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18 April, 2009

Obama needs to break with failed Bush policies

ADAM SGRENCI
Commentary
New America Media

Editor’s Note: President Obama needs to break with the failed policies of the Bush administration at the Summit of the Americas, writes Adam Sgrenci, an associate of the Center for the Study of the Americas.

This weekend the fifth Summit of the Americas convenes in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, bringing together 34 heads of state in the Western Hemisphere. Leading the U.S. delegation, President Obama needs to break with the failed policies of the Bush administration that alienated most of the governments of Latin America during the first decade of this century.

Obama has engaged Latin America from the start of his presidency. Even before his inauguration he held a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to discuss U.S.-Mexican border issues.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited the White House in March, telling Obama he had a "unique" chance to transform relations with Latin America. Though Lula stressed the importance of lifting the economic embargo on Cuba, his main concerns were with bilateral trade relations between the biggest nation state of the southern hemisphere and the “colossus of the North.” It is likely that Obama will concede to Lula’s requests and lower U.S. tariffs on imports of bio-fuels. This would represent a step away from the hypocrisy of U.S.-Latin American trade relations in which the United States demanded open markets throughout the region but then protected its own.

The other advance in U.S.-Latin American relations came 10 days later when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Mexico. For the first time in recent history, she explicitly acknowledged the United States’ destructive role in the rising violence around drug trafficking, especially the U.S. supply of high powered weapons for drug cartels and the virtually insatiable U.S. demand for drugs.

This week, prior to his departure for the summit, Obama made headlines with his announcement that he was lifting the draconian visitation restrictions that Bush had placed on Cuban American visits to their former homeland. Relatives are now free to visit the island as often as they wish and it is easier to send remittances. The United States even promised to lift many of the restrictions on communications with the island, meaning that the cost of telephone calls and Internet connections would be more reasonable and accessible.

But it will take more than these early steps to undo eight years of disastrous policies in the hemisphere.

Bush’s main initiative was to try to impose the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a policy that was met with resistance at the third Summit of the Americas in Argentina in November 2005. But Bush persevered with U.S. neo-liberal free trade policies during both of his terms, accentuating income disparities in a region already burdened with the largest income gap between the rich and poor in the world. According to the Inter-American Dialogue based in Washington, D.C., the positive economic growth that did take place between 2002 and 2008 was the result of Latin American “innovative social programs” and “remittances from abroad.”

It is unclear what initiatives Obama may propose in the area of trade. His main focus appears to be to address the global economic crisis and to stake out the U.S. position vis-à-vis Latin America. President Lula, like most other Latin American leaders, sees the crisis as an external problem, attributing it to "white, blue-eyed" bankers who are responsible for forcing Latin Americans to “suffer the consequences of arrogant financiers in Europe and the United States.”

Obama seems bent on resuscitating the staid international financial institutions that helped precipitate the economic crisis, turning to the International Monetary Fund and the Inter American Development Bank in particular. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa warns that throwing more funds at the IMF in order to solve the crisis is a serious mistake. The same goes for the IDB. According to Laura Carlsen at the Center for International Policy, the recent IDB loan increase estimate of $18 billion as a response to the crisis will only “generate a new wave of debt in the recipient countries.” Mega-projects financed by these institutions (the construction of dams, superhighways and electricity networks) have had the disastrous outcome of displacing the populations they were meant to benefit.

Obama needs to address what Lula stressed during his White House visit: reform the old trade agreements such as NAFTA with Mexico and Canada, CAFTA with the Central American countries, and the Peru, Colombia and Panama Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

Many believe trade reform is simply not a top priority for the Obama administration. The recently confirmed United States Trade Representative (USTR), Ron Kirk, is a free-trade advocate who faces opposition from labor and civil liberty organizations. The AFL-CIO has been demanding that the USTR address the violations of human rights, workers’ rights and environmental regulations permitted by these agreements.

Three months of waiting for Kirk’s confirmation afforded the administration an opportunity to stall any action in addressing these demands. In the meantime, the Peru FTA was implemented to the outrage of its opponents.

There will undoubtedly be verbal fireworks at the summit. President Hugo Chavez is convening a gathering of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. Known as ALBA, this institution advocates a socially-oriented trade block in direct opposition to Bush’s FTAA. Chavez has stated that he is ready for battle this weekend and preparing his “artillery.”

There will also be a clamor raised by virtually all of the Latin American nations because Cuba is the only country excluded from the summit. But Cuba expects little from the United States. As former President Fidel Castro notes in his writings from semi-retirement, Obama has said “not a word about the harshest measure: the blockade. This is what a truly genocidal measure is piously called,” Castro wrote, “one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people.”

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