Reactions to Obama’s “Bottom Up” Latin America Speech to CANF

Were it not for Hillary Clinton’s silly assassination reference last Friday, perhaps Barack Obama’s detailed and nuanced speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami might have received more attention. I’m not sure that any major presidential candidate has presented such a detailed overview of Latin America policy in my lifetime. I disagree with parts of the speech (on the embargo, I’m closer to Chris Dodd, Brent Scowcroft, and, well, 184 national governments), agree with others, and find other aspects inspiring. I’m particularly impressed to find such a thoughtful meditation from a man who has never been to the region (other than that March vacation in St. Thomas), and am curious as to what policies his administration would promote.

Al Giordano liked the speech, at least in part:

When was the last time – if there ever was one – that a US presidential nominee spoke in terms of a “top down” versus “bottom up” dialectic regarding democracy in the Americas?…The message to the majority of South American nations is clear: no longer will US policy toward an entire region be determined by just one country’s government….What was new and different… was not of his own invention, but, rather, a consequence of the changes that have already occurred from the bottom up in Latin America and his luck or wisdom to be young enough to have noticed…

Giordano also highlights Obama’s “panders:”

[The speech] broke definitively from some of those [28 year-old orthodox] policies while pandering to others…Obama’s break with US policies and in favor of easing certain aspects of the embargo toward Cuba were bracketed by the blanket statement: “I will maintain the embargo.” Equal to his Republican rival, John McCain, this statement was at odds with past statements by both men, years ago, indicating that the embargo had failed and it was time to move on.

The speech has been a hot topic of Latin Americans, and Latin Americanists, Cubans in particular. As El Pais corresopdent Antonio Cano points out, “Cuba is to Latin America what Palestine is to the Arab world. (Cano adds that Latin America has “seemed to have lost its international relevance.” The BBC reports on an laudatory open letter the Cuban dissident group Women in White wrote Obama responding to the CANF speech.

They applauded his offer to allow Cuban Americans to freely visit relatives here [and said] that a more creative policy could help the transition towards democracy and that the current confrontation is used by the authorities in Havana to justify their repression.

A Cuban newspaper columnist named Fidel Castro also found parts to like, and dislike:

Were I to defend him, I would do his adversaries an enormous favor. I have therefore no reservations about criticizing him and about expressing my points of view on his words frankly….Obama’s speech may be formulated as follows: hunger for the nation, remittances as charitable hand-outs and visits to Cuba as propaganda for consumerism and the unsustainable way of life behind it….

Tom Hayden‘s critique:

[T]he best that can be said of this speech is that it’s a brave beginning, a break from Bush…Now that Latin America, on its own, has swept those dictatorships away and is following its own democratic path, it is presumptuous of Obama to propose himself as the savior of Latin America from Hugo Chávez, guerrillas and drug lords, all of them symptomatic responses to US policies over many decades…If Barack Obama can ask us to better understand the black anger of his pastor Jeremiah Wright, surely he himself should be able to understand the volcanic rage that echos across Latin America in voices like those of Hugo Chávez and before him, Fidel Castro.

Hayden alos criticizes Obama’s planned expansion of the Drug War:

[I]t is legitimate both in terms of policy and politics for Obama to defend a law enforcement approach as part of the mix, but a war on gangs, like a war on drugs, is hopeless, counter-productive and immoral without a war on the greed that is devouring hundreds of millions of young people in Latin America….[T]he dangerous flaw in Obama’s speech was his apparent commitment to supporting the US counterinsurgency war In Columbia, secretive drug wars across the continent, and a veiled threat against Venezuela…

Who wrote Obama’s speech? Earlier this spring, the Miami Herald (dead link, alas) reported that Dan Restrepo of the Center for American Progress coordinates Obama’s Latin American team. Whoever wrote the CANF speech did not seem to borrow much from the U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality report released by the bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations earlier in the month. (Steve Clemons called the report “a zinger…just fantastic.”) The Council’s six points on Cuba policy include at least two that we didn’t here from Obama:

5. Mindful of the last one hundred years of U.S.-Cuba relations, assure Cubans on the island that the United States will pursue a respectful arm’s-length relationship with a democratic Cuba.

6. Repeal the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which removed most of the executive branch’s authority to eliminate economic sanctions.

The pledge to “target support to bottom-up growth through micro financing, vocational training, and small enterprise development” was reminiscent of chatter of a Marshall Plan for Mexico that I’ve heard from Steven Hill and Gregory Rodriguez, both of the New America Foundation.

There’s been less written about the Andean policies in the speech. Obama promised to expand the Andean Counter-Drug Program (Plan Andino), and supports Colombia’s “right” to send troops into its neighbors’ territory, and threatened “strong sanctions” against Venezuela and Ecuador. Rather than condemn the Bush administration’s attempt to aid, at least, a coup against Hugo Chavez, Obama merely refers to its “clumsy attempts to undermine Chavez.” Jack Tapper asserted that Obama’s contradicted himself in describing his Andean policies; an assertion challenged by the campaign.)

Last year I referred to the possibility of seeing Obama as a blank slate. With regards to Latin America, and likely many other policy areas, Obama is less “a vessel for other’s expectations” (to borrow from Robert Timberg’s description of candidate Reagan) and instead terrain over which advisers and experts will contest.

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