By Michael Fox
By Alexis Stoumbelis, Lisa Fuller and Michael Fox
day before President Barack Obama arrived in San Salvador on March 21,
thousands of union members and campesinos marched to the U.S. Embassy.
Over the loudspeaker an organizer proclaimed, “The global economic
crisis, climate change, narcotrafficking, insecurity and the food crisis
have their origin in the economic model imposed on our people by the
great world powers, primarily the United States.” Outside of President
Obama’s press conference the following day, hundreds of Salvadorans
carried photos of family members who had been killed and disappeared
during El Salvador’s civil war, in which U.S.-backed government forces
brutally repressed the leftist Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación
Nacional (FMLN). Marching alongside them, Hondurans bared crosses on
their backs in memory of the hundreds of activists who have been killed
since the June 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya.
before, in Chile, demonstrators denounced the proposed nuclear energy
agreements and called on the United States to acknowledge its role in
the 1973 CIA-backed coup against then-president Salvador Allende.
Mobilizations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil forced President Obama’s press
conference with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff indoors, as
protesters chanted, “Go home, Obama . . . the petroleum is ours.”
Throughout the hemisphere, people waited to hear whether President Obama
would demonstrate the new era of “mutual interest and mutual respect”
with Latin America that he had promised during his campaign. What they
heard was mostly “más de lo mismo” (more of the same), dressed up in a language of “partnership” and cooperation.
Even before President Obama had embarked on his five-day trip to Latin America, he made clear that the primary motivation for the trip
was to increase U.S. exports to the region and, in doing so, create new
U.S. jobs. His goal, in this “fiercely competitive world,” was to
ensure that Latin American countries would import most of their goods
from the United States, not from China, the European Union, or other
Latin American countries. This was especially apparent during Obama’s
first visit to Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil, where China has
just overtaken the United States as the number one trading partner.
Brazil, with an economic growth rate of 7.5 percent per year, is also
the world leader in ethanol production, and home to the recently
discovered deep-water oil reserves, known as Pre-Sal, estimated by some to be larger than the combined reserves of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
culturally significant—the first African-American U.S. president
visiting Brazil’s first female president—Obama’s visit was overshadowed
by his authorization of the Libya bombing while in Brazil. Meanwhile, as
one columnist for the Brazilian newspaper, Folha de São Paulo pointed out,
Obama lacked “deliverables” or “concrete results.” Brazilians were
disappointed that Obama failed to announce support for their country’s
bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. For all of his
rhetoric of increasing trade, Obama didn’t offer any solutions to the
54-cent per gallon import tax the United States levies on Brazilian
ethanol. Obama did, however, offer billion-dollar funds to help
Brazilian businesses purchase U.S. products and to support the Brazilian
development of their off-shore oil rigs, promising that the United
States wants to become “one of [their] best customers.”
Chile, Obama and Chilean President Sebastián Piñera initiated talks on
launching Chile’s nuclear power program, a move that many consider
reckless amidst the ongoing disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant,
and Chile’s earthquake-prone history. Like the rest of the trip, Obama’s speech
to Latin America from Chile’s La Moneda Presidential Palace embraced
hemispheric cooperation, while lacking substance. He quoted from Chilean
poet, Pablo Neruda, applauded the heroic Chilean miners, and reminded
listeners that “Todos somos Americanos” (We are all American).
He also praised Chile on its leadership in transitioning “from
dictatorship to democracy”, but failed to apologize for the U.S. support
of the seventeen-year-long military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Obama applauded Brazil’s biofuels and Chile’s geothermal energy
programs as examples of “alternative energy,” his support for off-shore
rigs is more of the status quo; meanwhile, opposition to extractive
industries from grassroots social movements and indigenous peoples
continues to rise throughout the Americas, as evidenced during the April
2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of
Mother Earth in Bolivia. It’s worth noting that Brazil’s ethanol program
has come under fire from indigenous communities, as have biofuel
megaprojects in Mexico, Guatemala and elsewhere.
arrived in El Salvador on Monday, March 21, where the gulf between the
reality and the rhetoric of a “new era” was perhaps most palpable and
painful. He made a highly celebrated visit to the tomb of revered martyr
Monseñor Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 by members of the
Salvadoran armed forces who were trained at the School of the Americas.
However, Obama also announced $200 million for a security initiative to
combat narcotrafficking in Central America. Many fear the move could
increase human rights violations, as in Mexico,
where over 36,000 people have been killed since 2006 in the “War on
Drugs.” Before the trip, William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary for the
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and
former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, announced the plan to transform
Central America into a “security corridor”
between Colombia and Mexico, despite the fact that the Merida
Initiative and Plan Colombia have increased the profitability of the
drug trade and driven cartels into Central America.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes’s joint statements with Obama
reflected a significant shift from the “crackdown”-only approach of
Mexico’s Felipe Calderón or Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos. President
Funes emphasized that state investment in job creation, rehabilitation
and prevention programs was the only way to stem the proliferation of
organized crime and emigration. “We cannot continue offering our
youngsters [only two choices], go to the United States to find
employment … or to fall in the hands of the criminal gangs,” said
Funes. In another welcome change, at least rhetorically, President Obama
said that Central American governments, not the United States, would
design and implement programs for the new Central American Regional
Security Initiative (CARSI).
although Obama agreed with Funes that an economic solution is needed,
the economic policies he promoted were largely a continuation of the
last twenty years of neoliberalism, which has resulted in the majority
of El Salvador’s population living on less than $2 per day. His focus on
fostering foreign investment
as the path to development was especially hard to swallow, as the
Canadian mining corporation Pacific Rim is currently suing El Salvador
for over $100 million in alleged “lost profits.” Pacific Rim is the very
type of foreign investor that Obama hailed as El Salvador’s potential
during his trip to Brazil, Obama’s new economic assistance for El
Salvador, including the yet-to-be-defined BRIDGE (Building Remittance
Investment for Development Growth and Entrepreneurship) and Partnership
for Growth programs seem intended to continue a vicious cycle of
exploitation and dependence, cementing U.S. economic access to countries
that, quite frankly, are getting better offers elsewhere, including
China and other Latin American nations.
President Obama’s praise for President Funes’s “pragmatism” was meant
to assure him that support would be provided as long as corporate
interests remained in the driver’s seat. As recently as the June 2009
coup d’etat in Honduras, the Obama administration showed that it
wouldn’t defend Central American presidents who strayed too far to the
left, for example, by joining the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for
the Americas. FMLN-governed municipalities in El Salvador have been
participating in ALBA initiatives with Venezuela for several years, and
some co-operation with Cuba has now reached the national level through
the FMLN-led Ministries of Health and Education. But maintaining U.S.
support is a huge priority for any Salvadoran president, as nearly 2.5
million Salvadorans—roughly 30 percent of the population—live in the
Ultimately, President Obama’s meeting with El Salvador’s first progressive president is significant not only for El Salvador, but also for the hemisphere. Movements that continue to resist the neoliberal agenda have shifted the terrain, forcing the United States to contend with some of the very political forces, like the FMLN, that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to defeat in the 1980s. Social movements, progressive presidents and global economic changes too, have pushed President Obama to talk about “common prosperity,” even if real cooperation is still a long way off.
Alexis Stoumbelis and Lisa Fuller work with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in Washington, DC (CISPES). Michael Fox is Associate Editor of NACLA. His work can be read at his blog.