It is to be expected that the U.S. Ambassador Phyllis Powers would offer a message of support to outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But it’s also to be expected that those disappointed by U.S. policies toward Latin America during the Obama/Clinton period are rather more critical of her record in the region.
Just looking at policies toward Nicaragua alone, we have seen little visible engagement with the Ortega government, and most of the substantive contact appears to have been negative. The ambassador calls Hillary Clinton a “friend of Nicaragua,” but she has to reach back more than 14 years to provide any evidence. If we look at more recent interventions by the State Department, it is much harder to justify that claim.
For example, Nicaragua was penalized for its supposed lack of transparency with foreign aid, especially aid received from Venezuela. Yet respected independent economist Nestor Avendaño points out that not only has Venezuelan aid been declared, but the Ortega government has been far more open in its budget-making than its predecessors—a fact recognized on more than one occasion by the IMF.
It’s true that the U.S. property waiver—the more important of the two U.S. waivers—was eventually granted after much hand-wringing, but we must ask why that waiver should still be necessary at all. The U.S. organization Witness for Peace has documented the effects of Nicaragua attempting to resolve these land disputes, which in many cases result from agrarian reform and involve people who were originally Nicaraguan. Surely the fairer distribution of land should be a process welcomed by a Democratic administration?
Looking more widely at Latin America, the Obama/Clinton period must be judged as a failure. Rather than the new approach that President Barack Obama promised during his first visit to the region, it has been more of the same. Two issues stand out as moments when Hillary Clinton could have taken a far more progressive stance, yet chose not to. First, Cuba continues to get treated as a terror state when even its critics would have to accept that regimes such as that in Bahrain (where peaceful demonstrations get violently crushed) or Uzbekistan (where government opponents have been boiled in oil) are far more deserving of that title. Yet both those states have received public support from the State Department while Cuba suffers the U.S.’ interminable trade embargo.
But the State Department trumped even that policy failure when it refused to strongly condemn the military coup in Honduras in 2009. This was Clinton’s moment to show that U.S. policy, which for a long time was associated with support for military dictators in the region, had at last changed. Yet her equivocation and reluctance to join the continent-wide condemnation of the coup was inevitably seen in Latin America as an endorsement. She went on to accept the results of the subsequent elections, which were widely boycotted by the many Hondurans who rejected the coup. Yet no election in Nicaragua, even those held on a local level, passes without the close critical scrutiny of the U.S. government.
Finally, Ms. Powers says that Hillary Clinton, “has been a constant advocate for freedom of the press and freedom of expression.” While the State Department has been quick to criticize Venezuela and Ecuador (for example) for alleged violations of press freedoms, its approach to the same issues in Honduras can only be described as weak. Honduras has for the last two years held the dubious privilege of being the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, but continues to get U.S. aid.
Shouldn’t a neutral observer conclude that, by objective standards, current U.S. policy in Latin America hardly differs from that pursued during the presidency of George W. Bush, and that Hillary Clinton must take much of the blame for that?