Guest Blog: Senator Obama’s Thirteen Words on Latin America


Sarah Stephens is executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas and sent this blog post in the form of an open letter to The Washington Note
Dear Senator Obama:
I just had the pleasure of reading your foreign policy address before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. It was an eloquent statement about a post-Iraq foreign policy that can make our country safer, and win a new hearing from allies and adversaries in the world about our intentions and aspirations for the future.
While I realize that no speech can tackle every subject, and those that try will invariably fail, I still wondered why your address contained just thirteen words about the entirety of Latin America.
You said:

In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people. When narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America, it’s America’s problem too. . .

And that was it.
To be sure, if one looks past our border — to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America — you will see corruption and an active trade in illegal drugs. But if that is all you see, you miss nearly 600 million people and how estranged we are from their problems due to the irrelevance of U.S. policy to their lives.
For more than a generation, the United States has failed to offer a constructive foreign policy in the Americas. Instead, we have diminished our country’s influence by demonizing leaders we cannot depose, railing against developments we cannot control, and hiding behind the false security of a wall that has deeply aggrieved our neighbors throughout the hemisphere.
There are better, more relevant answers to the problems of this region, and in a speech that is yet to be written, we hope to hear them echoing in your campaign.
For starters, we need to get serious about income inequality in the Americas, a problem which connects to everything from migration to instability and gangs.
We need a fast and thorough education about how our policy debates on issues like trade liberalization affect our image in the region and how votes in favor of constructing a wall reverberate and boomer-rang against us.
We need a new policy toward Cuba, one that reflects the national interest rather than the exaggerated strength of one Florida constituency. Make no mistake: reforming this policy will help reframe the image of the United States across Latin America.
Finally and more broadly, we need to stop dictating to the nations of the Americas and start listening to them as the neighbors they are and the partners they are largely eager to be.
More, of course, can be said and done. But let me close with this thought.
Senator, we share a common border and a range of common interests with the people of the Americas. Their problems affect our security and well-being, and they demand the attention of a foreign policy that has importantly addressed so many of the other challenges our nation is facing.
I hope you will consider these ideas and say more about the region in your next address.
Sarah Stephens
Executive Director
The Center for Democracy in the Americas


11 comments on “Guest Blog: Senator Obama’s Thirteen Words on Latin America

  1. Chris Brown says:

    The proposition that drug use “is instead a warning about a long-prosperous society beginning to weaken through lack of moral purpose…” is ridiculous.
    I think if one were to research the matter one would find that the percentage of the USA population taking drugs today is not materially different than at any point in the country’s history.
    Why is is legal to go through life whacked out on Prozac, Valium and other legal psychotropic and illegal to be so on marijuana, cocaine, heroin and etc.?
    Because one may produce one’s own marijuana, cocaine, and heroin so the pharmaceutical companies and doctors can’t profit from their consumption, as they do from the millions dependent upon pharmaceutical company products.


  2. serial catowner says:

    We had our chance to help South America with problems and blew it. Our sole remaining foothold on the continent is our prescence in Colombia, where former druglords now use US help to become muderous paramilitaries.
    Sad to say, our world prescence today is roughly that of a Hell’s Angel- feared, but not respected, for good reason.
    Which oddly echoes a remark a airline pilot made to me about his days flying fighter planes, during and after the Korean War, in the Orient, as we called it then. He said “We were a motorcycle gang, dressed in leathers, scaring the hell out of people by flying our jets low and fast throught their countries.”
    60 years of this has made us what we are.


  3. David N says:

    Government policies on any subject are irrelevant to everybody’s lives.
    All we get are posturing, sound bites, platitudes, and conventional nonsense, all carefully crafted to avoid sparking the corporate propaganda machine that would immediately stomp on anyone who had an original, relevant, or practical idea.
    Party is irrelevant. Ideology is irrelevant.
    All that counts is power, and the corporations have wrapped that up and hidden it away. We voters get no choices, because like American Idol the options have already been limited by the time they are presented to us.
    People with real ideas and knowledge, such as yourself, Sarah, are carefully tucked away in your institutions, writing reports that are only read by people in other institutions, and by irrelevant people like me.


  4. marky says:

    Drug addiction is not about moral failure: it’s a public health and public policy problem.
    The fact that people find purified cocaine so difficult to resist is no different from the fact that people can’t control their sweet tooth when confronted with the choice to buy huge vats of high fructose corn syrup at the convenience store. Human appetites have difficulty when confronted with substances for which our evolution has not prepared us.
    I agree that the problem starts here at home, but I don’t think the answer begins with labelling it as a moral failure. Nor do I believe that legalizing drugs is the answer, because some of the modern drugs available are so devastating in the effects and capacity to induce addiction.


  5. Zathras says:

    It’s certainly appropriate to raise this subject. However, as Obama has said himself, he is right now something of a blank screen onto which many people are projecting things they wish to see.
    Obama has not thought long or deeply about foreign policy. Very few national Democratic politicans have; it isn’t the way one advances in Democratic politics (let alone Chicago Democratic politics) and hasn’t been for a very long time. What attention Obama has devoted to the subject has been monopolized by the same part of the world that has monopolized everyone else’s attention — Iraq and the surrounding region.
    I imagine anyone who cares has figured out how I feel about the subordination of all other American foreign policy interests to the future of one, mid-sized Arab country by now. We should remember, though that the Bush administration’s tunnel vision about Iraq and the Arab Middle East is perforce shared by many people in politics who before 9/11 had not given a great deal of thought to foreign policy and national security affairs. Not only Latin America but a number of other important subjects flicker only occasionally on the radar screens of most of the people seeking to become President, and of most of the people helping them.
    With respect to Latin America there is one special factor that we would be wise to face directly. This is that large segments of the American population act on a significant moral failing, the desire to use illegal drugs. No major American politician today sees any advantage in describing the drug problem in those terms. Drugs are always the fault of drug dealers, or of immigrants, or of spoilsports who won’t make them all legal — or of the Latin Americans who supply most of the cocaine and other drugs coming into this country.
    This is not primarily a foreign relations problem. It is instead a warning about a long-prosperous society beginning to weaken through lack of moral purpose, but that it incidentally has a major impact on our relations with the nations to our south is undeniable. Of course relations with South American countries will be affected for the worse when Americans blame them for our problems. We shouldn’t expect Sen. Obama to raise this subject any time soon; his leitmotif so far has been uplifting talk of accomplishing great tasks with painless measures, and that is not about to change. In fairness to him, he is not alone.


  6. Chris Brown says:

    My guess is that folks in Latin American and the Caribbean would just as soon have the USA ignore them. After all it wasn’t until the 1990s, when the USA largely quit screwing around in the affairs of Latin American nations that democracy arose in earnest.
    Obama is correct that “narco-trafficking and corruption threaten democracy in Latin America” and it the USA prohibition of illegal drugs that enables the black market within which the narco-traffickers operate. It is the USA drug policy and appetite for drugs that lies at the root of the narco-trafficking” problem.
    Legalize drugs and the narco-traffickers would be out of business almost instantly, as would the corruption inevitably associated with prohibition. I presume that Obama, like most other politicians, understand this fact; but lack the political courage to say so.


  7. marky says:

    Thanks for the post! I didn’t care for Obama’s emphasis on drug trafficking, as if that is a problem that originates in South America, rather than in Europe and the US where the demand is.
    I’d like to see mention of the important task of preserving the tropical rainforests.
    What would really impress me is a candidate who will tie 1st world food habits to the environment.. specifically, how the deforestation in the Amazon is mostly for the creation of new cattle ranches.
    According to this link, more than half of the cleared land is used for cattle.
    (I’m not an expert on this topic, so if there is better information, I wouldn’t be surprised)
    Meat production uses far more resources than other food products.
    Both in the case of drug trafficking and deforestation, meeting demands from the 1st world is ravaging the 2nd and 3rd world.


  8. profmarcus says:

    as a part-time resident of buenos aires, a former resident of mexico, and an individual who feels a deep connection to latin america, i can only echo ms. stephens’ comments…
    latin america possesses one of the greatest untapped potentials of any area of the world… natural resources, people, culture, and, my favorite spanish word, corazón, cannot even begin to sum up the riches that lie to the south of the united states… latin americans love the american people, and i do not exaggerate when i say that… neither do i exaggerate when i say that they loathe and despise the current presidential administration…
    i make it a habit to always talk to taxi drivers because, of anyone, they tend to know what’s REALLY going on… after a few minutes of chat, when a degree of comfort and trust has been established, and the taxista is convinced that i won’t bite his head off, the question always comes – “what do you think of boo-o-osh… i always break out in a hearty laugh…
    but, in all seriousness, treating latin america as we treat undocumented workers in the u.s. is a terrible mistake… it would be nice if that changed…


  9. Dennis says:

    Well said! Well said!
    You don’t have to be a blind conservative not to see it, just an ignorant one to deny it.


  10. Cloned Poster says:

    I can fast see the South American problem akin to the Israeli/Palestinian problem.
    Demographics need town planners and cement walls and genocide.
    Has Brazil tested a nuke yet?


  11. Bonethug Iranian says:

    Dear Sarah: The good ‘Bare-ax’ don’t care about no stinking Mexicans. All those south of the border types are good for is jumping the fence and picking the lettuce. Pick the lettuce and then jump back over the fence on the way back south. If Mexicans and Latinos in general made even the slightest difference to the good ‘Bare-ax’, why, he’d say so. Wouldn’t he? Hmmm, probably not. After all, we are just talking about Mexicans and Latinos. Jump up, jump down, pick a bale of…lettuce! The good ‘Bare-ax’ has bigger fish to fry so to speak. Why, there’s Iran to bomb the bejesus out of and Iraqis to kill. Are there any Iraqis left to kill? Hmmm, maybe not. There’s the State of Israel to suck up to and special interests to take “donations” from and American service boys and girls that have yet to be slaughtered and worse. Nope, the good ‘Bare-ax’ ain’t gots time for no stinking Mexicans or the Surinos that just might have something to contribute. Darn fence jumping Mexicans anyway. Yup, the good ‘Bare-ax’ gots bigger fish to fry indeed. Why, there’s American voters out there that haven’t been horn-swoggled yet. Peace, love, and kissy-kissy!


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *