Obama and Latin America: What He Really Promises by Diana Barahona

Posted on November 28, 2008

US Marines Point Guns at Unarmed Demonstrators, 2004

HAITI: US Marines Point Guns at Unarmed Demonstrators, 2004

Tuesday, 25 November 2008
U.S. hegemony in Latin America has been maintained historically 
through military and paramilitary force, economic coercion, and since 
the mid-1980s through the additional strategy of manipulating civil 
society through a complex of programs implemented under the banner of 
“democracy promotion.” Democracy promotion is the topic of William 
Robinson’s 1996 book, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US 
Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press).

Although the motor behind imperialism is first and foremost capitalist 
accumulation, public opinion requires that the government justify such 
violent and undemocratic actions as overthrowing and assassinating 
presidents and propping up dictatorships with liberal rationales; 
since WWII this cover has always been the defense of “freedom” from 
communism. However, since the USSR disappeared as an ideological 
enemy, the Clinton administration justified its considerable military 
support to Colombia as fighting the war on drugs; Clinton also 
escalated corporate globalization under the guise of democracy 
promotion. When the Bush administration decided to carry out military 
coups against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Haitian President 
Jean Bertrand Aristide, it needed a more convincing justification, so 
it presented the narrative that both presidents had been overthrown by 
popular uprisings—a story that was planted in the media by the same 
“democracy promotion” networks that were orchestrating the coups on 
the ground.

With the 1998 victory of Chavez, however, U.S. hegemony had met its 
match, and he is now the region’s uncontested leader. His radical 
political, economic and social initiatives set off a powder keg of 
discontent over Washington’s neoliberal economic impositions, which 
exploded in one leftist electoral victory after another. Bourgeois 
democracy, which since independence restricted electoral choice to 
ruling class parties, is no longer capable of maintaining the 
traditional power structures of exclusion and is being replaced 
through constitutional changes in a number of countries with popular 
participatory democracy. Other signs of declining U.S. influence are 
countries withdrawing from the IMF and forming a South American trade 
bloc (MERCOSUR) and a South American union (UNASUR). The traditional 
instruments of U.S. hegemony such as the Organization of American 
States are becoming irrelevant. But if bourgeois democracy is on the 
ropes, it isn’t because the United States has “neglected” the region. 
On the contrary, the “democracy promotion” machinery—and intelligence 
and military agencies—have never ceased working to defeat authentic 
popular forces.

Barack Obama seems to be oblivious to the sea change in Latin America, 
portraying the advance of the left as a threat which came about 
through the incompetence of the Bush administration, who allowed a 
“dangerous demagogue” like Hugo Chavez to rise to power. Here is what 
Obama said in his May 23 speech to the Cuban American National 

“No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into 
this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American 
rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the 
same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But 
the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that 
this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads 
from Bolivia to Nicaragua.

It should be noted that Obama dismissed socialism as a “tried and 
failed ideology” and a “stale vision” to a group of aging thugs and 
cutthroats who cling to the dream of restoring Cuba to its 
prerevolutionary past of white supremacy and gangster capitalism. The 
reference to Chavez stepping into the vacuum presupposes that the 
United States is the natural leader of the region and that only an 
illegitimate “strongman” would have the impertinence to dare to usurp 
this position.

If Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua are the bad guys, the good guys 
are represented by the Uribe government in Colombia, easily the 
biggest human rights violator in the hemisphere and the most corrupt 
(and for some reason embraced by the Clinton administration). Obama 
defended Colombia’s illegal March 1 attack on a guerrilla camp in 
neighboring Ecuador, where 25 people (including four Mexican students) 
were pulverized by aircraft artillery as they slept. His official 
statement: “The Colombian people have suffered for more than four 
decades at the hands of a brutal terrorist insurgency, and the 
Colombian government has every right to defend itself.” This is almost 
exactly what he said about Israel during its last invasion and bombing 
of Lebanon.

But maybe Obama has some sympathy for Haiti, the first independent 
nation in the Caribbean, born out of a slave rebellion, and the 
poorest. Haiti’s first democratic president, Aristide, was deposed in 
a U.S.-Canadian-French coup in 2004 and is still not allowed by the 
United States to return to his own country. Yet Obama sided with the 
coup plotters, recycling their slander that Aristide had lost the 
support of his people and was illegitimately clinging to power: “The 
Haitian people have suffered too long under governments that cared 
more about their own power than their peoples’ progress and prosperity.”

The theme of Obama’s speech before the CANF was “Renewing U.S. 
Leadership in the Americas.” He said the word, leadership, six times, 
in defiance of the strong majority sentiment in Latin America, 
expressed in numerous elections and statements by leaders and civil 
society, that they don’t want the United States to lead them any more. 
How Obama could have missed this message is testimony to how far 
inside of Washington he has gone, and how far Washington is from 

On Nov. 13, Andres Oppenheimer wrote in the Miami Herald about Obama’s 
Latin America team—a group of centrists from the Clinton 
administration. One campaign advisor since February 2008 was Frank 
Sanchez, a Tampa corporate lawyer who served under Clinton promoting 
democracy and free trade. Not much is known about Sanchez, a 
“Hispanic,” who announced Obama’s appearance at the CANF luncheon. 
Obama’s other top advisor is Dan Restrepo, a lawyer who served on the 
staff of the House International Relations Committee from 1993 to 
1996. He is currently director of The Americas Project at the Center 
for American Progress, a Democratic Party think tank.

Other people mentioned—Robert S. Gelbard, Jeffrey Davidow, Arturo 
Valenzuela and Vicki Huddleston—are foreign service functionaries who 
promote the policies they are told to promote. None of these 
individuals, Sanchez and Restrepo included, appears to offer any fresh 
perspectives. They have not expressed support for Latin American 
sovereignty, development for human needs, and certainly not for 

President Obama has a decision to make: either he will be on the side 
of the people and ecological sustainability, or on the side of 
transnational capital. He cannot steer a neutral course because he 
will be in charge of two enormous bureaucracies–the State Department 
and the National Security Agency–which have as their mission the 
removal of all obstacles to the accumulation of corporate profits. If 
he decides to switch sides, it will be in defiance not only of 
powerful economic and military interests, but of the team of advisors 
he has so far relied on. He will have to let them all go and bring in 
an entirely new group of people. The chance of that happening is next-