Great Neighbor Policy

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

It’s a time of war and depression, and populist leaders have emerged in Latin America. The U.S. president declares a new era of friendship and equality. The Monroe Doctrine appears to be on its last legs.

Take your pick: the 1930s or today.

In yet another parallel between Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the two presidents are serving at a time of political transformation and economic nationalism in Latin America. FDR responded to the earlier one with a “Good Neighbor Policy” that sharply broke with the policies of past administrations. He removed U.S. marines from Haiti, abrogated the Platt amendment that gave Washington a say over Cuban affairs, and declared that “the definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention.” It wasn’t altruism: FDR needed Latin America’s help in World War II and to pull the global economy out of the trashcan.

Similarly, Obama is repairing fences with points south at a time when the United States could use all the friends it can get. Obama even declared the unthinkable: that the United States could learn something from Cuba. At the recent Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad, Obama noted that Cuba had generated a great deal of good will in the region by sending out medical missions, which (surprise, surprise) has proven more popular than lopsided trade agreements or failed drug wars. This modest nod in the direction of Havana came on the heels of the administration’s easing of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans to visit the island. A recent poll suggests that a majority of Americans favor a new policy toward Cuba that includes a complete lift of the travel ban and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

The headline-maker from Trinidad was, of course, Obama’s decision to shake hands with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Such is the depth to which U.S. foreign policy had fallen during the Bush years that a handshake could cause such a splash — and ritual fulminations from the right. “I think we’d be a lot better off drilling offshore in the United States and getting American energy, rather than being nice to dictators,” frothed Newt Gingrich on Fox News.

At the summit, Chávez gave Obama a book: Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. It’s an excellent gift for a book-reading president. “I know I can be accused of sacrilege in writing about political economy in the style of a novel about love or pirates,” Galeano writes in his afterward. But this explains why, 36 years after it was published, Galeano’s book is still being read (and hit number two on Amazon after Chavez’s endorsement). That’s quite an achievement for a book whose essential message is that “underdevelopment in Latin America is a consequence of development elsewhere.”

Once he’s worked his way through Galeano — whose poem Window on the Body, by the way, gives our Fiesta! section its name — Obama should turn to current challenges and recommendations. He couldn’t do better than to read the advice of 14 civil society leaders from 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries that FPIF contributor Manuel Pérez-Rocha collected on the eve of the Trinidad summit. “The U.S. government must respect and attempt to comprehend political developments occurring in Latin America,” urges Jorge Carpio, an Argentine human rights activist. “No sane person could seriously interpret these trends as a threat to U.S. security or the establishment of democracy in the region.” Other participants recommend the overhaul of U.S. trade policies, U.S.-Latin American cooperation on sustainable energy, and the end of the drug war.

Obama, the renowned listener, should also heed the collective voices of Latin Americans. “In country after country, they have elected new leaders with mandates to break with the international financial institutions and to pursue new economic policies,” writes FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler in his contribution to our strategic focus on empire. “As a result, even before the current crisis countries such as Bolivia, which has one of the poorest populations in the hemisphere, have been devising more equitable ways of distributing natural resource wealth — and more democratic ways of involving historically marginalized indigenous populations in the political process. Countries like Argentina, which suffered tremendously under Washington-backed neoliberalism, have worked to develop alternative, regional financial structures to allow for greater independence.”

The Obama administration can begin its new policy toward Latin America by applying Galeano’s insights and popular demands for change to U.S. policy toward Peru. FDR stood up to the oil companies that had been robbing Mexico blind. Obama should do the same with extraction companies looting Peru.

“The indigenous peoples of Peru’s Northern Amazon have endured over 30 years of oil production and pollution,” writes FPIF contributor James Polk in Time to Strengthen Ties to Peru. “Instead of prosperity, it has resulted in malnutrition, disease, and social disruption. For instance, since 1971, U.S.-based oil company Occidental Petroleum has employed practices outlawed in the United States and elsewhere for the purpose of maintaining lower production costs and maximizing revenues.”

The Good Neighbor Policy came and went. U.S. interventions in Latin America didn’t stop at the end of World War II. Dictators returned to the region in force. Wealth remained concentrated in a few hands. “Good” was simply not good enough. From Venezuela and Peru to Cuba and Bolivia, it’s time for the Obama administration to go one step further than FDR and pursue a Great Neighbor Policy that can change U.S.-Latin American relations for good.

It Is What It Is

The U.S. soldier and the Iraqi artist were standing on the Mall in front of the twisted and rusted ruins of a car. They were part of the art project It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq, by British artist Jeremy Deller. The project, which debuted at the New Museum in New York, brought together curious museum-goers with experts who had experience on the ground in Iraq. Other elements of the project included the ruined car, destroyed in Baghdad by an improvised explosive device, and maps of Iraq and the United States with the names of the cities interchanged.

FPIF teamed up with Provisions Library and Street Scenes: Projects for DC to bring the Deller project to Washington as the first stop on its transcontinental road trip. FPIF contributor Farrah Hassen has produced a short two-part video of the experience. In the first part, the project participants discuss the background of the piece. In the second part, FPIF contributor Raed Jarrar has a candid conversation about Iraq with Jeremy Deller.

Trevor Paglen is also an artist who focuses on the military. But in Paglen’s case, he is interested in documenting what the military doesn’t want us to know. He has collected the insignias of secret military programs, collected information about the kidnappers in the secret rendition program, and taken long-distance photographs of secret installations.

“About eight years ago, I was studying prisons in the United States and I was going through all these old satellite and aerial image archives,” he tells FPIF contributor Niels van Tomme in Seeing Things. “This was before Google Earth. I wanted to see where these prisons were, what was around them, why they were in the places that they were. Predictably enough, it turned out that newer prisons were in the middle of nowhere, relatively invisible, in the same kinds of places where a lot of these military operations go on. When I was going through those archives I would notice places where the images had been taken out. I started to realize they were not there because some of these military installations are not supposed to be out there. I decided it was incredible to have a blank spot on the map in this information age. It was a very Conradian moment.”

In his poems, Dayl Wise is also trying to document military secrets — the ones that lie hidden in the hearts of soldiers and veterans. “You can read history books and memoirs and blogs,” he tells FPIF contributor Kathryn Zickuhr in Veterans and Poetry. “But to know the intimate face of war or any subject, I, for myself, turn to poetry. I also write because I have to.” You can read about this intimate face of war in Dayl Wise’s poem, Walking My Dog While at War.

I like to think that Obama is just now making his way through Eduardo Galeano’s collected works. But presidents don’t necessarily have a lot of time to read. That’s why we’ve boiled down some policy recommendations into three haiku. Check out FPIF contributors Lori Tsang, Judy Cohn, and Rosalie Yelen’s Haiku to the President.

Lousy Neighbor Policy

Take a volatile part of the world. Add U.S. and NATO troops and an extensive CIA drone operation. Mix in some historic animosity and some longstanding border disputes. Throw in a sprinkling of terrorist organizations and illicit drug smuggling. And don’t forget nuclear weapons. That’s the recipe for AfPak quagmire.

In our latest strategic dialogue, FPIF contributors Fouad Pervez and Sharad Joshi offer two very different approaches to U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

“The sine qua non of any AfPak policy has to be a permanent rollback of the Taliban’s armed capabilities, especially on the Pakistan side,” writes Sharad Joshi in AfPak: Negotiate from Strength. “As past experience shows, short-term deals with militant groups do more harm than good. Eventually, there has to be a political solution in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan. But such a solution has to be negotiated from a position of strength, and only a comprehensive military response to the Taliban in the immediate present can set the stage for a meaningful political solution.”

Fouad Pervez disagrees. “Today, Pakistanis and Afghans aren’t on board with the U.S. grand strategy,” he writes in A Better Alliance with Pakistan. “To build a better alliance with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration must provide real financial and technical support to both countries, hold their leaders accountable, and ease back military operations, at least for a little while. The United States must also demand more from India so that it can then legitimately demand more from Pakistan.”

They continue their debate in Strategic Dialogue: Counterterrorism in South Asia.

Pirates, Bankers, and Food

Corruption is a hot topic, with new reports every day of political leaders squirreling away their ill-gotten gains. But FPIF contributor Khadija Sharife argues that this view of corruption is only part of the story.

“A respectable financial army plays an invaluable role in a global shadow economy,” she writes in Pirate Bankers, Shadow Economies. “A coterie of bankers, accountants, and lawyers — based in ‘transparent’ London, New York, and Singapore — serve as the ‘postcard-island’ tax havens, and they’re backed by multilateral financial institutions. Corrupt government leaders get away with graft much more easily and more frequently because of these international financial enablers.”

Finally, the Global Food Security Act currently before the Senate is part of the new global “green revolution” that’s pushing other countries to use genetically-modified organisms (GMO). The new technologies promise a lot but deliver very little. “While the first Green Revolution did significantly raise yields, genetic modification has yet to do so,” writes FPIF contributor Annie Shattuck in Global Food Security Act. “A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that GM crops don’t raise the potential yield of crops at all — the best they can do is marginally reduce losses, something improved farming practices, conventional pesticides, and agroecological techniques do as well.”

FPIF, April 21, 2009

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