President Barack Obama’s unwillingness so far to accept the two percent victory margin of Nicholas Maduro as Venezuelan president, endorsing instead the Venezuelan opposition’s demand for an audit, hints at the permanence of a US desire for hegemony over Latin America. In an undiplomatic but revealing remark, Secretary of State John Kerry’s, at an April Senate committee hearing, said, "the Western Hemisphere is our backyard," summing up the lingering legacy of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine at a time when all of Latin America is striving for peaceful development on an equal basis with the United States.
Obama could have sent Vice President Joe Biden to the Hugo Chavez funeral on March 17, a somber event attended by Latin American and world leaders. Obama could have continued the quiet exploratory talks with Hugo Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, but chose to publicly criticize the Venezuelan electoral system instead. Obama could have accepted the April 14 Venezuelan election results, as did the same cross-section of world leaders, but preferred instead to question the legitimacy of the outcome.
The Obama administration’s persistent hostility toward Venezuela, despite the record number of elections endorsing Hugo Chavez – with one loss that Chavez himself accepted – continues from Republican to Democratic White Houses. Obama’s true intentions seem to lean toward productive diplomatic relations – the president famously smiled and shook hands with Chavez at an early summit – but in practice the policy seems steered bureaucrats still steeped in the culture of the Monroe Doctrine and continued in the prejudices of the Cold War and Global War on Terrorism.
Let us be clear, Obama does not need to attend Bolivarian Circles or memorize the writings of Simon Rodriguez to show respect for Venezuela. He has only to extricate the US from a long history of assumed superiority, which underlies a kind of divine right to intervention. He must indicate decisively that he opposes all forms of blocking self-determination.
Obama could adopt the Good Neighbor diplomacy of President Franklin Roosevelt, who accepted Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas’ 1937 nationalizing of Mexico’s oil fields, during a brief time when US policy opposed fascist inroads in Latin America and at least tolerated the Popular Front policies then embraced by the Left. After World War 2, successive US regimes sided with conservative and even right-wing dictatorships to stave off guerilla-led movements in the region, as well as subverting democratically-elected governments in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Chile.
In addition to coveting Latin America’s resources, recent US governments have advanced a strategy of “democracy promotion” through which opposition parties and protest movements receive funding, training and more, often in quiet tandem with covert political operations. It was a “democracy promotion” mission that Alan Gross was undertaking when Cuban authorities arrested the USAID operative for illegally smuggling communications equipment to Cuban civic society groups in 2009. It was “democracy promotion” that eight allied pro-Venezuelan nations denounced this year as a plot against their sovereignty and control of natural resources. Such “democracy promotion” includes $2.8 billion spent annually by the US in teaching campaign, organizing and media skills to grass-roots groups – for the base, for example, of the Venezuelan opposition.
The polarization is global. Russia has expelled US aid groups after they spent $3 billion on everything from election monitoring to drafting the country’s post-Communist constitution and tax code. Iraq rose in bloody insurgency when US operatives like Paul Bremer and a cadre of free-market Republicans imposed their “regime change” on Baghdad, including the privatization of all publicly owned enterprises. The same “democracy” program is being installed in Afghanistan, mostly out of delusion, or perhaps in hope of cultivating kinder, gentler warlords. Now fifty countries have written laws to control or expel US and foreign funded civic groups.
It might be asked, where does one draw the line? It is important for the United States to develop consistent human rights standards and speak out against the oppression of women, the torture of dissidents, the conscription of children, the enslavement of garment workers, the muzzling of journalists. It is justifiable to condition US aid on adherence to such standards. It is justifiable to spend funds on literacy, health and environmental clean up, with the consent of the host country. But it is quite another scenario for the US to seed community and political opposition groups in violation of another nation’s sovereignty, in ways that would never be tolerated here.
The blind assumption of both Democratic and Republican parties, spelled out in law, is that our tax dollars should be funneled in equal measure to pay our consultants to export the tricks and techniques of our political system to every country in the world. On top of those layers of “democracy promotion”, top-dollar US campaign consultants from both parties bid to manage the opposition campaigns of our clients. Finally, there are the secret pools of spies, mercenaries and provocateurs making foreign policy transparency impossible.
The bipartisan collusion between our Democratic and Republican parties in “democracy promotion” explains why our foreign policy debates are often so narrow and restricted. With bipartisan payrolls for bipartisan consultants and operatives, who is left to stand up for old-fashioned sovereignty? This is the question blocking the evolution of mutual respect in US foreign policy towards Latin America.