Latin America v. Obama: U.S. Policy on Cuba, Drug War, Economy Under Fire at Colombian Summit

April 16, 2012 | Print Print |

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HAVANA TIMES, April 16 — Historian Greg Grandin analyzes the U.S.-Colombia “free trade” deal and the deepening split between much of Latin America and Washington following the Summit of the Americas in Colombia. The summit, which was marred by a U.S. prostitution scandal, concluded Sunday without agreement on the key questions of whether Cuba should be allowed to attend the regional meetings and on the issue of the legalization of drugs.

Latin American leaders said Cuba should be invited to the next summit in Panama in 2015, but the United States and Canada dissented. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa boycotted this year’s meeting because of Cuba’s exclusion.

On Sunday the United States announced that a free trade agreement with host country Colombia will come into effect in May, far earlier than expected. The agreement had earlier been deferred because of Colombia’s weak record on workers’ rights, including murders and attacks on union activists

AMY GOODMAN: The Americas Summit concluded Sunday without agreement on the key questions of whether Cuba should be allowed to attend the regional meetings and on the issue of legalization of drugs. Latin American leaders at the meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, said Cuba should be invited to the next summit in Panama in 2015, but the U.S. and Canada dissented. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa boycotted this year’s meeting because of Cuba’s exclusion. The Organization of American States, which runs the summits, excluded Cuba 50 years ago. President Obama said Cuba would be welcome to attend in the future if it becomes more democratic.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Cuba, unlike the other countries that are participating, has not yet moved to democracy, has not yet observed basic human rights. I am hopeful that a transition begins to take place inside of Cuba. And I assure you that I and the American people will welcome the time when the Cuban people have the freedom to live their lives, choose their leaders, and fully participate in this global economy and international institutions.

AMY GOODMAN: Several leaders also called on the U.S. to consider decriminalizing drugs as a way of combating the illegal trafficking that’s spawned violence across the region. President Obama ruled out legalization, instead announced more than $130 million in aid for increasing security and pursuing narco-traffickers and drug cartels in the region. He expressed willingness to hold a discussion on drug policy, but said legalization could lead to greater problems.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places. I, personally, and my administration’s position is that legalization is not the answer, that, in fact, if you think about how it would end up operating, the capacity of a large-scale drug trade to dominate certain countries, if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint, could be just as corrupting, if not more corrupting, than the status quo.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the U.S. announced that a free trade agreement with host country Colombia will come into effect in May, far earlier than expected. The agreement had earlier been deferred because of Colombia’s weak record on workers’ rights, including murders and attacks on union activists. In announcing the deal, the Obama administration said Colombia had made, quote, “historic” progress on worker protections and human rights. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the agreement.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: [translated] It will generate employment. It will generate employment in Colombia, more than 500,000 jobs. It will lead to economic growth, about 0.5 to 1 percent, in a permanent form. This has many different benefits for the Colombian people and for the well-being of Colombia. And there are many sectors that have direct and immediate access to most important markets in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: The summit was marred by a prostitution scandal involving 16 U.S. security personnel. Eleven Secret Service and five military personnel were removed from their duty and sent back from Colombia to the United States. The U.S. Secret Service is investigating claims they brought prostitutes to their hotel rooms in Cartagena late Wednesday and had a dispute over payment with one of the women. President Obama said he expected a rigorous probe to be conducted.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If it turns out that some of the allegations that have been made in the press are confirmed, then of course I’ll be angry, because my attitude with respect to the Secret Service personnel is no different than what I expect out of my delegation that’s sitting here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about the summit, we’re joined now by Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University, author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. His most recent book, Fordlandia, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Professor Grandin.

GREG GRANDIN: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of this summit, though what most people in this country are hearing about is the prostitution scandal allegedly involving U.S. Secret Service that were supposed to be protecting the President.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, well, this scandal—I mean, this is just, I think, something that just came out into the open; I’m sure it’s nothing new for these kind of events. I mean, what’s interesting about it is Cartegena is a Caribbean city, so the Caribbean has a reputation as being a kind of playpen of the United States, a kind of place of sex tourism. So I’m sure that this is not going over well in Latin America itself. I mean, it kind of harkens back to the days of, you know, Fredo Corleone and Hyman Roth setting up, you know, meetings, setting up rendezvous with, you know, businessmen. So I’m sure it was—it’s something that kind of over—set a bad tone for the rest of the summit.

The summit itself is a bit of a—it’s a bit of a show, a bit of a spectacle. It began under Bill Clinton in the 1990s and was very much tied to trying to move the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas along. And it started running into problems in Quebec during a rising anti-globalization movement, and then in 2005 in Argentina, which really did kind of derail the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. So, at this point, it’s unclear what the purpose of this summit is. Latin Americans themselves are creating these bodies that are excluding the United States, that are deepening integration, political and economic integration. This seems to be a venue in which they come together in order to criticize Washington, quite effectively.

AMY GOODMAN: And these bodies are threatening to the United States. Why have they excluded the United States? And why do they agree to come to this meeting, though some of the Latin American leaders did not attend, like Rafael Correa of Ecuador, protesting Cuba’s exclusion?

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, and Hugo Chávez is ill, so he didn’t attend, and Cuba is excluded. So there are a number of people who didn’t attend. I think they attend because it does provide an effective high-profile venue in order to—in order to show their unity over a number of issues and voice their concerns to the United States, to Washington. What we saw in this episode, in this instance, was remarkable unity over three issues: one, humanizing policy towards the drug problem; two, including Cuba; and then, three, a kind of unexpected criticism that really did bring together, coelesce, a lot of Latin American leaders, which was Brazil’s criticism of U.S. monetary policy.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain that criticism.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, was actually in Washington a few weeks ago, just last week, and she previewed this criticism. And the criticism is that the United States is basically depreciating its currency, and as—in order to solve its own financial problems. But that has the effect of valuing, raising the value of Latin American currency, and that creates a trade imbalance. That makes U.S. goods that much more cheaper for Brazilians and for Colombians and for Mexicans to buy, so it deepens the trade imbalance between Latin America and the United States. And it also has the effect of raising the value of debt that foreign bondholders owe or bankers owe, Latin American external debt. So it really puts pressure on Latin American economies. I mean, in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States largely, to a large degree, solved the economic crisis of that period, the crisis of Keynesianism, through a sharp austerity program that generated the debt crisis, that shifted from industrial capitalism to finance capitalism. And I think Dilma is voicing concern that the United States is trying to do the same: get out of the mess it’s created by shifting the burden to Latin America. And there’s been—it was remarkable unity.

AMY GOODMAN: Dilma Rousseff is an interesting figure, the successor to Lula in Brazil, she, herself, a Brazilian guerrilla who was held in captivity for several years and tortured.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah. I mean, and she came into office on the heels of Inácio Lula’s enormous popularity. He had two terms in office, and he left with over 80 percent pop—he was much more confrontational in—around a number of issues, around trade issues, around foreign policy. And the sense that Dilma Rousseff would be more of a technocrat, more willing to accommodate Washington’s interests, maybe on some issues she has. She has kind of gone along with some of the—some of U.S. foreign policy concerning Syria and maybe even Iran. She has distanced Brazil from Iran a bit, but not completely. Her foreign policy team is still very critical of Washington policy in the United Nations, in the Middle East around the Palestine-Israel conflict. And she’s been very critical around economic issues, including this. I mean, it was quite surprising how strident, how strong and sharp her criticism was. She talked about flooding Latin America with cheap money. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

GREG GRANDIN: Well, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, you know, obviously, this is something that Barack Obama ran against as a candidate, ran against John McCain, said it would be bad for U.S. workers. And then, pretty much as soon as he got into office, he started to shift gears. He left pretty much the whole Bush team in the U.S. Trade Representative Office, and they continue to work towards passing and toward cobbling together a free trade agreement with Colombia.

Colombia—there’s a couple of things to know about Colombia. Colombia is the worst country in terms of labor organizing, hands down. Last year, 40 unionists were killed, and that was 60 percent of the global total. The human rights community, the labor community in the United States has been asking the Obama administration to basically build into any free trade agreement a number of guarantees. One, they wanted to see real change on the ground, before they went forward—say, a three-year period where there would be no murders, no executions of trade unionists. The White House refused that. They asked for a mechanism built into the trade agreement that would void the treaty if executions started to rise again. The White House refused to do that.

It’s largely symbolic, I think. I think the effect it’s going to have on the U.S. economy is minuscule. It really is kind of playing to domestic politics. Obama has an election coming up. He’s got to play to the Chamber of Commerce. He’s got to play to—you know, against Mitt Romney, who could position himself better on the economy. And I think what he’s doing is he’s betting his election on the backs of Colombian trade unionists.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama said that Colombia has actually made historic progress, and his administration said Colombia created a new labor ministry, prosecution of crimes against union workers, and steps to fight discrimination against Afro-Colombians and women, had assuaged their concerns and made it possible for the free trade deal.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, well, it’s kind of—I mean, all of these changes apparently went into effect two weeks ago, so there’s very little time to verify, very little—and who’s going to verify, who’s going to confirm? Again, the fact of the matter is Colombia is the worst country in the world to be a trade unionist. So if you’re willing—if you’re saying Colombia passes the threshold of what’s acceptable, then what country doesn’t pass the threshold of acceptable?

And a case in point is Guatemala. Guatemala brought its murder rate of unionists down to zero in order to get—in order to get the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed. As soon as that free trade agreement was passed, the murder rate of trade unionists shot up again. And so, there’s no guarantees that this won’t happen in Colombia. The mechanisms built into it is exactly what’s in NAFTA, and there has yet been a violation or a fine based on labor—violations of labor rights.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of President Obama spending three days in Cartagena, in Colombia, the longest any U.S. president has spent in Colombia?

GREG GRANDIN: Well, I think Colombia is a close U.S. ally, despite this very interesting dissent about drugs, that it’s being led actually not by the traditional critics of the United States, but by its two closest allies, Guatemala—very conservative presidents: Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, and in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. It’s fascinating. But aside from that, I think Colombia is the United States’s anchor in the region, in some ways, so it makes sense that he would spend a lot of time there.

AMY GOODMAN: Has President Obama changed policy towards Latin America from President Obama?

GREG GRANDIN: From—no, no. There’s—I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: From President Bush.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, there’s—I mean, the best way to think about it is a process of inertia. What started under Bush, or what actually even started under Clinton, just continues under Obama. The two main pillars of U.S. foreign policy—increasing neoliberalism and increasing militarism around drugs—continue. They feed off of each other and have created a crisis in that corridor, running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico. That’s been a complete disaster, and there’s no change.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to talk about the drug war after break. We’ll be bringing in Ethan Nadelmann. Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University, author of Empire’s Workshop as well as Fordlandia.
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