Obama is losing Latin America
By EMILIO T. GONZALEZ
Iran’s Psycho-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just concluded a whirlwind tour of Latin America to visit his buddies in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. More than anything else, that should cause the U.S. to wake up to the Islamist leader’s rising power in the Western Hemisphere.
This series of visits comes on the heels of the recently concluded meeting of Latin American Heads of State in Caracas in December to formally usher in a new regional political organization, CELAC, with the stated goal of excluding the United States and Canada from regional affairs.
These signs all suggest that U.S. policy and influence in Latin America is in turmoil. After being elected, President Obama was expected to bring the United States closer to Latin America through renewed engagement based on mutual respect. Overtures were made but not reciprocated. The advancement of United States interests in the region has thus been less than stellar.
As opposed to President Bush, whose first presidential overseas trip was to meet with his Mexican counterpart one month after his inauguration, President Obama waited until April 2009 to visit Mexico. During that month he also attended the Organization of American States (OAS) heads of state meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. At that meeting, Obama extended a hand of friendship to Venezuela’s strongman Hugo Chávez. Since then, Chávez has repeatedly turned his back on Obama, attacking the United States and President Obama at every opportunity.
Then, in late June 2009, the Honduran military legally but clumsily ousted its democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Elected as a conservative, Zelaya shifted further and further to the political left attempting to emulate his new-found idol, Hugo Chávez.
Under Zelaya, Honduras joined an anti-U.S. political alliance of leftist countries in Latin America headed by Chávez. In defiance of his own political party, the opposition parties, the Supreme Court, and the Honduran Constitution, Zelaya began making preparations to run for re-election — even though Honduran presidents are barred from re-election. The armed forces acted swiftly, removing him from office and deporting him out of the country.
The Obama State Department reacted swiftly — in favor of Zelaya but against the interests of Honduras. Notwithstanding the context and subsequent legality of Zelaya’s ouster, the U.S. State Department threatened and squeezed the new Honduran government into bringing Zelaya back to power.
The new government in Tegucigalpa refused. The U.S. found itself in the incredible position of politically siding with the region’s anti-democratic leaders from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia, to name a few. Only pressure from congressional Republicans on the State Department to recognize Honduras’ regularly scheduled 2010 presidential election brought this sad episode to an end.
The Honduran case was a watershed moment for U.S. regional policy and is used by critics of the Obama administration to illustrate the fact that the President finds it difficult to lead in a region long accustomed to U.S. leadership. It wasn’t until early 2011 that President Obama travelled again to Latin America in hopes of re-engaging the region.
Ahmadinejad’s visit with his anti-democratic friends in Latin America is a testament to U.S. decline in the region. In what the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) calls the “Tour of Tyrants,” the leader of one of the world’s pariah states was warmly welcomed by Latin American’s budding pariahs.
In days past, American power, prestige, and influence would have prevented such visits. But in today’s Latin America, our friends don’t respect us and our adversaries don’t fear us.
Iran’s continued political meddling with leaders who are openly hostile to democratic ideals is alarming. Add to this, growing Chinese economic penetration in Latin America and we may well be witnessing the creation of a future flash point for the United States; but one that active U.S. leadership can still prevent.
Emilio T. Gonzalez is a Republican business consultant and a commentator for Univision. He served as Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House and later served as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.