then this process of whitewashing that we’ve seen since then that has taken its last step now in the sense that the United States has restored aid to an illegitimate and unrecognized government. Not only has it restored aid to the government of Honduras, but it’s now pressuring the international organizations, and particularly, the Organization of American States and the international finance institutions to restore aid and pretend like nothing happened. Just one day after Hillary Clinton’s visit, the IMF restored 160 million dollars worth of aid that had been frozen in September as a result of the coup in Honduras. And, they have announced that they fully recognize the government of Porfirio Lobo as the government of Honduras. So, you can see this process taking place. It’s a process that runs roughshod over criteria of democracy and over the will of many of the countries in the continent.

SK: On the other hand, Clinton did meet favorably with the new Uruguayan President. She attended his inauguration – President Jose Mujica, who was a former leftist guerilla.

LC: That’s true. And she lauded the Uruguayan government for having carried out a peaceful transition. I think that she didn’t have much choice in the matter and that it’s very likely that in the future the Uruguayan government will end up on the side of the bad guys in terms of being certainly less favored by U.S. policies based on what we’ve seen so far in terms of the policies toward governments that are more independent from the United States and more progressive compared to governments that are consolidated within the realm of influence of the United States.

SK: Laura, one other big issue during Clinton’s trip was the issue of drug trafficking. With the major crackdowns in Mexico, there’s a sense that the drug trafficking networks have now moved into other countries in Central America. What was Clinton’s reaction to that given the not terribly constructive role the U.S. has played in Mexico regarding drug trafficking?

LC: Well, Clinton went to Guatemala just days after the police chief and the drug czar were arrested for collusion with drug traffickers and I think this is significant because she endorsed the drug war and in fact the Obama government has actively supported the exact same strategy that’s been going on in terms of supporting a drug war that’s based on interdiction and enforcement in drug-producing countries. And at the same time, the rest of these leaders made it very clear that money that’s going to fight the drug war is also going to people who are on the sides of the cartels and that the degree of corruption that you find in Guatemala and here in Mexico is so deep because of the huge amount of money that’s involved that you really don’t know which side you’re funding often. This is an argument for completely rethinking and changing the drug war strategy. And yet that’s not at all what Clinton did and that’s not at all what the Obama administration is doing. So, it’s time to take a careful look at that and to get some new thinking involved and we’re not seeing it coming out of the Obama administration.

SK: Well, Laura, I want to thank you very much for joining us today. I’m sure we’ll have you back on to continue to critique and analyze the Obama administration’s policies towards Latin America. Thanks so much.

LC: Thank you, Sonali.

SK: Laura Carlsen is Director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy. We’ve been talking about Clinton’s trip to Latin America.

Special thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview

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