<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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The McCain Doctrine: Back to the Cold War in Latin America

The Cuba Embargo, Colombia Trade and Human Rights in Mexico Are Suddenly Major Issues in the US Presidential Campaign


By Al Giordano
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

May 22, 2008

For eight years this newspaper has reported thousands of stories from Latin America that were ignored or distorted by commercial media in the United States, and rarely mentioned by its politicians. One of the only beneficial side effects of US President George W. Bush’s unsuccessful war in Iraq is that his administration had less time and fewer resources than previous administrations had to impose their invasive doctrines and policies on the Western Hemisphere.

During the Bush years, through democratic election after election, the peoples of most major Latin American countries – with the deplorable exceptions of Colombia and Mexico –moved forcefully toward more authentic democracy and increased protection of human rights. The distracted Bush administration has opposed Latin American democracy at every step, but with some exceptions, mostly with rhetoric and not deeds.

The exceptions, however, have been extreme and ugly: The US has continued to send billions of dollars in military aid, armament, mercenary organizations and herbicides to the corrupt narco-state of Colombia, an intervention begun by the Clinton administration in 2000 and continued by Bush. The White House now seeks to replicate the Colombian repression in the territory of its closest neighbor through Plan Mexico. Washington tried to give oxygen to a military-and-media coup d’etat attempt in Venezuela in 2002, only to be rebuked by that country’s people and 32 nations in the Organization of American States.

But until recently, the opposition Democratic Party in the United States had been joined at the hip with its Republican rivals, united in support of impositions toward other American nations. In the 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee John Kerry – his foreign policy advisor team weighted down by the likes of Rand Beers and other former Clinton and Bush administration officials – basically said “me, too” to the attempted demonization of Venezuela’s Chavez, and did not distance his positions from those of President Bush on Plan Colombia, the Cuban embargo, trade policies, the drug war, human rights or any other major US policy regarding Latin America.

In the absence of such differences, there was little to no debate in the US media about the country’s heavy-handed stances toward its Latin American neighbors. For the past 28 years, through the administrations of Reagan, Clinton and two Bushes, failed and harmful policies have remained stagnantly in place.

But suddenly, everything has changed: Latin America is now on the front burner in the US presidential election that will climax with a vote in November.

Suddenly, a Real Debate

When the history of the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States and its impact on Latin American policy is written, July 23, 2007 will be looked back upon as the turning point. That’s when one of eight Democratic presidential candidates answered a question during a debate and indicated that he would be willing to hold face-to-face meetings with US-shunned world leaders, including President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and then-leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

That candidate – whom few thought last July that he could win his party’s nomination – was savagely criticized by his chief rivals for that openness: the frontrunner among them, Senator Hillary Clinton, called him “naïve and frankly irresponsible.” The young challenger – Senator Barack Obama – didn’t wilt or buckle under the pressure: he stuck to his guns, defended and advocated for that new diplomacy, and proceeded to roll out other policy positions – such as easing the four-decade US embargo of Cuba – that his chief rival refused to embrace.

When the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Senator John McCain, attacked Obama anew this week, The New York Times recalled the genesis of the dispute:

The jumping off point for the debate has continued to be Mr. Obama’s response at a Democratic debate last year in which he said he would be willing to sit down without preconditions with the leaders of certain countries, including Cuba and Iran. The response exposed him to repeated broadsides, at first from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his Democratic opponent, and now Mr. McCain.

Fast forward to the present: nine months later, Obama is the presumptive nominee of his party for the presidency. And although the attacks on his breaks with longstanding US policies toward Latin American failed to derail him on the road to the Democratic nomination, the Republican McCain has now re-launched those same attacks all over again.

Here’s a video clip of McCain, speaking on Tuesday in Miami, against his new rival’s call to ease the Cuba embargo:

Here’s the full text of McCain’s remarks.

McCain called for continuing the US embargo of Cuba:

“Just a few years ago, Senator Obama had a very clear view on Cuba. When asked in a questionnaire about his policy toward Cuba, he answered: “I believe that normalization of relations with Cuba would help the oppressed and poverty-stricken Cuban people while setting the stage for a more democratic government once Castro inevitably leaves the scene.” Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting it. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators — there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in US policy. I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime.

My administration will press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally, to legalize all political parties, labor unions, and free media, and to schedule internationally monitored elections. The embargo must stay in place until these basic elements of democratic society are met….”

McCain also claimed – incredibly – that the Mexican regime (that was installed in 2006 through a fully-documented and widespread electoral fraud) has a “commitment to democracy and human rights.”

And he repeated President Bush’s call for passage of the US-Colombia “free trade” agreement, based on Cold War logic:

“The strategic implications of rejecting this agreement are profound. Colombia is a beacon of hope in a region where the Castro brothers, Hugo Chavez, and others are actively seeking to thwart economic progress and democracy.”

Two national leaders of the Democratic party that had run for president and now back Obama fired back instantly at McCain.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut said:

”John McCain needs to explain why continuing to do exactly what George Bush has done will somehow produce a different result. The Senator McCain I used to know was open to negotiations with Cuba to lift the embargo, but now he’s taking a hard line position, embracing a policy that has failed the Cuban people and the American people alike for fifty years”

And New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson added:

”John McCain doesn’t understand as well as Senator Obama and I do how the Castro regime works. John McCain—like George Bush—is afraid to talk to bad guys. He feels safer pretending to talk tough by hiding from them. Unfortunately ordinary people will pay for his lack of diplomatic skill. This is the Bush-McCain foreign policy that has failed all over the world, and it has failed to promote change in Cuba. I have successfully negotiated with Castro and many like him, and I know that Barack has the judgment and experience to nudge the Cubans toward a better future. He’ll do it without needlessly harming those who just want to send money to their families and visit loved ones. He knows that you need to talk to tough customers… It’s through direct negotiations that you deliver your toughest message.”

Obama also hit back immediately:

“There’s nothing more naïve than continuing a policy that has failed for decades, but that’s all John McCain offered today as he continued to campaign for a third term of George Bush’s foreign policy… Senator McCain conveniently left out the fact that eight years ago – back when he was running as a straight talker – he himself called for negotiating an end to the embargo. The American people have a clear choice between a Bush-McCain Cuba policy that has done absolutely nothing to advance the liberty of the Cuban people, or a new direction that pursues Cuban freedom through direct and principled diplomacy, and unlimited family travel and remittances for Cuban Americans.”

Rather than run from the Latin American policy debate, as previous US presidential hopefuls did, Obama has raised the stakes. On Friday, Obama will head to Miami to push that point to a moderate group of Cuban-Americans there, driving a wedge between younger members of that demographic that favor easing the embargo so they can visit and send money to family members in Cuba, from the elderly anti-Castro hard-liners that, until now, have held veto power over US policy toward Cuba.

“A Reassessment of US Policy”

After years of imperial consensus between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Democratic Party critics of US policy in Latin America have gained the upper hand. As the Miami Herald noted last month:

An empowered Democratic Party has taken command of U.S. policy toward Latin America, stalling a free-trade agreement and taking aim at military aid programs for Colombia and Mexico.

This assertiveness began after Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007, but it took a dramatic turn in recent weeks, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi derailing an effort by President Bush to force a vote on a free-trade agreement with Colombia.

Democratic lawmakers, several congressional staffers say, also are likely to cut back a $500 million request for Mexico as part of an anti-drug-trafficking program known as Merida Initiative. And influential Democrats have called for a thorough reassessment of U.S. policy toward the region on everything from Cuba and Venezuela to drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, look at how the Republican McCain’s words are being played South of the Border from oligarch daily newspapers like Venezuela’s El Universal:

Republican Senator John McCain, speaking before a noisy crowd in Miami on Cuban Independence Day, on Tuesday pledged to keep the embargo against the Caribbean island, prevent Bolivia and Venezuela from taking the same road taken by Cuba, and strengthen ties with Brazil, Chile and Peru, if he is elected as US president.

McCain criticized his Democrat rival, Senator Barack Obama, for saying that he is willing to sit down with Cuban President Raúl Castro, reported AP.

“If I am elected president (…) We will work to prevent Venezuela and Bolivia from taking the same road to failure Castro has paved for Cuba, and we will broaden and strengthen ties with key states like Brazil, Peru, and Chile,” McCain said.

Likewise, McCain criticized Obama for opposing to a free trade agreement with Colombia with an argument not based on economics, but, rather, Cold War-style security talk:

”Colombia is a beacon of hope in a region where the Castro brothers, [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez, and others are actively seeking to thwart economic progress and democracy,” McCain added.

President George Bush got into the act on May 15 during a speech to the Israeli Knesset (parliament), in which he went way over the top, rhetorically, comparing Obama’s position to that of Nazi appeasers:

”Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is—the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

“What are George Bush and John McCain afraid of?” responded Obama on Monday. “Demanding that a country meets all your conditions … before you meet with them, that’s not a strategy, it’s just naive wishful thinking.”

The new divide and policy debate over US policies in Latin America is like nothing seen in recent decades of US politics. And with the two presidential candidates on opposite sides, and neither backing down, finally, at long last, a US presidential election has turned into a referendum on US relations with the rest of “the country called América.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America