Trump’s Proposed Tariff on Mexican Exports Will Backfire

By George DeMartino

The new Trump proposal (now under consideration by his administration) to get Mexico to pay for the proposed wall along the Mexican border through a 20% tax on Mexican exports to the US violates a range of international trade laws, and is apt to generate retaliation by Mexico. Mexico’s right to retaliate is assured by the WTO, and so would survive any attempt by the Trump Administration to cancel NAFTA. That retaliation could hurt important sectors of the US economy given that Mexico now absorbs about 15% of total US exports. But in addition to the harms from retaliation (and from the wall itself), the funding proposal is likely to backfire in at least five ways.

  1. The incidence of the tax will fall heavily on and American firms at home that import from Mexico, American consumers, and American firms in Mexico that export to the US. US retailers will look to offset higher import costs by reducing other expenses, such as by shedding employees. So will firms that import inputs from Mexico for final assembly in the US. Here, too, pressure will mount to cut costs in ways that harm American workers. And for goods without immediate substitutes, like some agricultural goods, US consumers will be on the hook for a greater share of the tax. Despite appearances and Trump’s claims to the contrary, then, Americans will pay a substantial share of the costs for Trump’s wall. But don’t expect Trump to trouble himself with the basic math.
  1. For Mexican exports for which there are ready substitutes, Mexican and US firms producing in Mexico will bear a greater share of the tax in the form of reduced revenues as they struggle to maintain their exports to the US. But very soon Mexican exports to the US will decline as US importers look to buy from other countries. The decline would of course reduce the expected revenues from the tax, and trigger other unintended effects (see #5, below).
  1. President Trump will say that the tax will induce US companies producing in Mexico to relocate production and jobs back to the US. It is unlikely most will do so. If corporations in Mexico think the tax is likely to persist, they are more likely to move production to other low-waged countries than back to the US.
  1. In fact, if the tax persists for even a year or two, it is much more likely to accelerate a trend already under way—the substitution of Chinese for Mexican goods in US markets. China has posed a serious threat to Mexican exports of high-skilled and medium-skilled manufactured products for at least a decade. The Trump tax will only accelerate the trend. And so Chinese leaders are apt to be even happier about the tax (and, also, about the Trump wall) than are Trump supporters in the US. It’s not at all far-fetched to argue that the primary beneficiary of the tax on Mexican exports to the US will be China,followed by a small number of other low-waged countries that will rush to exploit the opportunity created by increased Mexican prices in the US market.
  1. The social impact in Mexico could be severe. Like most economic shocks, the tariff will hurt the most vulnerable communities rather than the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, who could very well begin to reverse his abysmal level of domestic support by standing up to Trump. To the degree that the Trump tax reduces Mexican exports, it can be expected to increase the number of financially desperate Mexican workers trying to enter the US—legally and illegally—and even push some displaced workers into illicit market activity. And so the Trump tax will undermine the very purpose for which it is intended—to reduce illegal border crossings—while harming working people on both sides of the wall.

George DeMartino is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

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Echoes from the past in Colombia’s Developmental trajectory

By Rafael R. Ioris 

This past October 2nd, Colombian voters surprised almost everyone when they voted to reject the Havana Accords signed between the country’s government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the country’s main remaining armed insurgent group. In contrast with similar attempts in the early 1980s and late 90s, this round of negotiations was seen by most, inside and outside the country, at least until a few days ago, was the culmination of a process of national political restructuring that could finally produce a much sought and needed lasting peace.

The process innovated from the conservative path, known as the Democratic Security Policy put together by the Uribe administration (2002-2010), in the wake of the national crisis of the 1990s. This hard-handed approach trailed a path of pro-market reforms and security improvements, supported in the international investment community as the best way to restructure the country’s economy, especially in a time when much of Latin America was surfing the so-called pink wave. Interestingly, the market reforms were paralleled by the encroachment of state repression of the traditional guerrilla insurgents, particularly under the guise of Plan Colombia and associated growth of paramilitary forces. Though, some of the latter was eventually curbed, largely due to international pressure, the rise in military spending in the national budget was continuous and permanent.

The recent peace negotiations were, as to be expected, permeated by many steps and a gradualist approach involving at the same time legal reforms and public policies to areas of conflict (e.g. subsidized scholarships and housing). And although in the last few years insurgent group activities decreased, this was not necessarily translated in many areas of the country into actual state rule or at least state presence. In fact, in many rural and more isolated regions, the continued threat of reverting back to a state of overt violence is still very present and many still find in illegal activities their main means of subsistence. Moreover, in what seems like a very rational vote, regions mostly ravaged by war-related activities, such a Choco, produced some of the highest levels of support for the Havana Accord.

But in addition to the failed plebiscite, Colombia faces today rising levels of organized crime activity not only in the countryside but also in urban areas. Yet, as challenging as these latest dynamics are, they have occurred not in the void but rather within an already deeply unbalanced land tenure structure which have plagued the country’s history. In this sense, though laudable for trying to move beyond an overly militaristic approach to the structural lines of the continued conflict in the country followed by his predecessor, Santos’ political overtures have to be complemented by actual economic measures aimed at reintegrating many communities into the national economy, particularly in times when Colombia’s mainstream economic policies have become ever more aligned with those of free-trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To be sure, land reform and restrictions on foreign involvement in key industries, such a mining and oil exploration, were some of the main demands the negotiators from the FARC presented repeatedly to the government in order to suspend activities In fact, the growing acceptance of the Santos’ administration of the land reform demands from the FARC had been seen as one of the most promising aspects of the peace negotiations. Demands for better access to economic means are not surprising in a country ravaged by land-tenure related historical conflicts. In fact, even when an assertive land reform program was sought, little was done to curb countryside violence which, in the end, costed the staggering amount of about 200,000 deaths, mostly of poor, countryside residents.
Like much of Latin America, Colombian historical path has been defined by continued sharp socio-economic contrasts and the succession of fast-paced developmental initiatives – such as a remarkable insertion into the global economy as an important primary commodity exporter, starting at the end of the 19th century, as well as the significant levels of industrialization achieved in the middle of the 20th century – which though successful in many senses, have not been instrumental to ameliorate, let alone address the severe inequality that is to this day a defining feature of the country. In effect, rather than serving to improve the living standards of its sizable population (the third in the region), the developmental trajectory of Colombia has been rather defined by sustained oligarchic rule and social exclusion.

This persistent course of events seems particularly disheartening when one considers more closely the events of the postwar era in the country. This was the period when Colombia witnessed a substantial degree of economic and political experimentation and change. In fact, the nation experienced fast-paced economic growth, important levels of industrial growth in different parts of the country, and, especially since the late 1950s, and even more so in the 1960s and 70s, when the county came to be seen by most of its regional neighbors as a remarkable case of success of liberal democratic institutions.
In effect, given the context of dictatorial regimes throughout much of the region in the period, the Colombia experiences with pre-accorded peaceful transitions of power among the two main political parties, Liberal and Conservatives, in the wake of the National Front Agreement of 1958, seemed warranted as a case of a functioning, at least formally representative, political system. Yet, the Colombian experiences since at least the middle of the 20th century should rather be seen as those of the history of the failure of formal liberal democracy, as well as the top-down attempted modernization. On the liberal democracy side, between 1958 and the late 70s, though some changes were made along the way, the Colombian political system was best characterized by coalitional rule between Liberals and Conservatives, at times in ways that resembled the experiences of consociational regimes, though in the Colombian case, without the ethnic, religious, or linguistic elements.

Thus, although the National Front was able to put an end of the traumatic experiences of La Violencia, by creating strong incentives to the two main parties, if not to cooperate, at least to accept the rules of the game, the restrictive nature of the political to all other relevant political forces, especially among popular sectors, was nonetheless solidified by the elitist and restrictive character of the power-sharing agreement then in place. The oligarchic nature of the Colombian state was further reinforced by a central feature of the historical political evolution of the country: its weak central structures of state and strong regional elites. Taken together, these characteristics of the Colombian developmental trajectory would, in the long run, prove conducive to rising levels of dissatisfaction particularly in periods of rapid demographic grow, such in the postwar era.

The formal shortcomings of the Colombian political institutions were also aggravated by the frustration of even middle-income sectors about the possibility of significant socio-economic reform within the formal political system. In fact, even when land reform was attempted in a more concerted fashion, such as during the sponsorship of the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s, when the country was chosen to be a showcase of the initiative, the results of the program palled against the expectations of the Colombian and US governments, and were certainly less than what was needed. Much in the same way, the important industrialization of the middle of the century was largely derivative of a cross-sectional alliance between traditional landowning families and regional industrialists, which rather than create a new social segment capable of some sort of rupture from the traditional forms of exerting political power, worked to consolidate control of the decision-making process in traditional oligarchic forces, thus sustaining the path of restricted access to the decision-making process, though industrial workers did then, and still do their best to push the boundaries of the local and national spheres of economic and political power.

In this sense, though it may be true that the National Front proved successful in preventing military overt intervention in politics for much of the second half of the twentieth century – a time when much of the region was mired in co-called bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes – this positive outcome was reached at the cost of excluding more socially advanced, progressive and even radical demands. This path indeed enhanced the already present political apathy of growing numbers of political and economic disenfranchised groups; and the guaranteed share of state resources in all realms of government which assured the democratic election of four, Liberal and Conservative party presidents, between 1958 and 1970, was conducive to enhanced corruption and clientelistic patronage of favored supporters. Much in the same way, although the formal economy of Colombia has been strengthened in the last few decades, two main negative sides of these dynamics have to be highlighted. First, the continued deeply uneven ways in which the economic growth achieved in the period benefitted the country’s population. Secondly, the fact that an important, though not easily measurable element of this economic revival derived from the eve more present production and exportation of illegal drugs. To be sure, the 1990s was largely defined by the rise of flaunting drug lords (e.g. Pablo Escobar), who control enormous economic resources and related political influence in the country.

If one considers that about 2/3 of eligible voters abstained from participating in the recent plebiscite, most Colombians did not agree with the terms of the agreement or did not feel encouraged to participate in the process. To be sure, a viable agenda for lasting peace has to include in addition to cessation of conflict, a minimal agenda of development, which needs to have key elements of social justice understood as the reforming of the institutional conditions that sustain and reproduce poverty and inequality, including moving away from the historical, and more recently deepened, path of insertion into the global economy by means of commodity export, especially in the field of carbon-based energy production. In fact, it needs to be remembered that much of the end of violence sought under the Politica de Defensa y Securidad of Uribe was aimed most of all to create a more welcoming environment for foreign investors rather than actually addressing the deep-rooted causes of the continued conflicts in the country.

Actual integration of FARC into arena must be paved by concrete means to prevent the repetition of the experiences of the Union Patriotica of the mid-1980s, when more than 3000 former members of the FARC who had joined the political process were murdered with total impunity assured by the omission of the state apparatus. Similarly, effective representation of most affected communities in the violence, especially those more in need of land needs to be a central element of the any new move towards a sustainable peace, so that the errors of the past, when the National Peasant Association, though formally allowed to exist, was consistently undermined by conservatives administration in the 1970s, as well as the market-led land policies of the 1990s, which benefitted most the already capitalized, larger landholders.

In the short term, the Santos administration needs to prove capable of preventing the derailment of the commitments made by both sides in the Cuba Accords, largely by steering things away from the rising right-wing rhetoric of his right-wing predecessor. Moving forward, a new agenda along more inclusive lines of national development needs to be pursued, especially by means of effective political and economic incorporation of the most traditionally excluded social segments, particularly in the countryside.

Rafael R. Ioris is an Associate Professor of Latin American History and Politics in the Department of History in the University of Denver

Bridging the Academic-Policymaker Gap in Chile: A Conversation with Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz

Munoz May 6th talk photo credit Ollie
Photo Courtesy of Oliver Kaplan from May 6th talk by Minister Muñoz at DU

By Oliver Kaplan for Denver Dialogues

Co-published at LAC Perspectivas

May 6, 2016

Discussions on bridging the academic-policymaker gap in international relations usually focus on politics in the U.S. I recently had the chance to get a perspective on the relationship between academics and policymakers in a country other than the U.S. from Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz. I spoke with Minister Muñoz when he came to Denver last week to inaugurate the Josef Korbel School’s Latin America Center suite in the new Anna and John J. Sié International Relations Complex building.

A consummate practitioner-scholar, Muñoz is a Korbel School alumnus (MA 1976, PhD 1979) and has held many policy positions throughout his distinguished career, including Undersecretary General of the United Nations Development Programme for Latin America and the Caribbean and the Chilean Ambassador for the United Nations. Remarkably he is also the author or editor of over 12 books, including his memoir, The Dictator’s Shadow.

I asked Muñoz about his thoughts on going from academia to policymaking and the role of research in foreign policy decision-making in Chile. Here are his responses:

Kaplan: As both a scholar and a policymaker, do you view your two roles as separate, or do you work to integrate those two sides? 

Muñoz: It would be difficult to separate the intellectual side from the policymaking side. So, whenever I need to make a foreign policy decision, there’s always the intellectual reflection that accompanies it. It allows you to see the nuances, analyze and separate the essential [information] from the marginal, and know how policymaking works.

Kaplan: Are there any specific things you learned during your doctoral education at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies that prepared you for your career as a practitioner?

Muñoz: First, there are the analytical skills that you develop over time. Second, the theoretical background is important because you can make connections among things that may be separate and integrate them into a systemic perspective. Plus, in some classes you deepen your knowledge on a region. I took classes on China, Japan, and International Political Economy. I didn’t take many classes on Latin America, actually, because I thought I had to take advantage of Korbel for other dimensions.

Kaplan: In your role as foreign minister and in other policy posts, does academic research play a role in your decision-making? How do you incorporate research findings?

 Muñoz: Absolutely. To confront specific issues, I always demand research. What has been done in the past? What is the background and what are the options? Research is fundamental in policymaking and sometimes I get frustrated because what I receive is of low quality. So, I have strengthened strategic policy planning within the Foreign Ministry. One of the goals in the second stage of our [Michelle Bachelet’s] government is a new law to modernize the Foreign Ministry to improve strategic policy planning and do more research. Research is vital for issues such as relations with neighbors, climate change, and detailed trade issues, and to understand the past policies and positions of other countries. If you don’t have research, you make mistakes.

Kaplan: Are there any areas where you feel research is lacking and could improve policymaking in Chile or for Inter-American affairs?

Muñoz: Developing countries have less knowledge and technical capacity, but there are areas where we are very strong—Oceans Policy and the Laws of the Sea, for example, are issues that Chile has worked on for a long time. But we are weaker on new issues, such as cyber terrorism, where our capacity is not the same as a global power, so we need the cooperation of other countries that have that expertise.

Kaplan: What is the academic-policymaker gap like in Chile today? How does it compare to that in the U.S.? Are there efforts to “bridge the gap” and improve dialogue? 

Muñoz: In Chile there’s a good dialogue. There’s been an observation that academia has lost scholars to the foreign policy arena, so there’s been a shift, and many have become ambassadors and policymakers. Part of the reason is that, during the [Pinochet] dictatorship we [pro-democracy figures] were in academia and not in government. So, when the democratic government came in [in 1989] there was a need for policymakers, and a lot of us in academia went over to the government. That has an advantage: many of us policymakers understand policymaking very well, so there’s not much of a gap. But there’s always a difference of perspective, an asymmetry in information, and the “you stand where you sit” dictum still applies. All that aside, there’s a good dialogue.

Kaplan: Has your career as a practitioner made you re-think any issues or ideas you learned about in academia?

Muñoz: Absolutely. Some theories and perspectives now seem very naive and abstract and have nothing to do with reality. You put your theories to the test when you are a policymaker. If I had to choose contending theories to international relations, we policymakers become more realpolitik, and realist theories come to rule. So my views of theories have changed.

Kaplan: I can see that, but you also speak frequently about the importance of multilateralism, and have even written a book on the subject—A Solitary War. How do you square that?

Muñoz: Well, I am a multilateralist, and even within that one has to be a realist (but not realpolitik). You combine values and norms with interests. Policymaking is all about balance—balancing values and concrete, cold, national interests. It’s nothing about idealism. You strike that balance case by case.

Kaplan: Do you have any particular insight about how you strike the balance between values and interests?

Muñoz: Yes, there are some core general principles. One is the respect of human rights, which cannot be impeded by the principle of non-interventions and sovereign rights of the nation-state. I was one of the main promoters of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at the UN as ambassador. When a country cannot or is unwilling to protect their population, there are steps to follow, which is the more pragmatic dimension of it. This is clear for cases of genocide or crimes of war. But, in the end, it’s case-by-case and for other issues there are many shades of grey. Then it’s about your interests and how much you can do to alter a given reality since, even if you have the right values, if you simply can’t do much or can’t control the situation, then you have to be cautious.

Kaplan: You started out as a pro-democracy activist, and I’ve heard you mention “human rights” numerous times during your visit as a key part of your worldview and of Chile’s foreign policy. Does that have origins in Chile’s period of dictatorship?

Muñoz: Much of the strong commitment to human rights is rooted in our past: the thousands that were disappeared, executed, or assassinated, hundreds of thousands exiled, and tens of thousands tortured marked my generation. So, we are sensitive to human rights and play a part in promoting them. But even before the dictatorship we were a rare case of democracy. So, upon the restoration of our democracy, we regained our history with a strong mark on human rights. The two things come together—both the dictatorship and the long prior history as a democratic society. And, today, there are new [rights] issues and challenges that come to the fore. Now we are working on the link between human rights and business, a new area that goes beyond the social responsibility of private companies and the UN Guiding Principles. In Chile, we are working on a national plan of action on business and human rights.

Dr. Oliver Kaplan (PhD Stanford University) is Associate Director of the Human Trafficking Center and Korbel Latin America Center. Dr. Kaplan is an Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is also Affiliate of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy.

 

Return to the Impossible Game in Latin America?

Anúncio dos critérios de outorgas de radiodifusão AM para FM- 24/11/2015 - BSB

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Michel Temer

By: Aaron Schneider and Rafael R. Ioris

Brazil risks returning Latin America to the days before democratic elections were an acceptable way to debate political platforms and manage the smooth succession of governments. For decades, observers of countries in the region described politics as an “impossible game” – the phrase Argentine scholar Guillermo O’Donnell used to describe his own country. In highly unequal societies, parties on the Left have an electoral majority in their core constituency of working class and poor voters. Unable to win open elections, the Right comes to power through coups, by removing rivals using dubious legal mechanisms, or holding elections that exclude the Left. Subsequent governments lack mandates and face rising opposition, but when elections are once again called, the Left wins, starting the cycle again. In recent years, traditionally oligarchic countries have slipped into this trap, as in the 2009 Honduras coup and the 2012 Paraguayan legislative coup. The removal of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (PT) would mark a dangerous confirmation that such democratic reversals are once again acceptable.

The truth is that none of this is necessary. Parties with clearly Right-wing agendas won free and fair elections last year in Argentina as well as 2010 in Chile, and parties to the Right of the PT governed Brazil before 2003. Though the region remains highly unequal and the Left retains much of its base, macroeconomic downturn and the organizational exhaustion of multiple mandates open electoral room for the Right. In Brazil, it would have appeared that such a shift was beginning at least as far back as 2013, as Rousseff reacted poorly to protests targeting World Cup expenditures and government missteps in reviving a slowing economy. Yet, the Right could not capitalize, and she won reelection a year later.

The losing candidate of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Senator Aécio Neves, refused to accept the loss and called for Rousseff’s removal. To fan the flames of street protests, an oligopolistic media controlled by conservative family empires has maintained a steady media barrage of scandal and innuendo. Ample fuel for such attacks exists in corruption reaching the apex of the political establishment, including top members of the PT, but the resulting erosion of political discourse has shocked observers with levels of polarization tinged with racism and classism long-thought surpassed in Brazilian civil society.

The judiciary, led by investigative judges granted significant autonomy in the Brazilian system, has done an impressive job revealing the extent of kickbacks, especially in the few large construction companies that dominate governmental contracts. Seemingly untouchable CEOs and top politicians have gone to jail, an image never seen before in Brazil, and all too rarely seen in supposedly mature democracies. Yet, the judicial branch has largely failed to maintain its image of probity – leaking evidence intentionally, using indefinite imprisonment to extract confessions and plea bargains, failing to act on (and hiding) evidence of corruption among opposition leaders, and perhaps too aggressively targeting PT leaders, for example staging a heavily armed, press-filled detention of PT-icon and former president (2003-2010) Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva.

The people of Brazil know that high level corruption is rooted in a form of capitalism dominated by oligopolistic companies in close relationship with politicians competing in an electoral system that privileges massive spending. Yet, while corruption among the elite is rampant, it could not be used as the legal justification for expelling President Rousseff. She is practically unique among the political class – there are no corruption charges against her. Instead, the Right has seized on accounting mechanisms she used to pad her year-end accounts, breaking a fiscal responsibility law that sets rigid targets for deficits.

Jurists debate whether accounting tricks are grounds for impeachment; political scientists note that the process is political, not legal. Congressional deputies seem to recognize the political character of the exercise. In the actual vote to advance the impeachment process, they hardly referenced the charges, casting their vote instead for god, family, and even the memory of the officer who had tortured Rousseff when she was jailed during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime. The legal justification for the impeachment is weak, but the politics are clear. The Right was unable to dislodge the Workers’ Party from power, even with the economy in freefall, a weak presidential candidate, and the Workers’ Party seemingly without a project to renew its mandate and get back on track.

According to legal rules, the Senate will soon vote to initiate impeachment deliberations that can last up to six months. During this period, Rousseff will exit the presidency and the Vice President Michel Temer of the catch-all Party of Brazilian Democracy (PMDB) will take over. If the Senate votes by a two-thirds margin to impeach Rousseff, Temer will serve out the rest of her term until 2018 or until early elections are called. He and his allies will claim a mandate based on the fiscal malfeasance of Rousseff and the corruption revealed by the judicial investigations.

Yet, Temer and his allies have more on their mind than anti-corruption and fiscal probity. They would have to, as Temer signed off on some of the same fiscal maneuvers that supposedly make Rousseff impeachable. Further, he has serious accusations of corruption under investigation in the Federal Supreme Court, as do many others, including Temer’s party-ally and leader of the impeachment process in the Congress, Eduardo Cunha, who is under investigation for such acts as embezzlement and hiding illegal monies in Swiss bank accounts.

The real intentions of Temer and his allies were announced in a PMDB document entitled “Bridge to the Future.” In it, they promise to cut spending, target social programs, liberalize labor markets, and limit pension benefits. To build the legislative coalition to implement these policies, Temer appears poised to bring key opposition figures into his government, namely the candidates Rousseff defeated in elections in 2010 and 2014. Meanwhile, the judicial branch has continued with its apparently laser-like focus on finding corruption within the Workers’ Party, especially a charge that will stick to Lula, the still-popular PT ex-President who has indicated plans to run in 2018 and in the event of early elections.

In short, Brazil appears on the cusp of a Right-wing governing agenda that lost in the polls, imposed after a legal artifice removes a president, and to be ratified in elections in which the main Left-wing candidate is excluded. In the short term, this gambit may succeed. There appears to be little chance of Rousseff holding her office, Temer already appears to have the legislative majority he would need to push through his program, and most observers doubt the PT could win the next election.

In the medium term, Brazilian democracy will suffer. An impeachment-imposed Temer government would lack a mandate, and a Right elected in truncated elections would appear to embrace their inability to come to power through normal electoral means. Bad for Brazilian democracy, it could be even worse for Latin America, confirming the pattern revealed in Honduras and Paraguay of a conservative backlash willing to use any artifice to remove Left governments and limit elections to acceptable alternatives. The hemisphere will have witnessed the political elite of the largest country in the region racing to replay the impossible game. It is a game that nobody can win.

Aaron Schneider is Leo Block Chair of International Studies and Director of the Latin America Center, University of Denver, aaron.schneider@du.edu.

Rafael R. Ioris is an Affiliate of the Latin America Center and Assistant Professor of History, University of Denver, rafael.ioris@du.edu.

Obama in Havana and Buenos Aires: Realism Confirmed or Idealism Revealed?

By: Tom Farer

Meditating a few months ago on President Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria’s slaughterhouse, Steve Walt, a notable academic Realist, declared to his self-professed surprise that Obama had proven himself as much of a realist as Walt.

A defining policy reflex of academic realists is their insistence that hard power be reserved for the defense of core national security interests. As for democracy and human rights, the generality of academic realists urge that we be guided by John Quincy Adams’ dictum: However much we sympathize with other people’s oppression, we should not go abroad to slay dragons.

Despite his politically shrewd embrace of caution when addressing a war-weary electorate during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama’s professional history as an organizer of poor people, his manifest disinterest in grasping the immensely lucrative career open to a President of the Harvard Law Review, bespoke an idealist. And he was, after all, a liberal albeit not an exclamatory one and by the late Twentieth Century Liberalism and the defense of human rights as an end in itself were virtually synonymous.

Some of his first moves as President seemed to confirm my impression that we had elected a champion of human rights. I think, for example of Obama’s appointing the once iconic critic of American passivity in the face of overseas slaughter, Samantha Powers, to a senior position on the National Security Council and his creation of an interdepartmental unit tasked with putting cases of looming massive violations of human rights on the President’s radar screen. Nevertheless, until Omar Qaddafi sent his troops racing toward Benghazi with the stated purpose (stated by Qaddafi) of exterminating the opposition in the rebellious city, there remained the question of whether Obama’s concern for human rights would ever move him to defend them with hard power. He resolved that question by raining a brief but paralyzing barrage of US air and missile power on Qaddafi’s forces, then stood off while NATO allies, working with disparate anti-Qaddafi militias, finished the job of what proved to be regime’s end.

Meanwhile Syria erupted and it became evident, even before Libya turned into a fiasco, that for Obama Libya rather than being a precedent was a bridge just short of being too far. He clearly saw Syria as miles farther. Writing two years later I concluded “that people facing death at the hands of tyrannical governments who have the misfortune to live in countries where core national interests of the United States are not at stake, will find that prayer will do no less for them and possibly even more than the indispensable nation.”

I did not, however, conclude like Walt that Obama had become a Realist, much less that deep down he had always been one. Rather it seemed to me that the Iraq war had persuaded him that however pristine US intentions, for myriad reasons US military interventions in large complex countries without long-established democratic traditions or anything resembling a rule-of-law culture were likely to enhance the target population’s misery at great cost to the United States. The aftermath of Libya merely confirmed Obama’s conclusion.

On that premise a President committed to the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad would have to rely primarily on soft power, the power exemplified by his Easter trip to the Cuban-Argentine antipodes of Latin America. His visit to Havana culminates a two-year process of reversing a sixty-year American policy of facilitating totalitarian government 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Yes, I said “facilitating”.

Think of the effort North Korea invests in isolating its population from contact with the outside world and persuading its people that the country is under constant threat from the US and its southern neighbor. Leaning up against merely authoritarian and friendly China has helped. As he sought total control of Cuban lives, Fidel Castro faced far more serious obstacles than his North Korea counterpart, since he presided over a country so very close to the liberal democratic capitalist United States. In order to isolate his people, silence dissent and rationalize poverty, Fidel needed help and Washington conveniently provided it by cutting off both economic and human contact with the island and by declaring the intention of overthrowing its government.

All Obama really had to do was refuse to continue the policy of giving Fidel and his fellow oligarchs a helping hand. Its internal contradictions no longer softened by Chavez’s fraternal gifts of Venezuelan oil, to the end of self-preservation the regime was already beginning to loosen its quotidian grip when Obama made his first moves. But those moves are helping accelerate the process.

Obama in Havana did more than drive a final spike into the government-cultivated narrative of a country under siege from its giant neighbor. He also opened a window on what accountable government could mean by maneuvering grizzled old Raul into the alien experience of a press conference with independent journalists asking disagreeable questions. Chalk one up for soft power.

Cuba won’t be a free country tomorrow, but its long-suffering people already have more scope to realize a personal vision of the life they want to lead. Somewhere down the road Cuba will become a normal country where, as a conservative philosopher once put it, every person has the dignity of living his or her own potty little life.

From shabby Havana Obama flew to elegant Buenos Aires. Lying six thousand miles from Washington, rich in resources and human capital, although poor in the capacity for rational self-government, Argentina unlike Cuba has lived much nearer but still within the margin of US Government influence. Why Argentina and why now? Here too it seems to me Obama’s real concern for human rights helped shape the choice. The choice implied a celebration of democracy reaffirmed and quiet penance for the long years during which Washington supported state terror in Argentina, Chile, Salvador and other Latin countries.

Obama was meeting with a President, Mauricio Macri, who had won a fair election revolving around well-defined policy choices. And he would attend a popular gathering on the banks of the Plate River to memorialize the men and women murdered by the military government which ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

Shortly after that government seized power and began disappearing into its torture centers anyone suspected of left-wing subversion, the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had met with his Argentine counterpart, Admiral Guzzetti, and, according to a Memorandum of Conversation extracted from State Department files in 2004 through the Freedom of Information Act, Kissinger had said: “Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. . .. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context. . .. The quicker you succeed the better.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Argentina at that time, Robert Hill, hardly a liberal himself but concerned about the cruel intensity and indiscriminateness of the repression, had arranged the meeting in the expectation, apparently, that Kissinger would underline the Ambassador’s concerns already communicated to the military junta. When after the Kissinger-Guzzetti meeting Hill met with Argentine President Jorge Videla, a just-retired General, the latter dismissed Hill’s concerns according to a cable Hill subsequently sent to Washington. “The President,” Hill reported, “said he had been gratified when Guzzetti reported to him that secretary of state Kissinger understood their problem . . .”

Videla died in Prison. Prosecutions of lower-level killers continue to this day. Macri’s predecessors in the Presidential Palace, the Kirchners husband and wife, consolidated civilian control of the military by shrinking the armed forces and purging their hard liners.

Henry Kissinger reflects the hard-guy Jacksonian facet of American foreign policy culture and personifies the so-called “grand strategist” who observes humanity from so great a distance that individual faces are obscured. In his brief trip south Obama demonstrated that he is a very different sort of man.

Tom Farer is a University Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver (2010-present) and former Dean of the Josef Korbel School (1996-2010). Learn more about the Latin America Center. 

Obama in Cuba: Building a new human rights promotion narrative

By: Arturo Lopez-Levy

President Obama’s trip to Cuba from March 20 to 22 articulated a new approach to promoting human rights on the island, and perhaps in the region. Key to American engagement with improving human rights is support for economic modernization through an opening of the U.S. market to Cuba’s private sector and allowing people-to-people contact as a way to connect the Cuban population with American society. There is broad academic agreement about the importance for democracy of a market-oriented, open, prosperous economic and social life in Cuba. Such development will enable the emergence of autonomous middle class demands for better governance with transparency and civility.

Since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 17, 2014, the Obama Administration had insisted on the convenience of his new policy for improving the lives of the Cuban people.  President Obama explained the logics of his rapprochement in his interview to Yahoo news in the first anniversary of the announcement to re-launch diplomatic relations: “the more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information unfettered by censorship, the more you are laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are coming over”.

Across the globe, market-led development in conditions of political stability and expanding property rights has brought crucial respect for individual rights. In Cuba since the beginning of the economic reform after the VI Congress of the CCP in 2011, the government has responded to pressures from the population by expanding the private and cooperative sectors and after October 2013 by allowing Cuban citizens to travel abroad without the infamous exit permit.

Another area in which there is a significant human rights improvement is freedom of religion. After a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the government, and the visit of several religious leaders including three popes in less than fifteen years, a new expansion of the role of religious communities in Cuba’s civil society is evident. Sunday schools, publications, youth activities, humanitarian support for the elderly, and a new non-communist renewal of Cuban nationalism are taking place in activities of the religious communities that emphasize themes of national reconciliation over class struggle and political divisions.

Just in the first year of their implementation, U.S. engagement policies were important catalysts for reform. If human rights are measured in terms of people working independently, more access to internet and a much more pluralistic spectrum of political, economic and social ideas, Obama’s opening to Cuba is already a success. Americans’ travel and remittances to Cuba had already supported Cuban start-ups and improved civil society’s autonomy. There is every reason to expect that these trends will unfold in Cuba throughout the end of Raul Castro’s administration and beyond.

It is true that the rights of political opponents of the Cuban Communist Party to contest politically in competitive multiparty elections has not significantly changed. This is undoubtedly part of the agenda based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but reducing the discussion about the state of human rights in Cuba to the fortunes of the radical political opposition associates the Cuban opposition brand with the embargo and unlawful US interference in Cuba’s internal affairs.

The best contribution the Obama Administration can make to a universal, indivisible and interdependent advancement of human rights in Cuba is opening access to U.S. markets, investments, technology, universities, and society. Cuba’s economic reform and political liberalization have the potential to improve significantly the lives of millions of Cubans and help thousands to lift themselves out of poverty. Obama’s hope with his trip to Cuba was- in the words of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes- to make the new policy of engagement and support for reform “irreversible”.

During his trip, president Obama was particularly careful in disassociating his administration’s policy from the discourses about an idyllic relation between Cuba and the United States before 1959. The imposition of the 1902 Platt Amendment; the imperial visit by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928 for the VI Pan-American conference; and subservience expressed by then-Cuban Secretary of State Orestes Ferrara expressing gratitude for US intervention in Cuban affairs are seen by most Cubans as shameful. Even then-president Kennedy repudiated this past in the midst of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. While Obama did not repudiate this past, he at least avoided mention of the topic in his main speech to the Cuban people.

Obama connected instead to the legacy of political dialogue in the two visits of former president Carter and his own secretaries to Cuba in 2015. He recognized that Inter-American human rights are most advanced by a US proudly trumpeting its achievements fighting against its own imperfections. President Obama presented his own first African American presidency as the culmination of many such struggles, and he highlighted the US government’s humanitarian and altruistic record in the world in areas such as the struggle against AIDS, Ebola and other pandemics. To launch international health cooperation between the United States and Cuba that would truly benefit the poorest nations will require ending the US-sponsored professional medical parole program designed by the George W. Bush administration.

President Obama’s discourse in Cuba was also targeted to some audiences in the United States. He reminded hardliners that human rights cannot be imposed; they flow from each country’s history and the demands of its people. In Cuba, movement towards political contestation needs to develop in a gradual and stable manner, building on the achievements of the revolution, such as security, and universal health and education. Obama can openly acknowledge those improvements in human rights as the ingredients to a stable democracy. Future democracy in Cuba will need to preserve the existing social order, improving on it without reckless promotion of regime change devoid of economic, cultural and political stabilizers. Such a reversal could result in chaos and disorder, social division, calls for foreign interventions, and even new non-democratic patterns.

To present human rights in Cuba as an American demand is a disservice to this positive cause. Real human rights norms are the universal aspiration of every decent person. As in all nations, Cuba should sign, ratify and implement human rights treaties because it is good for Cuba’s people. Violations of free expression and association, nepotism, corruption, and consumer abuse violate the Cuban people’s traditions of fairness, honesty and liberty. Among those who denounced rights abuses, disrespect for citizens’ dignity and overconcentration of power are Jose Marti, Cuba’s most prominent hero and thinker, and Fidel Castro himself, who denounced the lack of freedom of expression and exalted republican and democratic forms of government in his legal defense “History will absolve me” after the beginning of the revolution with the attack to the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Striving to better the standards of democratic governance make real the principles of the Cuban revolution and Cuba’s constitution.

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Learn more about the Latin America Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School.