With just hours left for the Obama administration, independent geopolitical analyst Eric Draitser reviews the president’s legacy of destabilizing, militarizing, and exploiting Latin America.
“Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world”
– William Shakespeare, from “Hamlet”
NEW YORK — (Opinion) It seems we have arrived at the witching hour of Obama’s presidency, when corporate media ghouls continue to breathe out the infectious contagion of liberal lies and half-truths about the Great Dissimulator and his accomplishments.
Whether it’s The New York Times’ opinion pages hailing Dr. Changelove as “The Most Successful Democrat Since F.D.R.,” or the noxious nostalgia for the present injected into the public discourse like so many palliatives into the bloodstream of a terminal patient, the true history of Obama’s presidency is being veiled behind a mask of delusion.
Maybe it’s the Orange-Headed Hydra assuming power in Washington that gives the outgoing administration that air of dignity and grace. Maybe it’s the desire to craft a narrative in which “Hope” and “Change” were something other than hollow campaign slogans deftly employed by a charlatan of the first order. Or maybe it’s just business as usual in the heart of the U.S. Empire. No matter the reason, Barack Obama’s media-induced sainthood is now all but complete in liberal America’s collective psyche.
But the United States is not the only “America.”
Indeed, crossing the southern border and entering into that mysterious place called “Latin America,” one encounters a very different Obama legacy, one that is defined by the same policies that Yankee imperialists have employed for more than a century: destabilization, militarization, and exploitation.
Yes We Can!…continue to pursue a neocolonial agenda in Central and South America.
Obama’s love affair with the right wing
A mural in Lithuania depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Donald Trump embracing in a passionate kiss has gone viral. The meaning of the image is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull, but it is no less perspicacious for its lack of subtlety. And while Russia has indeed tacitly, and rather shamefully, supported far-right candidates and causes for its own coldly pragmatic political reasons — Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, etc. — the truth is that Obama’s administration has also backed right-wing reactionaries and extremists where it has suited its interests.
Throughout Latin America, President Obama has been a driving force behind the resurgence of right-wing forces that have rolled back the gains of socialist and social democratic governments, targeted indigenous and African diaspora communities, assassinated activists, and toppled governments where they could.
So, yes, let’s talk about “legacy.”
In Honduras, Obama’s legacy was cemented from the very beginning of his presidency. In the summer of 2009, Manuel Zelaya, the country’s democratically-elected left-wing president, was removed from power in a midnight coup orchestrated by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her cronies in Washington and in Tegucigalpa. And while Obama’s tepid condemnation of the coup elicited cheers from many liberals in its contrast to the Bush administration’s loving embrace of the coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, the reality is that, as with all things Obama, it was mere words. The support of the president and his henchwoman was the driving force behind the coup.
Clinton is never one to shy away from an opportunity to boast about the amount of blood on her hands. In a passage which removed from later editions of her book “Hard Choices,” she rather brazenly admitted:
“In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.”
Obama’s top diplomat was instrumental in installing a right-wing government backed by the wealthiest business interests in Honduras and powerful players in Washington. As Clinton bagman Lanny Davis openly stated in an interview just weeks after the coup:
“My clients represent the CEAL, the [Honduras Chapter of] Business Council of Latin America. … I do not represent the government and do not talk to [interim] President [Roberto] Micheletti. My main contacts are [billionaires] Camilo Atala and Jorge Canahuati. I’m proud to represent businessmen who are committed to the rule of law.”
Indeed, Davis quite candidly exposed himself as an agent of powerful oligarch financiers and landowners who, until the election of Zelaya, had always maintained firm control of the reins of government in Honduras. These are precisely the people, backed by the Obama administration, wielding power in Honduras today through a violent right-wing government that assassinates indigenous leaders and human rights defenders such as Berta Cáceres, Margarita Murillo, and many others for the sake of investors who seek to develop indigenous, Afro-Caribbean, and peasant lands for massive profits.
Beyond the killings of activists and the political backing of a right-wing coup government, Obama’s legacy in Honduras is also one of militarization. In 2014, The North American Congress on Latin America reported:
“The steady increase of U.S. assistance to [Honduran] national armed forces has, if anything, been an indicator of tacit U.S. support. But the U.S. role in militarization of national police forces has been direct as well. In 2011 and 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST)—which had previously carried out military-style missions in Afghanistan—set up camp in Honduras to train a local counternarcotics police unit and help plan and execute drug interdiction operations …
Supported by U.S. helicopters mounted with high caliber machine guns, these operations were nearly indistinguishable from military missions, and locals routinely referred to the DEA and Honduran police agents as “soldados” (soldiers).”
The NACLA report further noted that the Obama administration deployed at least five “commando style squads” of FAST teams across Central America. It added that, in Honduras, U.S. and Colombian special forces units have been training, equipping, and deploying with a new “elite” police unit called the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group, or TIGRES (Spanish for “tigers”), which human rights groups argue is military in nature.
Ultimately, the man who rode the crest of a wave of “Hope” and “Change” not only brought more of the same to Honduras, and Latin America generally, he actually accelerated the re-conquest of the region by the forces of the military-industrial complex and finance capital.
Obama’s rightward push in South America
Another example of this confluence between Obama’s right-wing fetish and Wall Street’s boot on the neck of Latin America came last year in Brazil, when Dilma Rousseff’s democratically-elected government was removed from office in what can only be described as a parliamentary coup.
In mid-April of 2016, Reuters published a story exposing Michel Temer, the right-wing vice president at the time and the current president, as preparing the shortlist of his presumptive cabinet months before the Rousseff government had been toppled.
Temer tapped Paulo Leme to serve as either finance minister or head of the Central Bank. Leme is the chairman of Goldman Sachs’s operations in Brazil, making him perhaps the preeminent representative of Wall Street in the country. While his appointment may have been perceived as too brazen, the trend of Wall Street representatives steering the ship of Brazil’s economic and political life is impossible to ignore.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Obama administration, too, has been dominated from the beginning by the same types of financiers — often from the very same companies such as Goldman Sachs — that control the coup government in Brazil. The not-so-invisible hand of finance capital is now tightly coiled around the neck of Brazil. Another feather in Obama’s legacy cap.
Of course, there’s Obama’s graceful tango with the new right-wing government in Argentina led by Wall Street darling Mauricio Macri. While Obama was wining and dining the neoliberal reactionary, Macri was busy loading his new government with Wall Street insiders and representatives of Big Oil and other major industries.
This was the real Obama, the one who will not be paraded before Americans as the revered dear leader already missed before he’s left the stage. Rather, this was the man who, without conscience or compunction, ushered in a wave of right-wing reaction throughout the Western hemisphere.
And he did it with a smile.
Obama’s quiet militarization of Latin America
One of Obama’s great accomplishments in the service of the military-industrial complex was his below-the-radar militarization of the region. The pervasive myth of Obama as distinctly different from George W. Bush lives on in the diseased minds of liberal sycophants, but the facts tell a different story.
Obama represented continuity with, and an expansion of, the worst policies of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton when it came to Latin America. Plan Colombia, the broad heading for the billions of dollars spent on U.S. military engagement and cooperation in Colombia begun by Clinton and expanded by Bush, was further expanded under Obama.
Just totaling the military, police, and economic aid to Colombia for 2010 to 2015, the United States has given nearly $3 billion to Colombia in the form of “aid” to fight the so-called “War on Drugs,” widely seen as merely a cover for U.S. military power projection in South America. Add to that the fact that during Obama’s tenure, and under former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command William McRaven, special forces troop deployments ballooned to more than 65,000, with many spread throughout Latin America.
In an eerily similar fashion, Obama expanded funding and scope for the Mérida Initiative, a project launched by Bush in 2008 which essentially makes Mexico’s military and law enforcement into a de facto arm of the U.S. military and government. As with Plan Colombia (and AFRICOM), even though Obama did not launch this initiative, he expanded it significantly, providing more than $2.5 billion since 2008.
But if liberals want to soothe their broken hearts with the fact that Obama did not actually launch these programs, they might want to consider the Central American Regional Security Initiative, created by Obama in 2011.
According to a March 2014 report from the Igarapé Institute, an independent security and development think tank based in Brazil, CARSI and Mérida alone received nearly $3 billion (2008-2013). It is an open secret that the massive funding has been channeled primarily into military and paramilitary programs. Though the United States touts these programs as success stories, their expansion has coincided with increased militarization in every country where U.S. funds have been provided.
In El Salvador, the government led by President Mauricio Funes consolidated military control of law enforcement in the interests of its U.S. backers. These changes took place simultaneous to the implementation of CARSI, and should be seen as an outgrowth of U.S. militarization. In Guatemala, the government of Otto Pérez Molina, a former military leader with a record of atrocities and genocide, further militarized the country before being imprisoned for corruption in September of 2015.
Similarly, Honduras has been transformed into the U.S. military’s primary foothold in Central America. U.S. Coordinator of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) Lucy Pagoada explained in a 2015 interview that “[Honduras] has turned into a large military base trained and funded by the U.S. They even have School of the Americas forces there.”
“There have been high levels of violence and torture since the  coup,” Pagoada continued.
Good cop, bad cop: Obama’s policies on Cuba and Venezuela
Of course, no discussion of Obama’s actions in Latin America would be complete without an examination of Washington’s attempts to reassert its influence in the region with the simultaneous thaw in relations with Cuba and the destabilization of Venezuela.
Obama signed an executive order on Jan. 13 declaring both Venezuela and Cuba “national security threats” despite no evidence of any such threat. Isn’t it interesting that the president being lauded as the man who sought to normalize relations with America’s long-standing foe in Cuba still manages to not only classify the country as a threat, but to expand that same status to another geopolitical and strategic enemy in the region?
The Obama administration has attempted to undermine and destabilize Venezuela using as pretexts everything from a border dispute with neighboring Guyana to artificially created scarcity of staple goods and speculation against the currency by elites who control commodity distribution networks in the country, and whose backers reside in Madrid, Miami, and Washington. Julio Escalona, an economist and former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations, told me in Caracas in 2015: “Our currency is not being devalued by speculation, but by hyper-speculation.”
And, in signature Obama style, Washington has backed the right wing, including many far right fanatics, in an attempt to wrest political control of the country away from the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) led by President Nicolás Maduro (and in spirit by Hugo Chávez).
Perhaps the best example is the targeted assassination of numerous prominent members of the PSUV, including the 2014 killing of Robert Serra, an up-and-coming Chavista legislator seen by many on the Venezuelan left as the “next Chávez.” Serra was assassinated by individuals connected to Álvaro Uribe, the former president of Colombia and long-standing U.S. proxy.
Similarly, the well-respected journalist and prominent Chavista Ricardo Duran was murdered outside his home in Caracas in January of 2016. Likewise, Fritz St. Louis, international coordinator of the United Socialist Haitian Movement and secretary general of the Haitian Cultural House Bolivariana de Venezuela, was assassinated in March of 2016. In all these killings, the hidden hand of the right wing and its backers in the United States has been an open secret.
And where is the outcry from the liberals who continue to laud Obama? Perhaps now that a Republican is in office they might soon dust off their political consciences to raise their voices against continued U.S. neocolonialism and imperialism in Latin America? Apparently, their interest in human rights and peace is dependent on the color of the tie worn by the man or woman in the Oval Office.
Obama’s legacy in Latin America is, like that of all other U.S. presidents of the last century, one of profit and exploitation, death and destruction. This is surely no secret in Latin America, where millions have raised, and will continue to raise, their voices in opposition to the Yankee Empire.
Unfortunately, the myth of the Nobel Peace Prize winner has become stronger than the reality of lived experience.
In this witching hour, the twilight of Obama’s presidency, let us not be entranced by spells cast by the coven of corporate media warlocks. Let us instead remember Obama’s legacy in Latin America not as “Hope” and “Change,” but as “More of the Same.”