miércoles, 31 de octubre de 2012

The US election and Central America

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

On October, 9th, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador did something unusual for a Central American incumbet: he used a formal statement in front of US Ambassador to the country, Mari Carmen Aponte, to wish the “best of luck in the up-coming election” to President Barack Obama. It is no secret in Washington or in San Salvador that Funes had a close relationship with the Obama administration during the first two years of the Salvadoran first leftist President, one that took POTUS to San Salvador in 2011 as a part of his only trip to Latin America so far. The presidents also had a brief encounter in the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring. Funes along with Honduran president Porfirio Pepe Lobo were, before that summit, the best followers of US policy related to the drug war in Latin America after newcomer Guatemalan President Otto Pérez flirted with the idea of legalizing marijuana as part of the drug conversation in the Americas, something Obama’s State Department has opposed fiercely. As expected, the summit changed nothing regarding the US-fueled drug war. What was evident after that summit, however, was  that the Obama´s already weak Latin American staff grew even lighter. With the presidential election approaching, the question is what the outcome will mean for Central American. Short answer: very little.

President Barack Obama visited in 2011 the grave of slain Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero

The US has two main interests in the isthmus. One is combating the drug trade. The other, geopolitics: Hugo Chávez’s reelection in Venezuela has reinvigorated the prevailing narrative of U.S. conservatives, in which Latin American is only seen through a very superficial lens of  good guys and bad guys, one which ignores all the complexity of the new Latin America, and which is written mainly by the Cuban American lobby in Florida.

The drug issue is, of course, real; US Southern Command figures for 2011 reveal that 460-540 tons of cocaine came to the US markets through Central America, which is about 60% of US consumption. Since 2010, Honduras is the most prominent hub for drug traffickers. The political turmoil and the lack of state presence that are common in that country after the coup d´Etat perpetrated by the Army and some Honduran elites have exacerbated  impunity and fueled greater government corruption, extrajudicial killings and open control of territories by the narcos. The Obama administration’s policies for Honduras tried to follow the usual script, sending helicopters and counternarctotics interdiction money, but two lethal incidents have put the whole policy on hold. In Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina, who came into the presidency as an open question for the US due mainly to doubts around his past as strongman for Guatemala´s Army, long known for human right abuses and dealings with druglords, has made Obama´s Washington uncomfortable. Another no-go in the drug trafficking map, where Guatamala´s Peten province is already grounding Mexican cartels operations and warehouses.

And then there´s the geopolitical issue. There are very few clues in the whole Washington electoral narrative about President Obama´s or Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America (aside the very vague statements the GOP´s candidate has thrown on trade with the region) or, even less, on Central America. Some clues might arrive by looking at the candidates’ staffs on the Americas. Romney´s Latin American team is, as in his entire foreign policy staff, marked by the hawkishness of the Bush administration and the close ties with the Florida lobby. It is seems likely that if the Republican wins, his State Department would play with the old Cuba-Venezuela narrative. Robert Zoellick, the CAFTA fixer in Washington some 8 years ago, is  close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member; that would increase the likelihood that Washington would press for a second chapter of neoliberal reforms towards the region. In Obama´s camp the question might be if a second term State Department will have a more out-of-the-box thinking when dealing with the unsolved agenda.

With Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica fading rapidly into lameduckness, with Ricardo Martinelli surrounded by embarrassing allegations of corruption, with the Northern Triangle in a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states, and with Nicaragua´s economic tranquility providing no simple explanations, the next US President will face no easy task in the most violent region of the world which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, the clear and present danger of succumbing to unlawful and unpredictable forces. In the years since the Salvadoran Peace Accord between the guerrillas and the Government sealed the Central American Cold War chapter, the US has not been paying attention. It doesn´t seem that that will change after November 6th.

*Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, American University, Washington DC.

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