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Rice's Confirmation Bad News for Latin America

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Email: coha@coha.org Website: www.coha.org
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 05.07

Word Count: 3500

Tuesday, 25 January 2005

Jessica Leight on the Condoleezza Rice Confirmation

Rice's Imminent Confirmation Bad News for Latin America

* Rice's outdated Cold War credo suggests her term at the helm of the State Department will witness no new diplomacy, let alone innovative ideas

* Bush's championing of democracy and freedom in his inaugural address will no doubt remain nothing more than rhetoric, and dangerous rhetoric at that.

* More bad news for Latin America: while Rice’s words on the region are few, they are retrogressive and full of clichés, displaying a total absence of any new vision for the region.

Rice’s Latin America

Ever since President Bush made his much-anticipated announcement that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice would succeed Colin Powell as the Secretary of State in the President's second term, Dr. Rice's confirmation by the Senate has never been in doubt, given the newly enhanced Republican majority in that body. Not surprisingly, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to approve her nomination on January 19 with only two of its members dissenting, John Kerry (D-MA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The only other hint of protest came when venerable parliamentarian and senior Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) insisted on a week's delay in the full Senate vote.

However, any display of bipartisanship visible at the hearing should not be taken as evidence that the new Secretary of State intends to be moderate, intent on broadening the conservative and ideologically-driven Latin American policy agenda implemented by the Bush administration in its first term. This approach previously had been vigorously defended by Rice in her capacity as National Security Adviser over the past four years. In her new post, Rice will likely gloss over key issues such as trade reform, workplace democracy, enhanced human rights protections, anti-corruption measures or increased transparency in governance. Instead, Rice will narrowly focus on drugs, terrorism and the pursuit of oil (especially in Mexico, Canada and Venezuela) and other essential strategic resources by China’s increasingly consumption-driven economy. This hemispheric strategy, up to this point, had been devised and implemented by a small group of conservative policymakers and former protégés of retired Senator Jesse Helms. These include the former White House special envoy to the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, the current Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega, and the latter’s assistant, Dan Fisk. These ultra-operatives have been abetted from the sidelines by the Department's arch ideologue, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security John Bolton.

Setbacks on Many Fronts

Among the most damaging of these initiatives, all of which Rice defended and pledged to support in her Senate confirmation hearings, have been the continued pursuit of the administration's puerile and irrational grudge against President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Also, there is sure to be continued and steadfast support for President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, irrespective of his potentially dangerous consolidation of power and hands-off relationship with murderous right-wing guerrilla groups while he engages in a massive military mobilization against their leftist counterparts. In the Caribbean, Rice will continue the administration's automatic anti-Cuba bashing, but is unlikely to utter a word of reproach for the illegitimate and hapless government of Haitian interim prime minister Gerard Latortue and his lawless Justice Minister Bernard Gousse, who have presided over escalating political chaos and rampant human rights abuses on the beleaguered island. As for the English-speaking Caribbean, Rice is likely to ignore the CARICOM countries or use her economic leverage to extort its members’ large number of votes in the UN and OAS.

Another key factor will be Rice’s use of the administration’s anti-terrorism and pro-democracy doctrine recently spelled out in President Bush’s inauguration address. Essentially, it will be the White House’s decision as to what acts fall under both the terrorism and democracy formulations, providing Rice with extraordinary powers that could be used to intimidate and harangue Latin American nations to comply with Washington’s dictates.

While Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Lincoln Chafee (R-RI)—both recently returned from a four-nation trip to South America—valiantly attempted to make the case in the Senate for a more measured, moderate and consistent regional policy, there is no evidence that the incoming Secretary of State has any intention of giving their consul more than a cursory hearing. Over the coming years, Rice will no doubt reveal that she is incapable of providing bold and independent analysis that does not automatically conform to standardized Cold War formulae. Accordingly, there is little cause for optimism that Bush's second term will bring even the most modest of improvements or display of enlightenment over his first term's hemispheric policies, undoubtedly one of the worst this nation has seen in generations.

The Demonization of Chávez

Among the most blatant of a series of vacuous statements formulated by Rice in her confirmation hearings were her virulent attacks on populist firebrand President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Chávez has long been a nemesis of the Bush administration for his self-proclaimed brotherly relations with Castro, opposition to U.S. trade initiatives, prolific third-way economic strategies and florid rhetorical attacks on U.S. policy toward Latin America and the world, particularly Iraq. Assistant Secretary of State Noriega even went so far as to give the State Department's blessing to a military coup that briefly unseated the president in April 2002, having met with a group of the plotters who visited Washington only weeks before the attempted putsch. Secretary of State Powell thus found himself in the embarrassing position of having to disown his controversial subordinate's actions and reaffirm Washington's support for democratic processes in the hemisphere, when Chávez was hurriedly returned to office by military loyalists. The president then went on to win a resounding victory in a popular referendum demanded by the Venezuelan opposition in August 2004.

This lesson does not appear to have made much of an impression on Rice, however, who denounced Chávez as an "unconstructive" leader who was "[governing] in an illegal way" and stated that she had nothing positive to say about his administration, a judgment she did not extend to a range of other assorted tyrants discussed at the hearing, including the leaders of Iran, North Korea and Syria. Senator Chafee, who met with President Chávez on his recent tour of the region, was rightly incredulous, accurately noting that the president had gone head to head with his domestic opposition in a high-turnout referendum universally acknowledged to be free and fair and had "cleaned their clocks and kicked their butts." He went on to assert that such derogatory remarks about a democratically elected leader were openly disrespectful to the Venezuelan electorate. Even more pointedly, he demanded that the incoming Secretary of State justify her stubborn assertion that Chávez was "unconstructive" at a time when the administration continues to enthusiastically engage apparently more "constructively," but also more authoritarian governments in Russia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Venezuela and the Regional Arms Race

At this juncture, Rice was aided by Senators Norm Coleman (R-MN) and freshman Mel Martinez (R-FL), coming to her rescue with the latter clearly eager to curry favor with his Cuban-American Miami constituency by energetically and vocally denouncing Chávez's ties with Castro. Martinez also took the opportunity to voice concerns about attempts by Caracas to purchase arms from Russia, suggesting that such actions had the potential to "trigger an arms race in a region that frankly does not need one." Given that Washington itself has funneled several billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Bogotá via Plan Colombia to purchase armaments ostensibly to be used to fight drug trafficking, but in reality also being employed in military strikes against the leftist FARC guerrillas, Martinez's outrage appears to be somewhat misplaced.

One of the relatively few voices of reason to be heard on the subject of Venezuela was that of committee chairman Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), who highlighted Venezuela's major (and growing) importance as a U.S. oil supplier and suggested the administration reconsider its hostile bilateral agenda regarding Venezuela with this crucial point in mind. But despite Lugar's stature as a leading Republican moderate and foreign policy expert, Rice gave no ground on this or any of the administration's misplaced hemispheric strategies, and it seems clear that the Bush administration will continue to freeze out Chávez and limit its ties with Venezuela. Such a strategy could potentially hold hugely negative implications for U.S. relations with a broad coalition of center-left South American leaders, including Presidents Néstor Kirchner of Argentina, Tabaré Vazquez of Uruguay and most notably, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, all of whom have aligned themselves with the Venezuelan president.

The Bush administration also risks grievously damaging the United States' now fading reputation within Venezuela itself, where Chávez 's popularity, as demonstrated once again in last year's referendum, has remained vibrant, buoyed by his energetic and successful attempts to incorporate the long-neglected lower classes into the political process. Thus, while the days of endorsing coups in Caracas may have passed, balance and moderation have yet to return to the Bush administration's policy-making capacity towards Venezuela. On the contrary, its strategy continues to be driven by a knee-jerk reflex against Chávez's populism and his at times intemperate rhetoric, in the absence of any real comprehension of Venezuela's tempestuous history that may have affected such a development.

Colombia: Creeping Authoritarianism Ignored

Rice's violent denunciations of Chávez were matched by her equally immoderate praise of his Andean neighbor and ideological adversary, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Since the beginning of Bush's term, Uribe has been graced with most-favored-hemispheric-leader status by Washington due to his conservative and pro-business economic stance, his eager participation in the "War on Drugs" and "War on Terror," and, last but certainly not least, his chilly relations with Chávez, who he accuses of covertly supporting left-wing Colombian rebel groups.

Not only did Rice declare that "Colombia has outstanding leadership in President Uribe," she blatantly distorted the facts by wrapping Uribe's battle with guerrillas and paramilitaries—a long-running civil war with deep roots in the last four decades of Colombian history—in the banner of the “War on Terror,” stating that he has "mobilized Colombian society, the Colombian people, to take on the terrorism, the narcoterrorism, in a new and renewed fashion." The Colombian president's recent sanctioning of the kidnapping of a Colombian leftist guerrilla leader in Caracas, to be later handed over to Colombian authorities on their side of the border and most likely to be subsequently extradited to the U.S., was no doubt all part of this "renewed" battle on narcoterrorism.

Rice also emphasized the administration's determination to press ahead in negotiating a free trade agreement with Bogotá, the next step in Washington's trade strategy that seeks to use bilateral agreements with compliant partners in order to increase pressure on negotiators for the currently stalled Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The first of these agreements was the 2003 accord between U.S.-Chile, which was followed by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), currently awaiting ratification, and now the pact with Colombia. At the same time, the FTAA, originally scheduled to be completed in 2005, has been blocked by the unwillingness of hemispheric heavyweights Brazil and Argentina, under the leadership of center-left presidents Lula da Silva and Kirchner, these two countries have been reluctant to press ahead without meaningful concessions from the United States on the subject of agricultural subsidies, a crucial deal-breaker for Latin American economies heavily dependent on their export sectors declining in such commodities.

Uribe and Human Rights

Not surprisingly, Rice failed to mention the increasing criticisms of the Uribe administration by human rights and civil society groups who have noted the president's growing tendency to centralize power in his own hands, including his single-mindedly successful promotion of a recently enacted constitutional amendment that will allow him to seek reelection in 2006. Nor did she address the Colombian leader’s apparent willingness to negotiate cease-fire agreements with right-wing paramilitary groups that will allow those guilty of the most barbarous crimes to walk away without judicial accounting for decades' worth of derelictions, and without surrendering any of the riches they accumulated through participation in the nation's flourishing drug trade.

It was left to feisty Senator Boxer, who won headlines around the world for her aggressive criticisms of the administration's flawed rationale for the war in Iraq, to question Rice's glowing endorsement of Uribe, while contrasting it with the administration's frigid relations with Venezuela and suggesting that the discrepancy revealed a certain inconsistency, if not blatant hypocrisy. As Boxer put it, "you praise Uribe for democracy even though [...] he's trying to pass a law that would forbid sitting governors and sitting senators from running against him, and you condemn the head of Venezuela, Chávez, after having the administration [...] briefly praise a coup. And it wasn’t until the OAS spoke up and said, well, wait a minute, that's wrong, then we backed off. So we really do need more consistency here." Boxer should be praised for her willingness to challenge Rice and to question the administration's Colombia policy, one of the less noticed of its many failed or double standard hemispheric endeavors.

Cuba: After Forty Years, Still No Sign of Thaw

Another notable, if hardly surprising, feature of Rice's confirmation hearings was her valiant but thankless attempt to defend the Bush administration's continuing embrace of a sterile hard-line position toward Cuba, reinforced most recently in 2004 with the promulgation of new restrictions on travel and remittances to the island. The revised rules led to the suspension of educational exchange programs and will limit Cuban-Americans to one trip per three years for visits only to members of their immediate family. Needless to say, the administration's Cuba policy received rousing endorsements from Florida's hardliners, particularly Senator Martinez, who seized the first of what will undoubtedly be many opportunities to prattle about the importance of disseminating "free news and information" in Cuba through Radio Martí and boosting U.S. support for Cuban dissidents such as the leaders of the Varela petition project. In the past, brazen attempts by James Cason, the recently appointed head of the U.S. interests section in Havana, to intensify already provocative U.S. connections with dissidents and encourage them to engage in more overt opposition, have been damaging and unconstructive to both the individuals involved and the potential for further recruiting. They have served only to undermine the credibility of authentic Cuban critics of the Castro regime and incite new crackdowns by Havana against the minority of democracy advocates who have been attracted by Cason's handouts. Also, such anticipated acts of overreaction by Cuban officials are then used by Washington to justify a further tightening of the bankrupt U.S. embargo. None of these factors, of course, deterred Senator Martinez from launching his impassioned anti-Castro rant only days after his senatorial swearing-in.

Martinez was joined on this point by his Democratic colleague from Florida, Senator Bill Nelson, who frequently is a rational voice on hemispheric affairs regarding such issues as Haiti, but like all Florida politicians dependent on Miami's votes, remains irrevocably under the sway of hardliners when it comes to defining bilateral relations with Havana. It was thus left to Senator Dodd, a respected foreign policy leader with decades of experience on hemispheric issues, to serve as one of the lone voices of reason in the debate over Rice's nomination. In a sharp and aggressive exchange with Rice, Dodd suggested that hopes for political evolution in Cuba are likely to be stifled rather than buoyed by a hermetic suspension of contact between the island and the United States and highlighted the absurd travel policy between the two nations. When the nominee attempted to defend the administration's policy by arguing that Castro skimmed the proceeds of tourism in Cuba and used the funds to prop up his regime, Dodd quickly retorted that the North Korean and Iranian governments no doubt do the same.

Ultimately, Dodd's trenchant postscript to his skillful exposition of the counterproductive nature of the administration's hard-line Cuban policy, including its fervent promotion of the decades-old embargo, was his observation that Bush administration Latin American policy was being shaped by "domestic politics rather than foreign policy," a truth long and widely acknowledged by analysts of U.S.-Cuba relations but rarely spoken out loud, much less in the Senate chambers. It is irrefutable that this administration's pathological hostility toward Havana is driven by the desire to ensure that Florida's diadem, its electoral votes (won narrowly by Bush in 2000 and more easily in last year's election) remain in the Republican column in 2008 and beyond. Senator Dodd is to be commended for exposing President Bush's "Cuba policy" as the tawdry election vehicle that it has come to be.

Haiti: Chaos Unchecked

Ultimately, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Dr. Rice's presentation before the committee was her utter inability to formulate even the rudiments of a strategy to address the intensifying political, economic and human rights crisis in Haiti, a country that has spiraled steadily downward into chaos since the U.S.-orchestrated coup against president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004. The question was introduced by Nelson, who, not surprisingly, takes a particular interest in the achievement of political stability in Haiti in light of the past decade's history of waves of desperate Haitian refugees trying to reach Florida during periods of upheaval on the island. His criticism of the administration's Haiti policy spotlighted the stunning hypocrisy of the State Department's constant reaffirmations of support for democratization in the hemisphere while at the same time it gave explicit support to the ouster of Aristide, one of the first democratically elected presidents in Haiti's history. As Nelson put it, "it's kind of hard to say we support democracy and elections and then we go and push him out."

The senator went on to emphasize the insufficiency of the U.N.-mandated peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, currently deployed in Haiti in order to reestablish political stability, and pressed Rice on the necessity to expand the force and to ensure that the $1 billion in aid pledged to Haiti at last summer's donors conference in fact materializes, even though it would be going to the notably corrupt and ineffective government led by interim Prime Minister Latortue. In her response, Rice was deliberately evasive, emphasizing the need to establish a professional police force in Haiti and the importance of the existing stabilization force taking on a more aggressive role in reining in the militias that have seized control over significant swaths of the country. This elaborate but airy response was clearly nothing more than a rhetorical ploy intended to distract attention from the undeniable fact that the administration has no intention of reengaging in Haiti or providing even a tiny fraction of the resources that are realistically required to begin the long process of political stabilization and economic recovery there until the prospect of a reemergence of Aristide’s party either directly or indirectly in the governmental process is prevented.

The phrase that perhaps best encapsulates the profoundly flawed nature of the administration's Haiti policy was Rice's bizarre statement that "we probably dodged a bullet in the earlier days with the ability to get Aristide out peacefully, because he had lost the ability to control that country." She thus wins the dubious honor of being the first person to apply the term "peacefully" to the process leading up to the armed rebellion that all but toppled the Aristide government, which then had witnessed a coup de main administered by U.S. marines and the embassy in Port-au-Prince, and was then forced to give way to an illegitimate, Washington-imposed "transitional" government characterized by international observers as among the most inept and worst violators of human rights in Haiti's recent history. She then went on to suggest that Washington has been in some way the hapless victim of the continued political upheavals in the beleaguered island nation, rather than its principal promoter. If her comments at the confirmation hearing are any indication, the Bush administration will not soon lose the distinction of being the main author behind Haiti's most recent crisis.

Toward 2008: Little Reason for Optimism

Despite the recent fanfare surrounding indications suggesting that the Bush administration intends to reorient itself to focus on domestic policy priorities in the president's second and final term, observers should not be fooled into believing that the foreign policy initiatives to be unveiled under the new leadership of incoming Secretary of State Rice will be any less invasive and presumptive than those unleashed by the Rumsfeld-Powell-Rice troika over the last four years. On the contrary, all the evidence suggests that the administration's actions abroad, and particularly in Latin America, will continue to be marked by a unilateralism stunning in its arrogance and an ignorance equally appalling in its breadth. It is to be hoped that a day will eventually arrive when Washington can begin to recoup the damage to its hemispheric reputation inflicted by this president's explosive combination of ideological fervor, a reckless disregard for the truth and a staff more adept at serving up elemental neoconservative dogma than sound foreign policy. The fulfillment of such aspirations, however, may have to wait until at least 2008, and perhaps beyond.

This analysis was prepared by Jessica Leight, COHA Research Fellow.

January 25, 2005

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email coha@coha.org.

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