In a little noticed but important speech on U.S. relations with Latin America delivered earlier this month at the Brookings Institution, senior State Department official Arturo Valenzuela highlighted everything that is wrong with the Obama administration’s approach to its own neighborhood.
The speech was filled with vague platitudes and offered no coherent vision or positive plan for active U.S. engagement with the region. Presidents Bush 43, Clinton, Bush 41, and Reagan all spearheaded at least one major Latin American initiative. We are still waiting for President Obama’s proposal. Valenzuela, the top U.S. diplomat for the Western Hemisphere, had a wonderful opportunity to outline a major multilateral project involving trade liberalization, education reform, or active support for democracy and human rights. Instead, he highlighted a laundry list of micro-initiatives, while also discussing larger programs that were inherited from the Bush administration.
For example, he touted the Mérida Initiative (a security package for Mexico and Central America established in 2007), the anti-AIDS “PEPFAR” program, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation—all worthy endeavors, but all of which began under President Bush. Valenzuela also hailed the Obama administration’s new “high-level partnership dialogue” with Colombia, a critical and reliable U.S. ally. The creation of this dialogue was indeed smart policy, and the administration should be lauded for expanding U.S. security cooperation with Bogotá. But Valenzuela followed up his praise for the U.S.-Colombia partnership by boasting that the administration had increased U.S. engagement with Bolivia and Ecuador, two countries run by anti-American populists. He did not say what this engagement had produced.
Valenzuela devoted a few sentences to condemning autocratic abuses in Venezuela, but he said nothing about Venezuelan support for terrorist groups such as the Colombian FARC, Hezbollah, and the Spanish ETA. He spoke of implementing the Inter-American Democratic Charter “more effectively,” but he failed to list any specific proposals for reforming the OAS, an organization with massive structural flaws that have weakened its influence. Valenzuela made quick reference to the Colombia and Panama free-trade deals, but he gave no timeline for securing congressional approval of those agreements and made no promises that such approval would occur. Nor did he describe a broader strategy for promoting hemispheric trade liberalization, despite mentioning it as a goal. Indeed, the Obama administration seems to have no real enthusiasm for free trade with Latin America.
Turning to Honduras, Valenzuela described the 2009 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya as a “coup d’état.” By now, given all we’ve learned about the details surrounding that event, U.S. officials should be embarrassed to label it a “coup.” Zelaya’s removal from office was in fact a constitutional action designed to prevent an autocratic power grab. A 2009 Law Library of Congress study determined that “the judicial and legislative branches applied constitutional and statutory law in the case against President Zelaya in a manner that was judged by the Honduran authorities from both branches of the government to be in accordance with the Honduran legal system.”
Remarkably, Valenzuela said nothing about growing Iranian activity in Latin America, even though U.S. officials are working hard to tighten sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Over the past several years, Tehran has greatly expanded its collaboration with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. In 2008, it opened a bank in Caracas (Banco Internacional de Desarrollo) with connections to the Iranian military. In 2009, the two countries launched a joint bank in Tehran. That same year, Chávez announced that Venezuela would start selling Iran 20,000 barrels of petroleum a day, as part of a deal worth some $800 million. According to the Associated Press, Israeli intelligence suggests that Venezuela has been providing Tehran with uranium. And these are just a few of a much larger list.
Some have argued that Iran’s burgeoning hemispheric footprint represents a mere annoyance, rather than a serious strategic menace. Such thinking seems excessively optimistic. After all, back in the 1990s, Iranian agents, operating from the Iranian Embassy, helped plan two deadly bombings in Buenos Aires: one at the Israeli embassy (in 1992), the other at a Jewish community center (in 1994). Moreover, there is now abundant evidence that Hezbollah—the Iranian-backed terror group responsible for the Buenos Aires bombings—has established a significant presence in Latin America, thanks largely to the Chávez regime.
I believe the Venezuela-Iran alliance represents the biggest threat to regional stability since the Cold War. Even if the threat is less severe than I imagine, it certainly deserves to be mentioned in any 2,600-word overview of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Yet Valenzuela did not see fit to make even a passing comment about Iran.
Likewise, he did not utter a single word about Nicaragua’s ongoing occupation of Costa Rican territory. Back in November, around the time of the U.S. midterm elections, Nicaraguan troops involved in dredging activities along the San Juan River (which forms part of the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua) effectively invaded Calero Island, which has always been considered part of sovereign Costa Rican soil. The Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution insisting that Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega withdraw all armed forces from the area until a diplomatic settlement could be reached. Ortega flatly rejected it. So the OAS issued another ruling, reiterating the demands of the first one. Once again, Ortega refused to comply. His soldiers remain on the island as illegal occupiers.
The island dispute may seem trivial, but a critical principle is at stake. Nicaragua committed an act of naked aggression. Thus far, it has paid no diplomatic or economic penalty. The Obama administration’s response has been weak at best. Indeed, countering the Nicaraguan invasion is apparently such a low priority that Valenzuela chose not to mention it in his Brookings address.
All in all, the speech was a huge disappointment—just like Obama’s Latin America policy.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.