US Policy Towards Venezuela and Colombia Will Change Little Under Obama

January 23, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Recent comments by President-elect Barack Obama, Secretary of State appointee Hilary Clinton and leading congressional Democrats suggest that the incoming US administration will not significantly differ from the Bush administration in its approach towards Venezuela and Colombia. In an interview with the US Spanish-language television network Univision, Obama fired an unprovoked opening salvo across the bow of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez that will likely ensure a continuation of the verbal sparring that has marked relations between the Bush administration and the Venezuelan government. Not surprisingly, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton echoed her future boss’s view of Chávez in her confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, the new House majority leader, Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer, lauded the achievements of Colombia’s President Uribe and, along with leading Democrat Charles Rangel, endorsed the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

In his interview with Univision, Obama alleged that Chávez had “been a force that has interrupted progress in the region.” Given that neoliberalism is the dominant trend in the region that Chávez’s policies have challenged and thwarted, one can only assume that the spread of free market capitalism is what Obama meant by “progress.” Obama professed his support for free trade during the final presidential debate, despite the fact that the neoliberal model has been rejected by tens of millions of Latin Americans who remain mired in poverty while multinational corporations and the region’s elites become richer. In the Univision interview, the president-elect also went on to suggest that “Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities” by supporting the Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Obama’s remarks closely mirror the positions held by the Bush administration over the past eight years regarding the Venezuelan leader, thereby suggesting that the ideological battle between Washington and Chávez’s socialist government is likely to continue. The president-elect’s comments were particularly troubling given that they were unprovoked. In fact, Chávez has repeatedly verbalized his hopes that ties between the two countries would improve once Obama moved into the White House.

In response to Obama’s comments, Chávez suggested that it now looks like relations between the two nations are unlikely to improve and declared, “I hope I am wrong, but I believe Obama brings the same stench” as President George W. Bush. The Venezuelan leader stated that there is still time for Obama to change his views and pointed out that “No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama. He threw it at me.”

Echoing the views of her future boss, Secretary of State appointee Hilary Clinton suggested in her confirmation hearings last week that US neglect of Latin America has created a vacuum that has been filled by Chávez, “who has tried to use this opportunity to advance outmoded and anti-American ideologies.” Clinton then labelled Chávez as “a democratically elected leader who does not govern democratically.” The latter remark constituted a virtual verbatim plagiarizing of the Bush administration’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who accused Chávez during her own confirmation hearings four years ago of being a “democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way.”

Just as troubling as the views of Venezuela held by Obama and Clinton, are those held by leading congressional Democrats regarding Venezuela’s neighbour and ideological opposite, Colombia. Last week, Charles Rangel, a Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, outlined the committee’s priorities for 2009 and, in reference to the stalled free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, declared that “the president-elect wants to work with Republicans and Democrats to get those trade agreements moving.”

Reflecting the pro-neoliberal views of both Obama and the Democratic Party, Rangel implied that the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was fundamentally-or ideologically-sound. He said it wasn’t that the pact signed between the Bush administration and the government of Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe was “a bad trade agreement,” but rather “whether the administration was prepared to insist on the protection of labour leaders in Colombia.” In other words, once a few human rights safeguards to protect Colombian workers have been inserted into the pact, then the Obama administration will gladly further promote neoliberalism in Colombia-as well as in Panama, South Korea and throughout the world. This pro-neoliberal view was echoed by Clinton during her confirmation hearings when she also acknowledged that safeguards needed to be established to protect Colombian workers, but ultimately, “with regard to the trade agreement, it is essential that trade spread the benefits of globalization.”

Meanwhile, in a recent interview with Colombia’s leading weekly newsmagazine Semana, the new House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, suggested the principal reason that the last Congress failed to pass the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was the Bush administration’s failure to adequately consult with Congress. And, when asked about the human rights situation in Colombia, Hoyer declared, “The reduction in violence is clearly a positive step, and I continue to believe that a US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement would be beneficial to both nations.” Despite increasing evidence of the Colombian government’s ties to right-wing death squads, its involvement in extrajudical executions and record numbers of Colombians being forcibly displaced by violence, Hoyer concluded the interview by stating, “President Uribe has been a great partner and a real ally to the United States, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on the issues that are important to both our nations.”

Given the recent statements by the president-elect, the secretary of state appointee and leading congressional democrats, it is difficult to believe that US policies towards Venezuela and Colombia under an Obama presidency will differ significantly from those of the Bush administration. Obama’s and Clinton’s ideological attacks on Venezuela’s Chávez suggest that the new administration in Washington is not likely to recognize the merit of anti-neoliberal policies that have dramatically improved the socio-economic reality for a majority of Venezuelans. Similarly, the fact that leading congressional Democrats such as Rangel and Hoyer – along with Obama and Clinton – support the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement indicates that Washington will persist in its promotion of neoliberalism in a country that continues to suffer gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the state. Sadly, the Obama years promise more of the same with regard to US foreign policy towards both Venezuela and Colombia.

Garry Leach writes for Colombia Journal. His new book,
Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, is out now courtesy of Beacon Books.

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This post was written by Garry Leech

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