Obama can lead by listening

Obama can lead by listening

By Benjamin Dangl

April 17, 2009

Published by The Guardian Unlimited

At the Summit of the Americas this weekend, the US will find that the hemisphere is no longer its playground

While George Bush was the most unpopular president ever in South America, Barack Obama could end up being the most popular. To that end, much hinges on this weekend’s fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where all of the hemisphere’s heads of state – minus Raúl Castro of Cuba – will be in attendance.

In order to break with Bush’s disastrous legacy in Latin American relations, Obama would do well to follow the strategy set out by his vice president, Joe Biden, during his recent visit to Chile: “The time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over,” Biden said.

At the last Summit of the Americas, in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005, Bush didn’t listen. Ignoring the region’s leaders and the hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets, he tried to shove the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) down South America’s throat one last time. Bush failed in Mar del Plata because he didn’t realize that Latin America is no longer Washington’s backyard.

When Obama meets with Latin America’s presidents this weekend he should treat them as sovereign neighbors, because – from trade policies to military alliances – Latin America has already declared its independence from the US.

Free trade agreements pushed by the US are now being replaced by south-to-south trade deals built through the leftist Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the People’s Trade Agreement and the European Union-style Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Thanks in part to this autonomy from the US, South America has weathered the current economic crisis better than many other economic regions.

Various diplomatic crises in South America in 2008 – from Colombia’s bombing of a guerilla camp on Ecuadorian soil, to a right-wing massacre of government supporters in Bolivia – were solved in meetings between South American leaders, without the presence of US officials. Last April, when the US Navy announced it would restart its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, Hugo Chavez responded that Venezuela would begin joint naval exercises with Russia in the same area.

Obama could begin to acknowledge South America’s independence by ending the US economic embargo against Cuba. The region’s leaders have called for an end to the US embargo, which inhibits the freedoms and livelihoods of Cuban citizens. Though Obama has announced some plans to lift travel and remittance restrictions on Cuba, ending the rest of the embargo would send a clear signal to Latin America that the US is ready to treat the region with respect.

Aside from the Cuban embargo, the biggest fault lines at the upcoming summit are likely to emerge around economic policy and trade. “The Free Trade Area of the Americas is the law of the jungle, only the strongest survive,” Evo Morales told me back in 2003, before he became Bolivia’s fist indigenous president, and was still a union organiser and coca farmer. “From the point of view of the indigenous people here, the FTAA is an agreement to legalise the colonisation of the Americas.”

Obama shares some of Morales’ sentiments. The new US president has been a critic of the free trade agreement with Colombia because of that country’s violations of labour rights and its repression of unionised workers. In a newspaper column in June 2005, Obama explained his stance against the Central American free trade agreement, citing its lack of environmental and labour regulations, and said that “the larger problem is what’s missing from our prevailing policy on trade and globalization – namely, meaningful assistance for those who are not reaping its benefits.”

Such views will be warmly received by the region’s presidents, many of whom see the alleviation of poverty as way to curtail organized crime and narco-trafficking – two topics sure to be discussed at the summit, and were part of the discussions between Obama and Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón during Obama’s brief stop there yesterday. To make progess at the summit, Obama should withdraw US support and financing for the disastrous Plan Colombia, stress non-military solutions in the drug war, and develop economic relations with Latin America than benefit a majority of its population. Doing so would make a clean break from the Bush years, and show that the US is interested in being a neighbour, not an empire.

After all, at this weekend’s summit, Obama may have no other choice but to lead by following, because as Evo Morales once told a reporter, “If the 19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th century to the United States, the 21st century will belong to America, to Latin America.”