Thursday, 29 May 2008

Todos Somos Americanos

“Ich bin ein Berliner”, was how John F. Kennedy in 1963, during the height of the Cold War, sought to reaffirm US support towards democratic West Germany shortly after the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Fast forward to 2008 and Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, in a keynote speech on his proposed policies towards Latin America evoked a similar notion of solidarity (and use of a foreign language catchphrase…) by declaring: “¡Todos Somos Americanos!” (We are all Americans!)

Thankfully the situation vis-à-vis US-Latin American relations is hardly as problematic as US-USSR relations when Kennedy went to Berlin. However, Latin America has not only been a neglected continent under George Bush’s administration, but one in which a sense of US superiority and arrogance towards the region has left anti-Americanism throughout Latin America at its probably highest levels in a long time. This has facilitated, some would argue, the rise of certain leaders in the region who have gone out of their way to demonize the US, bypass any attempt to construct meaningful bilateral relations with the US, and consequently undermine US leadership in the region.

These were the issues that Barack Obama sought to address in his keynote speech, “Renewing US Leadership in the Americas” which he gave last week to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami

If you have 30 minutes to kill here’s the speech in its entirety. Here also is a link to the transcript of the speech (Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas). Here is a link to the official Barack Obama plan for Latin America (A New Partnership for the Americas)

Naturally the first half of the speech focuses on Cuba - he was giving the speech to an audience of Cuban-Americans. Cuba has been one of the most contentious policy issues in the Americas, and a policy area in which Obama has chosen a distinctively alternative path from that of John McCain. Whereas McCain has vowed to maintain the hard-line stand on Cuba, Obama has vowed to ease travel restriction and money remittances to the island and whilst not stating it explicitly, he has opened the door for future high-level talks with the Cuban government. That said his language was tough, resolute and unyielding in its criticism of the Castro dictatorship. Cuban-American votes are important as any demographic group for his Presidential campaign and thus any evidence of his willingness to engage with Cuba has to be countered by an ability to show that he will forcefully stand-up and demand change from the Castro regime. It’s a hard conundrum to fix, and undoubtedly one that will depend as much on the Castro brothers’ perception of Obama as Cuban-Americans willingness to back down and negotiate with Cuba.

More tough words were aimed at Chavez and those who may choose to take their countries down a similar path (i.e. Morales and Ortega). The rebuilding of relationships with Chavez depends, again, on how Chavez and the likes choose to view Obama. Chavez’s qualms are supposedly solely with George Bush, not with the US, so it remains to be seen how Chavez would respond to a leader who wishes to reassert US leadership in the region.

In general the speech was an obvious hark back to “Good Neighbour” policies of the 1930s and 40s or the Alliance for Progress programme of the early 1960s. Both Democratic Party initiatives that focused the importance on a stable and friendly Latin America, and a cordial relationship based on solidarity and an equal standing amongst all partners. Hence the slogan to underline Obama’s speech: “¡Todos Somos Americanos!”

Latin American politicians may benefit politically from their imbuing anti-American rhetoric, but no Latin American country can gain economically or politically from maintaining such an unwavering anti-American attitude. The realities of the American economic and political might, the historical and cultural ties that continue to link North and South are just too strong to wish away. Most Latin American politicians know this only too well and will undoubtedly be hoping that an Obama presidency will allow them the leverage, amongst their own electorates, to promote healthy relations with the US.

With all this said and done I do still find it hard to believe that US foreign policy toward Latin America is unlikely to be at the top of eitherPresidential candidate’s foreign policy priorities. The issues of Cuba, Haiti, Mexican immigrants, and Colombian narcotics will undoubtedly remain the main areas of engagement with Latin America.

So how willing is the US ready to convert good words into good deeds and help cast off the chains of poverty? These were pledges John F. Kennedy made almost 50 years ago in his Alliance for Progress, but which today still remain elusive in US relations toward Latin America. Will Obama really be able to fulfil the goals which so many US Presidents have promised but failed to live up to?


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