Give Gifts Top Banner

Home » Issues » Columns » Advice for Obama from the Hemisphere

Get a FREE Issue. Yes! I want to try YES! Magazine

Nonprofit. Independent. Subscriber-supported. DONATE. How you can support our work.

YES! by Email
Join over 78,000 others already signed up for FREE YES! news.

The YES! ChicoBag(R). Full-size tote that fits in your pocket!


Advice for Obama from the Hemisphere

Document Actions

Cover image of issue 42 of YES! Magazine Latin America. Boys in Antofagasta, Chile, jump into the Pacific Ocean off cranes built in the 1800s for shipment of saltpeter and silver. The wharf and its cranes are now a national monument. Photo by Rodrigo Rasdragon Araya Plaza
Read the YES! Take on Latin America: Democracy, Latin America Leaps Ahead

The Institute for Policy Studies invited Latin American and Caribbean civil society leaders to share their recommendations for transforming the U.S. government's relationship with the hemisphere.

Fourteen diverse leaders from 11 countries responded with concrete initiatives or policy changes that the Obama administration could make during its first year to build productive, respectful relations.

Their specific recommendations are summarized below. Here are some of the main themes:

End the Monroe Doctrine
As Enrique Daza, a Colombian trade unionist, put it, "it's necessary to accept that the Americas will be pluralist, that the governments will have different social and economic approaches, and that every country and every people are free to choose the path that they consider best for their own development." In Colombia, for example, the U.S. government should cease coca fumigation efforts that have failed to stop the drug trade and destroyed people's food security. Other contributors called for the removal of U.S. military bases, an end to U.S. military exercises and military aid in the region, and the lifting of the Cuban embargo. Francisco Soberón, of the Peruvian human rights group APRODEH, which led the successful legal campaign to bring former President Alberto Fujimori to justice, suggested another way the Obama administration could turn the page on past U.S. meddling in the region: expedite the declassification of documents that could facilitate the prosecution of repressive leaders supported by prior U.S. governments.

Overhaul U.S. Trade Policies
Nearly every contributor called for the Obama administration to re-think its trade policies. For example, Victor M. Quintana, a Mexican peasant leader and former congressman, pointed out that under the North American Free Trade Agreement, "U.S. government-subsidized produce has forced a huge number of small Mexican farmers out of the market." He called for the renegotiation of NAFTA to foster collaboration between subsistence farmers, small and medium farmers, and agribusiness and to protect migrant worker rights. Several contributors also pointed out the links between current U.S. trade policies and immigration. Edgardo Lander, a Venezuelan professor, noted that "Massive rates of legal and illegal migration in the recent past have largely been caused by free market policies. Free trade, export-oriented growth, and the privatization of public resources have led to the destruction of small farmers' livelihoods, widespread unemployment, and increased economic inequality."

Help to Promote Development
As Omar Salazar, the head of a Costa Rican labor organization, said, in this economic crisis "it would be inadmissible for the U.S. government to inject billions of dollars to save companies and its economy while maintaining trade agreements with some governments of our countries that tie the hands of the State from intervening in the economy." Moreover, the Obama administration was urged to maintain trade preferences that create jobs. "Bush's removal of Bolivia from the ATPDEA potentially puts more than 20,000 innocent Bolivian workers out of a job," said Rodolfo Ramos, Carmen Cardozo, Natalia Alanoca Condori, and Joaquín Aquino of Bolivia — a country stripped last year of its benefits under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

Interactive map of hotspots of progress in Latin America
What's happening in Latin America? Learn about eight hotspots of progress with this interactive map.

Cooperate to Save the Planet
Sara Larraín, a leading environmentalist and former Chilean presidential candidate, suggested that the Obama administration "begin an era of cooperation with Latin America on security and energy sustainability." As she points out, it's in the U.S. interest to help the region address climate change by supporting a shift to greater energy efficiency and use of renewable fuels through technology transfer and capacity building.

While civil society leaders throughout the hemisphere are eager to offer suggestions for improved U.S. relations, it must be noted that the great superpower to the north doesn't preoccupy the region to the extent that it once did, particularly in South America. During the past decade, voters in many countries have put in power new leaders who campaigned on promises to pursue greater economic and political independence. There's a new focus on building up regional institutions and economic cooperation, for example through the Bank of the South, a regional alternative to the World Bank and IMF, as well as UNASUR, a nascent body representing all of the South American countries modeled to some extent on the European Union.

As Jorge Carpio, Executive Director of the Citizens' Justice and Human Rights Forum (FOCO) in Argentina, told us, "We must work together to construct a global system of equality and solidarity, which enables us to confront the serious challenges of climate change and global poverty — and to create lasting peace."



Bertha Luján

Bertha Luján (Mexico)

  • The United States and Mexico must collaboratively evaluate the social and economic impacts of NAFTA and its parallel labor and environmental agreements. This evaluation must incorporate not only government representatives, but also social and civil organizations in both countries, keeping in mind the costs and benefits that will affect the majority of the population. Following this evaluation, NAFTA must be fundamentally revised to make integrated development a possibility in the region.

  • The key issue in U.S.-Mexico relations is immigration. The two governments must collaboratively confront the causes of migration (such as poverty, marginalization and inequality) as they relate to NAFTA. International human rights accords must be the guide for the implementation of new policies and programs that respect labor rights and the rights of migrants.

  • A bi-national commission on migration should be formed by labor unions and human rights organizations in Mexico and the United States. This group would be charged with exposing human rights violations against migrant workers, and making recommendations to improve immigration policy.

Bertha Luján is the labor secretary in Mexico’s Gobierno Legítimo political movement, led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and she was a founding member of the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).



Victor M. Quintana

Victor M. Quintana (Mexico)

Dear President Obama,

For too long, the United States has addressed world food shortages by relying on corporate agribusiness. While these large-scale producers do have high output rates, relying on them has in fact caused more harm than good. Because of their size, corporate producers are able to control the availability and price of food, often making it unaffordable and putting small producers out of business. Further, corporate farming practices have also hurt the environment, causing irreversible damage.

The highest priority for agribusiness is to find a market for their goods, not to solve the problem of world hunger.

Under current NAFTA agricultural provisions, U.S. government-subsidized produce has forced a huge number of small Mexican farmers out of the market. This has deepened poverty and malnutrition throughout Mexico, while also contributing to increased rates of emigration to the United States.

A real solution to this problem is the implementation of agricultural policies that benefit small and medium farmers and local economies while creating more food sovereignty. Teaching indigenous and peasant farmers to produce more better-quality food through sustainable techniques should also be a priority. We ask that your administration take serious action to renegotiate the agricultural provisions of NAFTA, in a way that upholds the values of respect, fairness, the fundamental human right to be free from hunger. The revised agreement should foster collaboration between subsistence farmers, small and medium farmers, and agribusiness. This renegotiation of NAFTA should also include human rights protections for migrant workers, recognizing their essential role in the U.S. economy, and providing for complete recognition of their civil rights.

We hope that you will promptly and thoroughly address these serious problems.

Victor M. Quintana

Victor M. Quintana, a professor at the University of Ciudad Juarez, served for many years as the leader of the Democratic Peasant Front of Chihuahua and is a former member of the Mexican Congress.



Sarah Larraín

Sarah Larraín (Chile)

The Obama administration should:

  • Lift the embargo on Cuba. Maintaining the embargo based on arguments about that country’s political leadership and human rights record is very biased given that the United States maintains good relations with other communist countries, like China and Vietnam.

  • Develop a hemisphere-wide policy that puts an end to interventionism in Latin American countries that are voting via democratic means for left-leaning governments with a strong agenda of reform and who work for social justice and participatory democracy.

  • Lead a new political era in the Organization of American States that turns that body into a space for dialogue and meetings, and compromise within the political diversity in the hemisphere, abandoning hegemonic positions and unilateralism.

  • Make human rights, drugs, intellectual property and trade, investment, and services agreements with countries in the region all major priorities.

  • Begin an era of cooperation with Latin America on security and energy sustainability, based on the transfer of technology, energy efficiency, and renewable energies, in order to support the region in its transformation towards the development of clean and community friendly energy, and its rapid adaptation to climate change.

  • Put an end to the imposition of agricultural policies in the region, particularly on biotechnology, transgenic crops, and biofuels.

Sara Larraín is the director of Chile Sustentable and president of Fundación Sociedades Sustentables in Chile.



Enrique Daza (Colombia)

Enrique Daza (Colombia)

U.S. interventionism in Latin America must be replaced by multilateral cooperation mechanisms that strengthen the different governments’ capacities to face all types of threats, as well as their commitment to strive for a stable and peaceful regional environment. To this end, it’s necessary to accept that the Americas will be pluralist, that the governments will have different social and economic approaches, and that every country and every people are free to choose the path that they consider best for their own development.

This last point has to do with the need to abandon all efforts to impose on the region a single economic model, and for the United States to stop pushing free-trade agreements that go well beyond what the World Trade Organization agreed upon. Trade relations must be mutually beneficial, and allow countries in the South to diversify productive capacities and protect food sovereignty. Rules shouldn’t be established that limit the ability of Latin American nations to set their own development policies.


Bertha Luján is the labor secretary in Mexico’s Gobierno Legítimo political movement, led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and she was a founding member of the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo (FAT).



Omar Salazar (Costa Rica)

Omar Salazar (Costa Rica)

The Obama administration should restructure the asymmetric relations that currently exist on the issue of labor rights. It should also separate this issue from free trade agreements, thus giving this universal human right the preeminence it deserves. Good labor policy should be measured not by trade but rather by the creation of decent jobs that allow people to improve their living conditions, thus promoting a thriving economy.

We hope that the Obama administration will seek a better relationship with Central America, Latin America and the world. To accomplish this, we propose that the president start with the following policy changes:

  • Carry out a self-evaluation of the impact of U.S. trade policy, particularly free trade agreements. Support the TRADE Act, which was introduced in Congress in 2008.

  • Create the "change" he promised by protecting and creating jobs under the framework of human rights, and never understanding it as a negotiable issue of the U.S. trade policy.

  • Promote dialogue with civil society in Central America. Redirect funds for strengthening institutions, civil monitoring of projects, and training for organizations from within, and not by foreign governmental bodies that don’t understand the region’s realities.

  • Redirect U.S. policies to eliminate asymmetries between our countries. This should include strengthening governments in order to mitigate the economic crisis, and supporting a renewed role for government in the creation, consolidation, and sustainability of the economy.

Omar Salazar is the executive director of the Association of Labor Advocacy Services (ASEPROLA) in Costa Rica.



Jorge Carpio (Argentina)

Jorge Carpio (Argentina)

The U.S. government must:

  • Respect and attempt to comprehend political developments occurring in Latin America. No sane person could seriously interpret these trends as a threat to U.S. security or the establishment of democracy in the region.

  • Attempt to overcome the huge cost that economic liberalization or “structural adjustment” policies have had on the region in recent decades — which have been exacerbated by the recent Wall Street collapse. The U.S. role in spreading the Washington Consensus has brought anti-American sentiment in the region to unprecedented levels, comparable only to the current levels of positive expectations for the Obama administration.

We all sincerely hope that the Obama administration will live up to these expectations, seizing this opportunity to construct mature and respectful relations with all nations in the hemisphere. We must work together to construct a global system of equality and solidarity, which enables us to confront the serious challenges of climate change and global poverty — and to create lasting peace.

Jorge Carpio is the executive director of the Citizens’ Participation on Justice and Human Rights Forum (FOCO) in Argentina.


Edgardo Lander (Venezuela)

Edgardo Lander (Venezuela)

President Barack Obama has severely criticized the policies of deregulation and market fundamentalism. In the United States, these policies have concentrated wealth among large corporations while leaving tens of millions without unemployment or medical insurance. Obama has also indicated that these policies are environmentally unsustainable. This perspective should be incorporated into the new administration’s policy toward Latin America, a region where the economic, social, and environmental damage of neoliberalism has been much more serious. Such a reorientation of policy would include:

  • Respecting Latin America’s independence. Ever since our republics were first established, all attempts to change or democratize Latin American nations have resulted in confrontation with U.S. government intervention or threats thereof.

  • Radically changing immigration policy. Massive rates of legal and illegal migration in the recent past have largely been caused by free-market policies. Free trade, export-oriented growth, and the privatization of public resources have led to the destruction of small farmers’ livelihoods, widespread unemployment, and increased economic inequality. It’s deeply immoral to allow the free movement of capital while simultaneously repressing the movement of populations affected by these policies.

  • Abolish the “war on drugs.” As evidenced by the U.S. prohibition on alcohol in the 1920s, these repressive policies only generate criminal networks, widespread corruption, and violence. The poor inevitably suffer the most, as demonstrated by the experience of farming communities throughout the Andean region, the current escalation of violence in Mexico, and the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latinos in U.S. prisons.

  • Shift the U.S. energy strategy away from supporting the biofuel industry, which isn’t an inadequate response to the global climate crisis. Further, this industry contributes to land concentration, uses toxic agro-chemicals, and destroys indigenous and farming communities, while also cutting down on food production.

Edgardo Lander is a professor of social sciences at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas.



Angel Ibarra Turcios (El Salvador)

Angel Ibarra Turcios (El Salvador)

Dear President Barack Obama,

In El Salvador, we closely followed your campaign, during which you promised to bring change in your country. We’re pleased with your victory and hope that your promises will translate into a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy, especially toward Latin America.

As you know, in recent decades the U.S. government has supported corrupt and repressive authoritarian regimes in El Salvador. We strongly feel that any foreign policy must respect the sovereignty of our people. Repressive security policies that have fostered militarism and war must be replaced with policies that foster democracy and peace.

Additionally, the current economic catastrophe is severely affecting El Salvador along with the rest of Latin America. This crisis serves as evidence that the “Washington Consensus” ideals of free market fundamentalism have failed. This crisis also sheds light on issues that have been consistently neglected by your country and the G-8, such as food shortages, the energy crisis, and the irreversibility of climate change. We urge your government to address these issues by engaging with other nations to reach fair and sustainable solutions.

In the spirit of embarking on a path of change, we ask your administration for cooperative relations, the humane treatment of our people living in your country, and efforts to promote peace at home and abroad.

In El Salvador, as in the United States, a new government has been elected on the promise of change. We ask you not to miss this opportunity to build a better world for our peoples, and we will promise to do the same.

Angel Ibarra Turcios

Angel Ibarra is the president of the National Ecological Union of El Salvador (UNES).



Magda Lanuza (Nicaragua)

Magda Lanuza (Nicaragua)

The Obama administration should:

  • Cancel illegitimate debts owed by Southern Hemisphere countries to nations in the North—it’s a direct transfer of resources from poor nations to rich countries. Support audits, such as the one in Ecuador, and other efforts to determine which foreign debts are illegitimate (accumulated either by dictators or through fraud).

  • Pay the Nicaraguan people long-overdue compensation for the U.S. role in Nicaragua’s 10-year civil war. The International Court of Justice declared in 1986 that the United States had to pay Nicaragua $27 million for that war. Nicaragua is still waiting.

  • Support fair-trade policies that provide fair prices for goods exported from the South to the North. These prices must allow our workers to live with dignity, have access to housing, etc. The United States should respect Latin Americans’ rights to protect the environment and our people’s rights, as well as to oppose the many free trade agreements that we’ve signed over the last decade.

  • Support people-centered programs and policies. U.S. aid must support national policies and programs that enhance local, sustainable development efforts that are consistent with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, instead of projects intended to boost trade.

  • Stop imposing conditions on loans, international aid, and trade negotiations. Two bad examples of this practice in the Bush administration are a) the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA)—those funds were provided only to countries that followed certain U.S.-imposed rules; and b) T-LAND from USAID—that new proposal only aids Latin American agricultural projects aimed at economic growth and exports.

  • Provide compensation for climate change disasters: As you may have heard, tropical countries, including those in Africa, are experiencing the worst impact of climate change. In Latin America, climate-related disasters occurred in 2006 in Bolivia and in 2008 in the Caribbean. We also call on the Obama administration to reject and eliminate carbon cap-and-trade systems, which promote trading without any regulation.

Magda Lanuza works for the Iniciativa contra los Agronegocios, which is part of the global Agribusiness Accountability Initiative in Nicaragua.



Graciela Rodriguez (Brazil)

Graciela Rodriguez (Brazil)

The Obama administration should sign and ratify the 1998 Rome Statute, which was signed by many Latin American countries to create the International Criminal Court. This organization is essential because it creates a multilateral space in which nations can work together to end impunity of crimes against humanity. For example, this court called for the imprisonment of Omar Al-Bashir for crimes committed as head of the government of Sudan, which has permitted the genocide of 2.7 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. This could be the Obama administration’s first indication that protecting human rights takes precedence over economic and commercial interests. It would be an emblematic case, and the most effective way to demonstrate to communities around the world the U.S. government’s determination to walk a path of absolute respect for human rights in its foreign policy.

The administration should also support the work of governments in the Americas, in dialogue with regional women’s movements, to eliminate all forms of gender discrimination. In particular, it should focus on immigrant women workers and sexual and reproductive health. This will help guarantee the respect of all their rights.

Graciela Rodriguez is the director of the EQÜIT Institute—Gender, Economics and Global Citizenship in Brazil.



Rodolfo Ramos, Carmen Cardozo, Natalia Alanoca Condori, and Joaquín Aquino (Bolivia)

Rodolfo Ramos, Carmen Cardozo, Natalia Alanoca Condori, and Joaquín Aquino (Bolivia)

For almost two decades, until the end of 2008, Bolivia was one of several countries that received special trade preferences under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), an accord with the U.S. This meant that new U.S. markets were created for 20,000 Bolivian workers to produce textiles, weavings, and woodwork.

Rodolfo Ramos is a Bolivian factory worker in a textile plant that exports clothes to the United States. "Our jobs depend on [the trade preferences]; our salaries depend on them, as do our monthly wages with which each one of us provides for our families," he said. "We hope that you will consider that when you make these agreements, you are benefiting the most humble, sincere families, and those that, at the same time, have the fewest economic resources here in Bolivia."

But last September, when the Morales and Bush administrations went to diplomatic war with one another, President George W. Bush tossed the trade preferences into the mix and used his executive authority to kick Bolivia off the list. Bush attributed the move to his administration's sudden (and political) "decertification" of Bolivia's drug-fighting efforts. But his move also broke directly with Congress, which on a bipartisan basis voted to keep Bolivia on the preference list.

Carmen Cardozo (not shown), who coordinates a traditional weavers' association, said, "There's a real possibility [without the trade preferences] that we would have to close the project, and those 250 families would have to look for other forms of income."

Bush's removal of Bolivia from the ATPDEA potentially puts more than 20,000 innocent Bolivian workers out of a job — workers like Natalia Alanoca Condori. She works in a La Paz factory making polo shirts and other clothing sold in American stores. "I am 28 years old and I have worked for seven years at the company. I have a family — my husband and my little daughter. I have coworkers who are mothers, single mothers, mothers whose husbands have died, and they provide for their families and pay for their children’s education. It’s tough, very tough. I think about where I would go, because here in Bolivia there truly isn’t enough work."

Joaquín Aquino, who makes furniture sold under the ATPDEA agreement, said, "My boss has already warned us that we would have to close. There’s no other option.We would end up in the street. The ones who have to pay are the workers on the bottom. We worry about it more every day."

The Obama administration should side with U.S. Congress and restore Bolivia's participation in Andean Trade Preferences.

This proposal was sent on behalf of the workers by the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia.



Manuel Pérez-Rocha, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This article forms part of a YES! Magazine series on the Summit of the Americas to complement earlier coverage on Latin America Rising. Reposted by kind permission of Foreign Policy In Focus.

Mouse iconRead more from our Latin America Rising issue.

Photo of Manuel Pérez-Rocha



Email Signup
Comment on this article

How to add a commentCommenting Policy

comments powered by Disqus

You won’t see any commercial ads in YES!, in print or on this website.
That means, we rely on support from our readers.

||   SUBSCRIBE    ||   GIVE A GIFT   ||   DONATE   ||
Independent. Nonprofit. Subscriber-supported.

Issue Footer

Personal tools