The Flip Flop Side of Change

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Article examines the possibilities for current presidential politics to change U.S.-Latin American/Caribbean relations.

by Claudia Villegas and Rodolfo Hernández

Obama is back in the U.S. after his first major international campaign tour to Europe and the Middle East. The tour was labeled a political as much as a media success, and for a time, the powerful image of the virtual Democratic candidate, a black-American candidate, addressing a crowd of more than two thousand people who attended his political meeting in Berlin, will remain in the people’s minds no matter if Democrats or Republicans. However, even after Obama’s first big ‘success’ overseas, there are a few yet –McCain included, who resist believing this is Obama’s moment. The Senator from Illinois is the big shot in the run for the presidency of the United States.

So far Obama’s remarks on religion, political freedom, immigration, the U.S. leadership, the war in Iraq, dignity, hope, gender, race, and even of the global climate change, have generated record public attention from a variety of audiences and constituencies: blacks, whites, red, blues, greens, leftist, rights, center … injecting the presidential running with unprecedented energy. The sudden infatuation with the American electoral politics, and the excitement around Obama’s promise for change is also worth of recognition. Of course the enthusiasm might not result as persuasive for everybody, but yet it is an appealing one.

Not long ago The Nation’s columnist Gary Young, prudently warned to the American left audience of do not getting symbols and substance confuse: “There are symbols, and there is substance –the way things look, and the way things are. But in between there is the way things might be: a sense of possibility that image might precede content or even provide space for it to emerge. A leap of faith. Some wishful thinking. Such is the tension in the American left’s response to Obama’s candidacy. There are some –let’s call them dreamers- who believe his nomination marks a paradigm shift in progressive politics in this country. And there are others –let’s call them materialist- who dismiss the excitement surrounding his nomination a little more than an emotional distraction from what really matters: war, foreclosures, civil liberties, the Middle East, global warming.”

We can concur or not with Young’s remarks when discussing how Obama’s presidential agenda looks like, what are the things that matter for the U.S. politics, or what his agenda is really about. We can also agree or not on his intentional or unintentional pursuing of identity, race, or gender politics in order to overcome the candidate’s alienation from the American people, which by the way is not solely Obama’s problem but a heritage from his own party’s political past.

Whatever our position might be, there will always be a flip-flop side, or maybe more if observing Obama’s campaign a bit more from afar. American electoral politics has never been exclusively about American people but very much about international politics, and the extent the U.S. capitalist economic and military interests have driven the national and regional affairs in many countries all over the world. This is anything but new, however that does not mean the question is not important or irrelevant. It is because this is a historical question —a questions involving not only the American people’s history but the world’s people’s history, that we have the right to be either trusty or skeptical around the possibility that having a first black-American president elected would represent a real change in the U.S. politics. Furthermore, we have the right to speak for our people too, especially when the virtual Democratic candidate has already done so in several occasions: “It is time for us to recognize that the future security and prosperity of the U.S. is fundamentally tied to the future of the Americas.”

Talking, or figuring out the U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean has been not an easy task for any Democrat or Republican candidate. And in every instance —no matter the novelty of the class, race, or gender discourse— the reality and the record of the colonial and imperialist relationship of the U.S. with our countries comes back to the surface. There is always a guarantee that anything (the standards for political freedom, foreign affairs, trade or immigration) that might risk the U.S. interests in the region will not be change it. If not, just take a look into some of Barack Obama’s statements and speeches on Latin America.

In a piece he wrote in the Summer 2007 (yet as candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination), the Senator from Illinois devoted a few lines to address “the failure” of the U.S. international leadership “to adequately address concerns about immigration and equity and economic growth” for Latin America. The region was foreseen as part of a global strategy to rebuild the U.S. alliances and partnerships necessary to renew the American economic, diplomatic, and moral leadership in the world. In February 2008, in a discourse to the students of TC Williams High School in Alexandria, V.A., he has been more specific about the U.S. imperialist policies while speaking of his intentions of putting together an “alliance for progress” in the 21st century: “But we can’t, our Latin America policy can not just be “I oppose Castro” and “I oppose Chavez’ and that’s the end of it. Because we’ve been neglecting Latin America even in our own back yard. We’ve been so obsessed with Iraq and so obsessed with the Middle East.” Any bells for the alliance for progress, or for the infamous back yard kind of White House foreign policy style?

Perhaps because Obama’s policy on the U.S. Latin America policy is not substantially different from past promises of change made by former U.S. presidents for the region, his remarks are yet far away of getting the same attention and debate among broader constituencies, as it has happened with his intentions of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end”, or the Republican alike rhetoric of confronting the “global threats” and “enhancing common security”.

However, there is still more on the fire.

Miami stands as a symbol of hope for what’s possible in the Americas. The phrase belongs to Obama’s speech in May 2008. The former is so far one of the most substantive statements he has made on Latin America for two reasons. First, because of the fact the speech was performed at a meeting with the FNCA, the Cuban American Foundation, one of the most conservative Latino constituencies in the U.S., and one of the most active groups in supporting the state political and economic warfare against Cuba. And second, since it unfolds the candidate’s agenda for the entire region, consisting of: 1) a promise for political freedom and democracy, 2) to advance freedom from fear in the Americas, and 3) to advance fear from want.

As we said before, there is few we can be surprised of this rhetoric of freedom, security, and opportunity. From our perspective, this is nothing but an updated neoliberal version on same old regional policies intended to maintain the U.S. geopolitical and economic imprint over the continent. On Cuba, to maintain the economic embargo, and the calling to bring down the “darkness’ and the “tyranny” of the major socialists revolution in the continent. On Colombia, to continue with the U.S. global war on terrorism by supporting the so-called Andean Counter-Drug Program, and the fight against the FARC. On Venezuela, to keep blaming Bush of having created the “political vacuums” occupied by “demagogues” like Hugo Chavez and “his allies” in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

And finally, on Mexico, yet the U.S. major commercial partner in the region. As Senator, Obama voted yes to approve the Plan Merida or Plan Mexico. The Plan, proposed in 2007 during George Bush’s visit to Latin America, subordinates the country to the design and logic of the U.S. national security policies for narcotraffic and immigration control. Besides, the Plan Merida is in full accordance with the transnational politics and economics applied in underdeveloped countries as Mexico, and enforced by more than two decades of the Washington Consensus and NAFTA in the North American region.

In the context of this transnationalization of the U.S. security, language matters as it gives content and social and political meaning to what Latin America is or can be as a region, or to what Mexico is or can be as a geopolitical border or for the influx of poor Central American and Mexican immigrants to the U.S. In February 2008, Obama assured: “We don’t have, the notion that Latin American countries are a junior partner to the United States, that is outmoded. We need to be full partners with those countries, show them the respect that they deserve”. We are already familiar with the ‘partners’ language since this is the same idiom used in Bush’s agenda for Mexico. The current partnership has signified for the country the move away from the fundamental idea of sovereignty that had regulated the U.S.-Mexico relations.

But it is not only Obama’s words what is at stake here, but they are also his acts. In September 2006, the U.S. Senate passed the “Secure Fence Act of 2006” approving the construction of a 700 miles fence across the U.S.-Mexico border. The voted was 80 to 19, Senator Barack Obama was among those who voted in favor. The yes for the fence was in fact a vote for the long-term U.S. attempt to control a growing flow of millions of Mexicans who are forced to migrate as a result of NAFTA and three decades of neoliberalism in Mexico. Now, as a candidate, Obama is offering to Mexico a partnership in controlling and securing a common frontier against “the threat” of narcotraffic and unregulated immigration.

As with NAFTA, border enforcement without a deep transformation in the economic and political structure, is limited or at least it is as demagogic and populist as what Obama has criticized other political leaders in the region, particularly those who do not support the Washington’s Consensus. By sustaining the enforcement of the U.S.–Mexico border, and now with his announced support to a new plan against Mexican sovereignty, Obama is showing us that he is willing to secure the frontiers of the American empire in the region.

As we already said, language matters when dealing with the U.S. and Latin America relationships. And if Obama really wants to bring a change in the region as president, he first should recognize the existence not of a separated ‘America’ from ‘the Americas’, but a single America based on the respect to each of the sovereign states in the continent, and the respect to the their self-determination.

Claudia Villegas has recently completed a PHD in Geography at Rutgers University on the politics of hope in the Zapatista Revolution and works as a lecturer at CUNY and Rutgers and Rodolfo Hernandez is working towards his PHD in cultural anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center and does ethnographic work with the undocumented communities of New York City, especially youth

Copyright © © Claudia Villegas and Rodolfo Hernández. All rights reserved.

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