Mr. Obama, Welcome to the Neighborhood
Questions for Eric Hershberg
The former SSRC program director and prominent Latin Americanist talks about the neglect of Latin America in U.S. policy, normalizing relations with Cuba, and where Obama ought to turn for expert advice on the region.
What kinds of marks would you give President Bush on his Latin American policy? As in so many other domains, the performance of the Bush administration with regard to Latin America can only be characterized as irresponsible:
- Relations with Cuba and several Andean countries have deteriorated.
- Meddling in domestic affairs of sovereign, democratic countries has been widespread.
- Strategies for enhancing economic cooperation have been limited to the pursuit of bilateral trade accords of dubious consequences for vulnerable sectors of the population in the region
- Counter-narcotics policy has been carried out overwhelmingly in military terms.
- By loading development assistance programs with military aid, the U.S. has abdicated its responsibility to provide aid designed to advance social welfare in highly unequal societies.
- The failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform adversely affected many countries in the region.
- Meanwhile, administration policies not directly aimed at Latin America—such as the illegal detention of putative terrorists at the U.S. military installation at Guantanamo—seriously undermined our country’s reputation throughout the region as in other parts of the world.
These are just a few of the factors that have contributed to U.S. influence in the region reaching what some would argue is an all-time low.
Many people in the United States seem to expect that Barack Obama will do a great deal to restore our standing in the world in the wake of the Bush years. How well is Obama regarded in Latin America, by both governments and the “man on the street”? Anecdotal evidence suggests that, not unlike people elsewhere in the world, Latin Americans are cautiously optimistic about the prospects for more equal partnerships with the U.S. under an Obama administration. The election of an African-American candidate to the presidency offers a rare opportunity to restore perceptions of American democracy that were tarnished by the U.S. Supreme court’s settlement of the contested Bush-Gore election of 2000 and the behavior of the U.S. government in the so-called War on Terror.
If you could advise Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on setting priorities for Latin America policy, what would you set as their top three priorities? Normalizing relations with Cuba, enacting comprehensive immigration reform, and ceasing efforts by U.S. embassies and government-supported entities, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to influence domestic political dynamics in Latin American countries. A fourth priority would be to shift narcotics control and development assistance programs from a military to a developmentalist paradigm.
Every presidential candidate has to talk about Cuba. Obama's position, beginning on the campaign trail, has been that he intends to lift president Bush's 2004 measures tightening travel and restrictions on remittances to Cuba, but that he will not lift the embargo. Do you think that Obama's presidency will be—or should be—a turning point in US-Cuba relations? It should be, and can be, but it will require boldness on the part of the administration. This is one of several instances—trade, immigration and demilitarization of development assistance are others—where a return to Clinton era policies would be inadequate. A normalization of relations with Cuba will require an end to the discourse of “regime change” and recognition of Cuba's legitimate fears, rooted in more than a century of experience, about Washington's intentions. The administration would be wise to draw on the good offices of third countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, which seek to facilitate a rapprochement.
In light of ever-increasing cooperation between Venezuela and nations like Cuba, Russia, and Iran, how much attention should the Obama administration to pay to the Chavez government? The less attention that the new administration pays to the Chavez government, the weaker that government will be. Hugo Chavez poses no security threat to the U.S., and there is no reason for Washington to be distracted by his rhetoric.
There was a time when immigration looked to be a major issue in the election, but in the end it was sidetracked by the economic downturn, among other things. Do you expect immigration to reemerge as a major theme of Obama's presidency? Not in the short term, and to the extent that it surfaces as a priority this will be due to domestic rather than external circumstances. A perhaps excessively optimistic prediction is that the issue will return to the agenda toward the end of Obama’s first term in the event that the U.S. economy experiences a significant rebound. If 2010 sees double digit unemployment rates, however, it will be very difficult to invest political capital in comprehensive immigration reform.
SSRC President Craig Calhoun has written a statement for his Web site urging President-elect Obama to use area studies expertise in crafting his foreign policies. Are there any prominent Latin America scholars or other social scientists with Latin America expertise whose voices you think should be heard by the new administration? The new administration can and should draw on expertise of leading Latin Americanists in American universities. The government’s failure to seek advice from qualified scholars predates the Bush administration: there was little engagement with Latin Americanists in academe under Clinton. Among those who I think should be on the new administration’s rolodexes include:
- Lars Schoultz, political scientist at the University of North Carolina (and a former SSRC fellow)
- Paul W. Drake, political scientist at the University of California, San Diego
- Barbara Stallings, economist at Brown University
- Carmen Diana Deere, economist at the University of Florida
- Deborah Yashar, political scientist at Princeton University
- John Coatsworth, historian at Columbia University
These people can offer fresh perspectives on U.S. policy toward the region and on the key challenges that Latin America faces as it continues to strive for equitable development and cooperative ties to the United States. For decades, the American government has failed to consult with scholars who best understand the region. Hopefully, we are at a moment when there will be greater receptiveness to independent, well-informed perspectives.
--Interview conducted by Craig Zheng and edited by Mary-Lea Cox