The U.S. Presidential Election of 2008 And the Implications For The Development Of A Foreign Policy Towards Latin America


Presented To The Instituto de Altos Estudios Diplomáticos “Pedro Gual”

Ministerio Del Poder Popular Para

Relaciones Exteriores y Politica Exterior

Del Gobierno Bolivariano de Venezuela

October 2008


Dr. Jess G. Nieto


The November 2008 United States presidential elections present either a possibility that this country will engage in a continuation of failed foreign policies toward Latin America, or a bold new beginning of the establishment of new relationships between the United States and the rest of Latin America, and in particular Venezuela.  The purpose of this paper has two major objectives:

(I)                 To very briefly examine past foreign policies of the United States in Latin America and Venezuela;

(II)              To examine the positions on foreign policy towards Latin America in general, and in particular, Venezuela,  by the two United States presidential candidates,  Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama.  Within this framework, this section will discuss current domestic and foreign policy conditions and considerations which will also impact the nature of the decisions available to Senators McCain and Obama as the presidential race comes to the nation’s voters in November 2008.

I. America’s Past Foreign Policies in Latin America:  In order to understand the political conditions today in Latin America, and more specifically why a number of countries in Latin America have veered from the center (or the right) to the left in a rejection of “democracy,” American-style, and have formulated socialistic policies of national development that cast aside the idea of being a subservient resource colony for the United States, it is necessary to understand our role in the history, politics, and economics of that region.

The initial fear and suspicions of Great Britain caused the United States through the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 to declare that Latin America was to be free of European interventions and entanglements.  However, at the same time the U.S. hypocritically proclaimed that it had the right to protect itself and its’ interests in her “backyard.”   Examples of America’s declared Manifest Destiny policy motivated President James Polk to persuade Congress to approve the invasion of Mexico in 1846.  This resulted in Mexico losing half of her national territory and over 70% of her natural resources as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  The demand by the Yankees to spread their brand of domination and influence also led to the Spanish America War with Spain, and of the suppression of a nationalist movement in the Philippines to obtain independence.   In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States demonstrated to the world that it, too, like other European nations, would engage in imperialistic ventures to acquire territories through force, military invasions, covert operations,  and other aggressive means. 

The moderate urgings of many Americans who decried the imperialistic ventures of the U.S. were drowned out by other sectors of American society that promoted the spread of American ideals linked to the need for America to acquire and control new resources, markets, and opportunities for American corporations while at the same time calling for the overthrow of Latin American governments to impose “real republican democratic” institutions and practices, American-style, of course.  These ‘regime changes” were for protecting American economic and corporate interests and became the goal of U.S. Presidents.  The key objectives were to have new resources for American corporations and businesses, new markets acquisition, and the necessary overthrow of governments deemed “inferior” or not “true republican democracies.”  

The Roosevelt Corollary stated in part, “Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosing of its ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the U.S., however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international peace power.” (Nieto: 2008)

U.S. administrations at the beginning of the twentieth century did not have any feelings of regret in instituting these types of action and intervention in Latin America.  These types of action were also influenced by feeling of racism.  In countries where the people were of a “colored” or mixed bloods (miscegenation), these leaders of the U.S. believed that these inferior peoples were in need of guidance from the more enlightened Whites of America.  Therefore the Whites had a moral obligation to control these inferior peoples with the result that systemic repressions and exploitations occurred. (Kinzer: 2006)

The United States has had decades of political meddling, toppling governments, instituting economic systems for the sole benefit of American corporations (neo-colonialism efforts), and enraging generations of Latin Americans to despise and hate the U.S. government and our policies.  President Woodrow Wilson wrote in1919:

“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down.  Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process.  Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.” (Chomsky: 1999.)

Under “neo-colonialism” policies,  powerful nations behave like colonial powers, and this behavior is likened to colonialism in a post-colonial world.  Efforts to confront these policies of hegemony and dominance by the United States is what President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has done although this is emphatically opposed by  politicians and economic interests alike in the U.S.  The U.S. media has created a very negative view of Chavez with the consequence that in general Americans perceive him to be an “autocrat,” a “dictator,” and a “crazy man.”

Past administrations including that of George W. Bush have deluded themselves into thinking into believing that the U.S. has had the right to intervene in Latin America, and that their citizens would rush to embrace American forms of government, values, and economic systems.  The reality is just the opposite where the majority of countries which have been intervened or invaded reject the American presence and influence, and in many instances, initiate movements of resistance and opposition.  The United States in turn provides funding and training to these countries for their police or military for “internal security,” which in many cases have tragically created some of the most hideous examples of human rights abuses with these “death squads.”  These efforts in turn create greater movements of rebellion, violence, and opposition.  The United States supported the policies of dictatorships and death squads in the 1970s and 1980s by providing training and funds for these repressive armies and police forces.  From the nineteenth century to the present, there have been over 70 military interventions or excursions, and covert or indirect operations, according to Rosenfelder. (Rosenfelder: 1996)

II. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama and Their Respective Views of Latin America and Venezuela: There are a number of factors and circumstances that may influence both presidential candidates as they head into the general election in November 2008. 

IIA. Current U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: The majority of Americans and the world community agree that the current foreign policy of the U.S. towards the Middle East, and in particular Iraq, has been a colossal disaster and enormous failure.  The question posed to the two presumptive candidates for the presidency is when and how will the U.S. depart from Iraq.  Senator McCain does not want a time table for American troops to leave Iraq and has stated that the U.S. will not leave until “victory” has been achieved.  There has not been a clear definition of what a “victory” constitutes.  On July 14, 2008 in a Opinion Editorial to the New York Times, Senator Obama  announced that he is looking at about a sixteen month time table to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq, and to redeploy troops to Afghanistan to combat Al Qaeda and terrorism worldwide. He stated “more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is outstretched.”  (Obama: July 14, 2008)

In addition there has been a significant amount of saber rattling by Israel with threats to attack Iran if Iran does not cease its nuclear work, ostensibly to develop a nuclear bomb.  This situation presents a rather formidable challenge to the U.S. to keep the Middle East from exploding into a cauldron of further violence and entangled alliances picking one side or the other.  So the economic situation in the Middle East dictates that the U.S. will have to commit a sizable chunk of its national budget to keep funding the military in the Middle East. 

IIB. The U.S. Economy: The domestic economic situation in the U.S. has been deteriorating rapidly.  There is an oil crisis and prices for gasoline have skyrocketed in the U.S., and this has had a rippling effect to other areas of the economy.  The housing industry has also suffered a severe recession, and the mortgage industry is now in a national crisis and thousands of homeowners are losing their homes.  Economic analysts declare that the U.S. has entered a recession soon to worsen.  Political commentators and national polls indicate that despite the severity of the political and economic challenges the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) poses, that the number one concern and factor for people to vote in the 2008 presidential election is the state of the economy.  In light of these other international and domestic considerations, where do the two candidates stand with respect to the U.S. position on foreign policy towards Latin America and in particular Venezuela?

IIC. How Will the New U.S. President Approach a Latin American Foreign Policy? The number one consideration by the two candidates is how will they respond to the political and philosophical question of how to approach their foreign policy development towards Latin America.  Will the eventual U.S. president wish to confront the trend towards the development of socialist leaning governments of the Latin American countries, or will he try and push for a continuation of the neoliberal free market policies?  Or could a new president adopt a different posture:  accepting the new Latin American governments as true equals in the world stage without any demand that they conform to American “style” democracy and neoliberal economic policies?  An example of the attitude that  President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has towards neoliberalism versus socialism, he states "It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism," Borrowing one of Chavez's favorite slogans, Correa says he also supports  "socialism for the twenty-first century."   Due to the undeniable failure of neoliberalism and the United States policies of market liberalization which did not provide social and economic benefits to the majority of the populations of many Latin American countries, a new approach has been tried in a number of countries.  This approach has provided growth and development through participatory democracy and by giving power to people that previously never had any.  Venezuela through a series of 12 elections has attempted to empower people through a mixed economic system that promotes socially responsible private investment.  At the same time the national government through Fonden has used oil revenues to correct the social and economic inequalities through massive government programs in education, health programs, food and nutritional centers, and other direct social benefits to the masses of the people. (Alvarez and Hansen: 2008)

Due to the oil crisis in the U.S., the next president will have to determine how U.S. relations in particular will function with the big three oil producers of Latin America: Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.  Venezuela produces 2.8 million barrels per day and it has the largest proven reserves in the world, and provides nearly 30% of American imports (4th largest exporter of oil to the U.S.- Hansen: May 13, 2008.) to this country.   Bolivia holds the second largest natural gas reserves in South America behind Venezuela.  Ecuador has roughly 4.5 billion in oil reserves and it exported 376,000 barrels of oil a day in 2006 half of it to the U.S. (Hansen. April 21, 2008)

IID. Democracy and Neoliberal Economic Policies for Latin America:  In the late 1980s, the 1990s, and at the beginning of the 21st century, William Robinson makes a case for the U.S. stepping up its political intervention in Latin America under the policy of “promoting democracy.”  The shift from supporting dictatorships to promoting “democracy” represented a kind of shift from the dictatorship support model to one that was aligned with the rise of the neoliberal economic project of the U.S. The U.S., says, Robinson, is committed to construct a new paradigm of “free markets and democracy” as part of the process of economic globalization.  Thus, a key goal of this policy is to create the best conditions around the world for the unmolested operation of the new global production and financial systems.  This global restructuring, or as this neoliberal process is called, it is commonly referred to as the “Washington consensus.”  It has a political component and a military component. The goal of these components is to develop new political institutions and forms of transnational social control which are intended to achieve a more stable and predictable world environment for transnational corporate interests.  The U.S carefully chooses a small group of elites to promote the new “polyarchy.” This small group of elites actually rules, and mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections that have been carefully managed by the elites.  (Robinson: 2006.)

IIE. Positions by Senator John McCain: McCain appears to be very adamant about “the war of terrorism” and combating it wherever it may be necessary in his opinion. Within this framework he appears to be supportive of “internal security” issues as they relate to Latin America.  This probably could lead to an even larger commitment to a greater military presence in Latin America.  And immigration will be a topic which he will address even though his original proposal to Congress has greatly changed due to his desire to appeal to hardliners who oppose any type of immigration that involves a road to legalization.  He may stick to border enforcement issues especially as he can link these concerns to national security issues for the presidential race.  He has also been supportive of trade agreements with Latin America.  McCain stated in 2008: “With globalization, our hemisphere has grown closer, more integrated, and more interdependent.  Latin America today is increasingly vital to the fortunes of the United States. Americans north and south share a common geography and a common destiny.  The countries of Latin America are the natural partners of the United States, and our northern neighbor Canada.” (McCain Speech to the World Affairs Council, Los Angeles, California, March 26, 2008.)

Regarding Cuba, McCain believes that the US should not have diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. He takes a rigid, hard stance against dropping the embargo or normalizing relations with Cuba. (Project Vote Smart, 1998, July 2, 1998)

McCain (and Obama) co-sponsored a U.S. Senate Resolution urging Venezuela to re-open dissident radio & TV stations. (Radio Caracas Resolution (S.RES.211) 2007-SR211 on May 21, 2007)

McCain stated “ I’d institute a policy that I call “rogue state rollback.” I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.”  This statement could have repercussions on future decisions on Latin America as to what constitutes a “rogue state.”  (GOP Debate on the Larry King Show Feb. 15, 2000.)

Douglas C. Foyle, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, calls the Los Angeles speech a reaffirmation of McCain’s core neoconservative beliefs. “He’s talking about idealism with realistic tendencies but he’s still talking about God and destiny for the United States, which is very neoconservative,” says Foyle.  Other experts say McCain’s world view overlaps the agendas of a wide range of Republicans as well as some Democrats. CFR Director of Studies Gary Samore describes McCain as an “interesting mix of neoconservative, for lack of a better term, and traditional, middle-of-the road internationalist.” He adds that there has been a tradition in both parties of projecting U.S. values globally. “There has been an element in American foreign policy, which has been expressed in both liberal Democratic administrations and conservative Republican administrations, for making the world in our image. That’s American. It’s just that the latest manifestation has been by a conservative Republican administration.”  This political idealism has to led to the United States conspiring or directly intervening militarily for many regime changes in Latin America as this paper has already described.  It presents a continued danger to Latin America.

According to Ted Galen Carpenter “The evidence suggets that a McCain administration would be even more reckless and aggressive than the current one.” Carpenter continues “The foreign policy that John McCain now advocates is reckless and promiscuously interventionist… The last thing thast America needs is an even more aggressive and incompetent steward of foreign policy than George W. Bush.” (Ted Galen Carpenter: July 24, 2008) 

IIF. Positions by Senator Barack Obama: In May 23, 2008 Senator Obama spoke regarding Latin America in Miami to the Cuban American National Endowment.    Obama offered his “direct diplomacy approach” versus John McCain’s status quo policies towards Cuba and the region.  But Obama stated that he was committed to maintaining the economic embargo of Cuba which he questioned when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. However, Obama has called for "unrestricted rights" on Cuban-American travel and money sent by family members to the island. He also expressed a willingness to meet with Fidel Castro. He said, "You know, strong countries and strong presidents speak with their adversaries. I always think back to JFK's saying that we should never negotiate out of fear, but we shouldn't fear to negotiate."  He stated that he is for loosening restrictions now and for normalization later. (On These Issues: July 24, 2008)   

Obama referred to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy that supported four freedoms: political freedom, religious freedom, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Quoting FDR Obama stated, “ if we are honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge  that at all times we’ve failed to engage the people of the region with the respect owed to a partner…” 

Obama additionally quoted FDR:
“We cannot ignore suffering to our south, nor stand for the globalization of the empty stomach…Responsibility rests with the governments in the region, but we must do our part.”  Obama continued  “I will substantially increase our aid to the Americas, and embrace the Millennium Development Goals of halving global poverty by 2015…We cannot accept trade that enriches those at the top of the ladder while cutting out the rungs at the bottom.  It’s time to understand that the goal of our trade policy must be trade that works for all people in all countries.” Yet while there has been great economic progress, there is still back-breaking inequality.  Despite a growing middle class, 100 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and 40 per cent of Latin America live in poverty.  This feeds everything from drugs to migration to support for leaders that appeal to the poor without delivering their promises…That is why the United States must stand for growth in the Americas from the bottom up.”  The Obama proposals imply a continuation of private sector economic development and proposals of micro-loans, education and job training and small business development. (Hayden: 2008)

Obama also made a statement that strongly suggests his commitment to supporting the U.S. counterinsurgency was in Columbia, secretive wars across the continent, and a veiled threat against Venezuela (Hayden: 2008):
“We will fully support Columbia’s fight against the FARC.  We will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments.  This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation and – if need be – strong sanctions.  It must not stand.”

Regarding trade with Latin America Obama voted against implementing CAFTA for Central America free-trade in July 2005. He also stated that he would stand against CAFT for labor and environmental standards.  He stated during the primary Democratic debates that NAFTA must be amended for him to support it.  (On These Issues: July 24, 2008)
With respect to the U.S. involvement with Venezuela, the administration of George W. Bush has had sponsored a number of agencies that carry out with a budget amounting to over $10 billion since 2005 a  series of activities which have masqueraded as “civic education,” “support for the electoral process,” and “strengthening the democratic process.”  But in reality, these programs support the opposition against President Hugo Chavez. (Philip Agee: 2005, Robinson: 2006, Golinger: 2005.)  It is not known whether Obama would continue to support the activities of these organizations in Venezuela if he is elected.  Few Americans know that efforts have been carried out by this current Administration to destabilize the Chavez government, to eliminate Chavez (this ploy failed with U.S. complicity in 2002) and to engage in a series of activities aimed at  a “regime change” to reverse the socialist changes instituted in Venezuela.  It is a safe guess that McCain would continue funding these activities, and it at this point it is not predictable what Obama would do.  It may be that he is purposely sounding more centrist or even conservative on some Latin American issues to avoid alienating voters in November 2008.  With his campaign promise to listen and meet with America’s “adversaries,”  perhaps there are some positive implications to this approach.

Summary: It is not known what a McCain or Obama administration will precisely do in the development of a foreign policy toward Latin America and in particular, Venezuela.  But a  number of assumptions can be made based on a number of factors which have been discussed.  The probability exists that both a McCain or Obama administration will continue to focus on the war on drugs, support free trade, and some type of immigration reform.  There probably will be support by both of them in strengthening the “promotion of democracy” efforts, as discussed earlier in this paper.  McCain  would continue the embargo of Cuba and oppose normalization efforts. Based on his comments of “rogue states,” McCain could continue and increase efforts aimed at the destabilization of the Chavez government in Venezuela, and push for an immigration bill that promotes “border security”.   Based on his background McCain could push for greater support for a build-up of military bases in Latin America and use the Plan Colombia as a pretext for expanding the military build-up in Latin America.  (Saavedra: 2003) There are political observers that declare that McCain would be more “reckless and aggressive” than Bush (Robinson: 2008).  The Bush Administration established the policy of the “pre-emptive attack” in the invasion of Iraq under fabricated lies and false pretenses, and this precedent as a policy towards Latin America  has a great deal of danger.  McCain could go down this road.  

Obama has declared that he wants “change” not only in the way politics is conducted in Washington but also aboard.  He has stated that the U.S. is open to dialogue and diplomacy with America’s adversaries. He has stated that “while there has been great economic progress, there is still back-breaking inequality.  Despite a growing middle class, 100 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and 40 per cent of Latin America live in poverty.”  and that the “United States must stand for growth in the Americas from the bottom up.”  (Obama: 2008)  It does not seem that Obama  understands this is what Venezuela has precisely done to create economic opportunity and justice to the majority of its citizens.     He may be open to “loosen restrictions” on Cuba and after the election push for normalization and end the embargo.  He has indicated he wants a strong and positive immigration bill that results in a path to legalization for the 13 million undocumented immigrants, and he supports the Dream Act which would give legal residency and eventual citizenship to undocumented persons who graduate from college or serve in the armed forces. But he probably will continue to push for support of the Colombia Plan, and he does not understand the complex motives behind the operation of the FARC in Colombia and has made veiled threats to Venezuela regarding perceived support of the FARC.

It is hoped that a McCain or Obama administration would also consider poverty, education, healthcare, inequality, access to new technologies, and energy independence as key issues within their Latin American foreign policy. But both candidates must realize that Venezuela will continue to use it oil resources to promote solidarity and complementary relationship among other Latin American countries. (Angelo Rivero Santos: July 18, 2008)  And the United States must realize that the Bolivarian Revolution calls for greater political and economic autonomy from the U.S. and a bilateral relationship based on mutual respect among foreign nations.  (Santos: July 15, 2008)  It must also be stated that the report  “2007 Model Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings Simulation: Topic 4: U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Oil Rich Venezuela” by the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics Affairs asked some very provocative questions, among them the following:  “Should the United States invade Venezuela with the intentions of overthrowing Chavez?”  There exits a danger that McCain could assess the Venezuelan situation as a “rogue state.”  It does not seem plausible that Obama would respond to this situation in such a reckless manner.

There are many observers that believe that both McCain and Obama are basically similar in their approach to Latin America.  They support the current policy against “terrorism,” and they have voted in Congress in favor of the Bush/Cheney budget for “national defense issues” and the U.S. wars.  They state that they support strong “democratic” regimes in Latin America and that the governments of Cuba and Venezuela are not democracies but dictatorships, and that they must be changed. (Cockcroft: May 24, 2008)

Both McCain and Obama support similar ideas of building partnerships among democratic nations.  (Bhasin: July 24, 2008)  McCain calls his proposed idea ‘The League of Democracies,” while Obama refers to it as “The Concert of Democracies.” Both would function outside the U.N. and they would both be used to strengthen institutions and invigorate alliances and partnerships for meeting global threats.  “The global implications of this analysis are obvious: No matter who becomes the next President, the U.S. will continue its policies of political, economic, and strategic intervention in countries that appear threatening, while courting greater support from its allies.  With either a Democrat or a Republican at the helm of affairs, the U.S. may be expected to continue a policy of ‘aggressive internationalism.’ (Bhasin: July 24, 2008)

III. People to People Initiative Proposal: In the final analysis, regarding a U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America, it is not known whether current policies will continue or whether what specific new ones will be implemented.  But it is the opinion of this writer that a “people to people” initiative be considered between the people of Venezuela and the Latinos of the United States.  The Cuban experience offers a model for this “people to people” concept.  Despite decades of the unsuccessful U.S. efforts to assassinate Cuban leaders, the imposition of the economic embargo, the attempt to isolate Cuba internationally, and other acts of terrorism by the U.S. against Cuba, the majority of Americans view the embargo as outdated, ineffective, and favor normalization efforts.  The Cubans have engaged in decades of academic and cultural exchanges with Americans.  There have been visits of thousands of Americans to Cuba who have seen through the political propaganda of our government’s policies.  I believe we can learn from the Cuban experience.   It is this writer’s opinion that a “people to people” initiative between U.S. Latinos and Venezolanos can work to establish a deeper mutual understanding of our respective citizens, and that we can work on a collaboration of programs to improve our respective communities, especially in the areas of education, cultural exchanges, and technological and technical training.  The delegation of American Latinos which I was a member of and that visited Venezuela in April-May 2008 was a first effort to build relationships and hopefully collaborative programs.  A more detailed description and analysis of this “People to People Initiative” program by Heritage of America Educational & Cultural Foundation has been prepared for consideration for the appropriate Venezuelan entities.

Dr. Jess G. Nieto

Executive Director

Heritage of America Educational & Cultural Foundation

Chicano & Latino Scholastic & Leadership Academy

Professor- Department of Chicano & Latino Studies of

California State University Long Beach

1004 H Street Suite F

Bakersfield, California, USA 93304

Tel: 661- 325-5098

Video Phone: 661-578-6019 or 661-578-6101

FAX 661- 322- 3212


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