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Alex Main: From Cuba to the war on drugs, only Canada supports US policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

The Summit of the Americas took place last weekend in Colombia, and according to Reuters, United States was more isolated than ever from Latin American countries. Evo Morales of Bolivia said it was a united front of Latin America against the United States. A lot of this was over the question of Cuba and whether Cuba could attend the next Summit of the Americas, but not only about Cuba.

Now joining us to discuss all of this is Alex Main. Alex is a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, and he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thanks for joining us again, Alex.


JAY: So, first of all, let’s start with what did the United States hope to accomplish at the Summit of the Americas, ’cause I don’t think they accomplished what they wanted.

MAIN: Well, you know, I think the U.S. had very limited expectations from this conference, and, also, ones that were very much defined by the campaign, the presidential campaign in the U.S. So I think what President Obama was most interested in was highlighting the Colombia free trade area that has been agreed to, and he announced over the weekend that it’s going to be implemented starting in May. I think he also wanted to show Latino voters in the U.S. that he cares about Latin America, even if Latin American leaders didn’t necessarily reciprocate during the summit. And I think they were quite disappointed that the headlines were stolen by an incident that took place before the summit, with some Secret Service agents, and apparently also some soldiers, U.S. soldiers, where they were apparently involved in some sort of monkey business involving at least one Colombian prostitute. And that’s really all that the U.S. media seemed to care about, at least most of the U.S. television media, and that’s what got the most attention.

JAY: Right. So Reuters, [incompr.] Reuters said this—I don’t think it got picked up by a lot of newspapers, but Reuters reported this as a diplomatic coup for Havana. This was—I don’t think the Americans were quite expecting all of the Latin American countries to be on board on this, did they? I mean, even Honduras stood with the other Latin American countries in demanding or supporting Cuba’s participation.

MAIN: Well, that’s right. And more than that, the Latin American countries were all very outspoken, including the U.S.’s biggest ally, Colombia. Presidents Santos made some very strong statements, saying, you know, this has got to be the last Summit of the Americas without Cuba and that U.S. policy on Cuba was anchored in the Cold War—those were his exact words. This coming from the biggest U.S. ally in the entire region I think really is something that smarts, something that hurts for the U.S. administration.

And there were a number of other areas where they didn’t really agree with other Latin American countries, including on the issue of the Malvinas, also known as the Falkland Islands. Argentina had been asking everyone to get behind a resolution basically condemning the U.K.’s position towards the Falklands, recognizing Argentinian sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. This is an issue that all Latin American countries support Argentina on, and Caribbean countries, but that neither the U.S. nor Canada were ready to back the U.S. on.

JAY: Well, on the issue of Cuba, the hypocrisy double standard is off the map. But, I mean, obviously the United States has no problem trading and doing engagement with China and participating in every international organization with China. Canada’s hypocrisy is even triple that. Canada is maybe Cuba’s biggest trading partner, certainly one of its biggest trading partners, so it’s okay for Canada to engage with Cuba on every level economically. And then Harper says, oh, they’re not a democracy, so they can’t be at the summit. But then it’s okay for Honduras to be there, a government that comes out of a coup.

MAIN: Well, that’s right. Right. I think this is, you know, very emblematic of really how the Harper government has been, in terms of its dealings with the U.S. and sort of constantly supporting the U.S. on every major foreign policy issue, including one that’s as contentious as this one on Cuba.

JAY: So what’s likely to happen now with the Summit of the Americas? I mean, it sounds like the Latin American countries are saying they’re not going to go to another summit if Cuba’s not there, or Cuba will—I mean, I guess they need consensus of all the countries to invite Cuba. So if U.S. and Canada stand pat on this position, what—does that mean there’s not going to be another summit?

MAIN: Well, and you know it’s not just about Cuba, really. It’s the fact that for a lot of Latin American countries, perhaps the majority at this point, a summit like the Summit of the Americas is pretty irrelevant. They’ve just had a very successful summit in Caracas, Venezuela, back in December, where they created a new organization called CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, in which they came to perfect agreement on basically all the issues that were issues of contention in this summit. And I think most Latin American countries now want to focus on this organization, which includes every Latin American and Caribbean country in the region and doesn’t include the U.S. and Canada. So I think going forward there’s going to be less and less interest in this sort of summit involving the U.S., well, simply because they really can’t agree on a whole lot and it doesn’t make sense for most of these countries anymore.

JAY: Now, the other issue that was raised that—Harper on this one apparently was a little equivocal, which was the issue of the war on drugs. And all the Latin American countries, including Colombia, are saying this war on drugs isn’t working and the United States has to do something about its own drug laws. Harper at least said, yeah, there’s something to be talked about here. Where does this—how contentious is this issue?

MAIN: Well, this is a big issue, particularly for Central American countries, although Colombia has also offered a lot of support towards this debate, being a big one and coming out in the open, the debate on whether drugs should in fact be decriminalized in order to deal with this out-of-control security problem throughout the region. And it’s interesting to see that the U.S. has actually shown its openness to the debate, or at least in its rhetoric has said that it’s open to this debate occurring, but remains extremely opposed to decriminalization going forward anywhere in the region.

JAY: Yeah, and fight even the most modest reforms inside the United States of, like, various kinds of decriminalization in California and other places. So the underlying issue here, though, is the change in the shift of the economy of Latin America into having more options. It’s a—the whole Latin American economy is such a bigger economy in terms of the interaction of different Latin American countries, and those countries with China. But how do you explain some of these right-wing governments kind of allying with the left-wing governments on this issue?

MAIN: Well, because I think we’ve reached this situation of a critical mass of Latin American countries that are now shifting the entire policy debate in the region in another direction. They’re shifting it towards no longer focusing on trying to apply neoliberal policies, but rather social agendas—they call them social agendas—addressing the symptoms and the causes of poverty through social programs, with education and health programs and this sort of thing.

There’s been a fundamental shift as well in terms of the way the region reflects upon itself. And the call for unity that has come strongly from Venezuela, and originally really just from Venezuela towards the beginning of the 2000s, has really now taken over across the region. And it’s very interesting to see countries like Brazil and Mexico being major promoters of this new organization, of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, for instance. So I think this has sort of pushed all the governments, whether left or right, in a different direction and one that’s very much opposed to the way the U.S. wants to take things in the region.

JAY: It’s not that most of these governments don’t represent elites who are enthusiastically repressing their own people.

MAIN: No, this is still going on. And one of the unfortunate things that we saw come out of this summit that wasn’t mentioned very much in the press is the fact that the Colombia free trade agreement is going forward, that Obama’s indicated that Colombia has complied with the terms of the labor action plan that had been agreed to, which was to address all of the killings of union leaders that have taken place. Now, the problem with this action plan is that it doesn’t actually set any concrete benchmarks in terms of limiting the killings of union leaders. So, for instance, so far this year four union leaders have been killed, and many more were killed last year. But since Colombia has complied in terms of creating new institutions and creating new safeguards (but they don’t seem to be working), Obama therefore has the excuse to go forward with the free trade area. And this is a big disappointment for, I think, labor people throughout the U.S., and certainly in Colombia. And it was interesting to see that the AFL came out very strongly against Obama’s announcement, as did the labor unions in Colombia.

JAY: Now, I’m sure with this sort of isolation of the United States and Latin America and the symbolic issue of Cuba, Obama’s going to get critiqued from the right as having been too soft on Latin America. And while he continues the economic policies of previous American administrations, is there some truth to the issue that he hasn’t been swinging a stick around Latin America the way, for example, you know, a harder-right Republican administration might? And I’m talking about more active in promoting coups or financing more reliably friendly forces in Latin America.

MAIN: Well, you know, I don’t really think so, unfortunately. I mean, what we’ve really seen over the last three years, over three years now that Obama’s been in power, is a continuation of the policies of his right-wing predecessor, George W. Bush, certainly in the region. He’s continued, certainly, on the free trade agenda side of it, but also in terms of promoting U.S. militarization throughout the region as far as they can possibly go. And nearly three years ago there was an agreement that Obama and the State Department were pushing for with Colombia to allow the U.S. military full access to seven key Colombian military bases. Now, this caused such an outcry in the region that eventually Colombia had to back down.

But the U.S. has continued with this militarization agenda, and this also came up in the summit. Colombia and the U.S. have agreed to a new regional compact where the two countries are going to be promoting, essentially, the experience of Plan Colombia, the plan for a U.S.-backed militarization of the drug war in Colombia, throughout the region, particularly in Central America. This has already being going on. They’re now ramping up this effort to back militaries in Central America that indeed have a great deal of very brutal human rights abuses on their records. This doesn’t seem to matter, and the U.S. is very proud to show itself as a sponsor of Plan Colombia and to export—they call it exporting the Colombia model throughout Central America.

JAY: Well, this kind of financing of military under the rubric of the war on drugs often means getting militaries also not just enmeshed in the American military web, but also preparing for potential coups in the future.

MAIN: Well, absolutely, and this is something that’s come out as well, thanks in part to the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables that have been leaked, where there’s been quite a lot of discussion. There was one cable in particular that got quite a bit of attention, from a U.S. embassy in Chile—it was a recent cable; it was in 2008, I believe—where they discussed how part of the whole challenge of trying to contain what they referred to as the Chávez phenomenon—and that is countries swinging too far to the left for the taste of the U.S.—this containment can take place through promotion of better relations with countries’ militaries. So they spell this out quite clearly that there has to be more U.S. funding going to Latin American militaries, because they can be counted on independently of the governments that are nominally in charge of those countries, they can be counted on to support the U.S. agenda.

JAY: So how then does one explain the role of Santos, president of Colombia, who’s having a fairly friendly rapport with Chávez in Venezuela? They made a kind of deal over Honduras. Santos stands up to the U.S. over Cuba at the Summit of Americas. How do you—it’s a little bit contradictory.

MAIN: Well, he has been extremely—he’s been extremely capable at juggling these contradictory relationships, and quite to the contrary of his predecessor, Uribe, who completely alienated the rest of the region while becoming a great friend of the U.S. Now, Santos has done a much better job at having friendly relations with Venezuela. The relations with Venezuela, I would say, are probably the best that they’ve been in the last ten years at the moment. But at the same time, although he comes out against the U.S. on a few issues, certainly on the issue of Cuba, on the issue as well of decriminalization of drugs, I think fundamentally there are some very strong links that are still there. And the U.S. perhaps even appreciates his juggling routine to some extent, because it allows them to still have some leverage in the rest of Latin America through the influence of Colombia.

JAY: Right, ’cause Uribe was so isolated from most of the other Latin American countries.

MAIN: Yeah, that’s right.

JAY: Right. Thanks very much for joining us, Alex.

MAIN: Alright. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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In his work at CEPR, as Director of International Policy, Alexander Main focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and regularly engages with U.S. policy makers and civil society groups to inform the public debate. He is frequently interviewed by media in the U.S. and Latin American and his analyses on U.S. policy in the Americas have been published in a variety of domestic and international media outlets including Foreign Policy, NACLA and the Monde diplomatique. Prior to CEPR, Alexander spent more than six years in Latin America working as an international relations analyst. He has a degree in history and political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France.