In a world full of crises, Latin America presents a relatively risk-free opportunity, a region where the new U.S. administration should be able to fairly easily restore historic goodwill while repairing the most serious gaffes of the past eight years. A minimum of good diplomacy and respectful reengagement should suffice to fill the vacuum left by a Bush administration that alternated between confrontational bluster (against Cuba, Venezuela and other regimes straying from traditional due deference to their northern neighbor) and benign neglect.

In his only major speech about Latin America, speaking as a candidate in Miami last May, Barack Obama grandly promised “a new alliance of the Americas.” The phrase was an unmistakable allusion to John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress of the 1960s, the last era of real enthusiasm in U.S.-Latin American relations. Excitement about Obama has been palpable and ubiquitous in the region — again, a phenomenon not seen since the times when pictures of JFK and Jesus Christ side by side were a common sight in the homes of ordinary Latin Americans.

A significant — and overwhelmingly positive — factor is the color of Obama's skin.

“Obama’s ethnicity is a very important reality in Latin America,” commented Richard Feinberg, who held positions dealing with Latin America policy in both the Carter and Clinton administrations. There is a certain element of condescension among the white elites, he said. But the great majority of Latinos, whose faces reflect their indigenous or African roots (or both), have an affinity for Obama no other U.S. president could have dreamed of.

Bush, in contrast, is widely and openly reviled, mostly because of the unpopular war in Iraq, but also because of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, which is perceived in the region as a counterproductive failure, and Bush’s confrontations with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, perceived as reminiscent of past U.S. interventions against ideological adversaries.

Yet Obama’s first actions and personnel choices have not demonstrated a sharp break from the Bush administration when it comes to Latin America. Instead, in at least one critical area, relations with the irascible Chavez, Obama seems to have gone out of his way to show hostility rather than reconciliation.

In a move that had many liberal Latin Americanists scratching their heads, Obama went on the Spanish language Univision channel two days before his inauguration and launched what can only be described as an unprovoked attack on Chavez, using language that could have been borrowed from Bush. "We need to be firm when we see the news that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC," Obama said, in a reference to the Colombian guerrilla group. "This creates problems that are not acceptable," adding that Chavez “has been a force that has hindered progress in the region.”

Chavez has acknowledged extensive contact with the FARC, including attempts to mediate the release of hostages held by the powerful guerrilla group that controls large portions of rural Colombia. But few objective observers would use such inflammatory post-9/11 terms as “exporting terrorism” to describe Chavez’s support.

Said one Latin America expert, “It did surprise me. What led him to say that on the record?”

In interviews with several Latin America specialists, some of whom are on the lists of those being considered for roles in the new administration, such puzzlement is universal. An examination of previous Obama statements, together with his selections thus far for individuals working on Latin Amercan issues, indicates that Obama’s agression toward Chavez is hardly an aberration.

Here is some of the evidence:

In Obama’s speech in Miami last May, he also attacked Chavez, calling him a “demagogue” whose “perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.” The phrases conjured the unavoidable association of Chavez, a democratically elected president, with communism. Later in the speech, Obama went after the Venezuelan president’s democratic credentials. “Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected leader,” he said, “But we also know that he does not govern democratically.”

It was a vintage Bush administration line of attack, used regularly to delegitimize Chavez, who has won election and reelection with large majorities during his 10 years in power. The State Department’s top official for Latin America, Thomas A. Shannon, began using the same argument and the same phrases —“democratically elected” and “not govern democratically” in congressional testimony on Venezuela as far back as 2005.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in questioning at her confirmation hearing Jan. 13, also repeated the phrases. For her, it was a softening of even more aggressive statements she made during the presidential campaign, when she lumped Chavez in with the a list of the world’s “dictators.”

Clinton and Obama have both left the door open a crack for a rapproachment with Chavez, however. Obama said “diplomatic conversations” are still a possibility, and Clinton cautioned that the United States “should not exaggerate the threat he [Chavez] poses.”

The new administration has not yet completed its team of policymakers for Latin America, but its first moves have reinforced continuity with the Bush era. Shannon, a career diplomat who has served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America since 2005, will continue in that post at least through April, and will be in charge of preparations for Obama’s first trip to Latin America. (The president announced he would attend the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad April 17. )

One Latin American expert said — not for attribution — that it was a mistake for the new administration to “pick a fight” by affirming continuity in a policy that was “bankrupt from the beginning.”

There is considerable speculation and little certainty among the relatively small group of Latin American specialists who are being mentioned for posts. They include prominent academics Richard Feinberg, Robert Pastor and Arturo Valenzuela, of the University of California San Diego, American University and Georgetown University respectively, who served in previous Democratic administrations.

It is generally accepted, however, that the top appointments at State and the National Security Council are likely to go to new, and younger, faces. In that group, according to my reporting, the inside track is occupied by Dan Restrepo, a lawyer of Colombian-Spanish descent who works at the Obama-heavy think tank the Center for American Progress, and Chris Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Council of the Americas and editor of Americas Quarterly.

Both worked with Obama during the campaign, and are known to have been involved with the drafting of the Miami speech.

Sabatini’s background is consistent with the emerging aggressive posture vis-a-vis Chavez. He was chief Latin America officer for the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded body that channeled several million dollars to anti-Chavez opposition groups in the early years of Chavez's government.

The funding was overt, intended to support groups working to strengthen democracy, but NED’s activities in Venezuela during Sabatini’s tenure became controversial when it was revealed that two prominent leaders of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Chavez in a military coup had received NED funding. Another NED grantee, an “election monitoring” group called Sumate, used NED money to help organize a signature campaign to force a referendum to remove Chavez from office.

Chavez is hardly a poster child for Latin American democracy, and has been criticized most recently in a report by Human Rights Watch, which pointed out his interference in the courts, discrimination against opponents, and use of laws and public funds to create a pro-government press. But voting and elections are regular and frequent, and voters handed Chavez a significant defeat 18 months ago, rejecting a referendum that would have allowed unlimited reelection of the president. Another referendum on the election question will take place Sunday.

For his part, Chavez seems intent on making peace, despite Obama’s hostile signals and some earlier derogatory comments of his own against Obama. A few days after the inauguration, he was ebullient with optimism, saying of Obama: “He is a man with good intentions; he has immediately eliminated the Guantanamo prison, and that should be applauded … I am very happy and the world is happy that this young president has arrived … [we] welcome the new government and we are filled with hope.” 

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