A Bad Week for the Monroe Doctrine

It is hard to find words that quite describe U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s performance at the June 7 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Lima, Peru. Cluelessness certainly comes to mind, but leavened with a goodly dash of arrogance and historical amnesia.

Clinton leaned on the 35-member grouping “to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” urged the OAS to step up the fight against drug trafficking, and scolded the organization for a “proliferation of priorities and mandates that dilute its efforts, drain its budget, and diminish its capacity.” She added that the OAS should “refocus” on such tasks as monitoring elections.

Where does one begin? Well, Honduras and elections for starters.

While Clinton characterized the election that followed the coup against Manuel Zelaya “free and fair,” it was boycotted by 51 percent of the population. The U.S. has been silent about the fact that the new president, Porfirio Lobo, has overseen a reign of terror that, since the June 28, 2009 coup, has seen the assassination of some 130 anti-government activists, including seven journalists. The murders bear a close resemblance to death squad assassinations carried out under military dictator Policarpo Paz Garcia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Reporters Without Borders recently designated Honduras “the world’s deadliest country for the media.”

“We are living in a state of terror,” says human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, a former director of research projects at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Almendares currently runs a free clinic in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told the OAS meeting that the Honduras coup has put the “inter-American order at risk,” and that “My government cannot recognize the new government in Honduras while there are violations against human rights.”

In the old days, the U.S. would have steamrolled any opposition, but now-a-days supporting the Colossus of the North can be a lonely business. Only a handful of countries, including Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Peru, and Guatemala backed re-instating Honduras to the OAS.

Tone deaf was all you could call Clinton’s call for stepping up the war on drugs. A few months ago the 17-member Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by three former heads of state, concluded “The U.S.-style anti-drug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk, and corrupting the judiciary system, government, the political system, and especially the police force.” Former Brazilian president and Commission member Fernando Cardoso said, “The war on drugs is a failed war. We have to move from this approach to another.”

Several Latin American countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay have moved to legalize personal drug possession, and other countries in the region are considering how to move from punishment to treatment.

And what did Clinton mean by that phrase “proliferation of priorities”? There was no question as to how OAS members read it: “Keep your nose out of the Middle East,” not an instruction likely to be followed. Brazil and Turkey’s effort to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully has drawn widespread applause throughout the continent, and a number of Latin American countries have become increasingly critical of Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians. Argentina, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil were sharply critical of the Israeli attack on the recent Gaza flotilla, and many called for lifting the blockade of Gaza.

Clinton’s efforts to lobby Latin American nations to support sanctions against Iran fell flat.

What Clinton did not mention was why the Obama administration has not ended the blockade of Cuba, failed to tackle the immigration issue, and remained silent on a plan by Britain to drill for gas and oil in waters north of the Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

Back in February the newly minted Rio Group—which excludes the U.S. and Canada— held a Unity Summit in Cancun and endorsed an Argentinean document accusing Britain of violating international law by allowing the British oil company, Desire Petroleum, to drill near the islands. Geologists estimate that the area could hold up to 60 billion barrels of oil, not much smaller than Brazil’s vast offshore Salto Deposits.

“Our attitude is one of solidarity with Argentina,” said Brazilian President Luiz “Lula” da Silva, speaking for the 32-member group. “What is the geographical, political, and economic explanation for England to be in the Malvinas? Is it possible that Argentina is not the owner while England is, despite being 14,000 kilometers away?”

It increasingly looks as if the Rio Group—rumor is that its new name will be the “Latin American and Caribbean Community”—will eventually replace the OAS, which partly explains Clinton’s plea for the organization to “refocus.” The OAS is “refocusing,” but that means members no longer has to curtsy to the United States, that countries in the region should determine diplomatic priorities, and that Brasilia has as much right to become a player in the Middle East as Washington.

Just to show you how the world has turned upside down, the June 6 Financial Times told its readers that “the safest place to be” in a risky world was Latin America.

In her address to the delegates, Clinton complained that the OAS “has not always lived up to its founding ideals.” Now it is, and Washington is less than happy. All in all, a bad week for the Monroe Doctrine, and a very good week for Latin America.