WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 May 2010 | News

Waiting for Change

A year ago, at a summit of Latin America's leaders, President Obama hit a note that resonated well with his counterparts: "I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations."

After that hopeful moment, though, the new administration stumbled at the starting gate, contends Waiting for Change, a new report (PDF in English or Spanish) released by three Washington-based organizations with decades of experience working on U.S. security policy toward Latin America. 2009 was a rough year for U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. Many governments – not just Venezuela – accused the Obama administration of inattention, vacillation on democracy and human rights, and arrogance, especially after it secretly negotiated a defense agreement with Colombia.

But there is still opportunity to reset the relationship, according to the authors of Waiting for Change. The Center for International Policy, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Washington Office on Latin America lay out a series of recommendations for resetting relations with the region. The three organizations have collaborated for 12 years on a joint military-assistance monitoring project, "Just the Facts," which maintains a constantly updated online regional security resource at www.justf.org.

"In 2010, 47 percent of the United States' more than $3 billion in aid to Latin America is going to militaries and police forces," says Adam Isacson, senior associate for security policy at WOLA and one of the authors of Waiting for Change. "That's the highest proportion in a decade, and it indicates an unbalanced approach. Add to that a new military-basing agreement signed last October with Colombia, and the main face that most of the region is seeing from the Obama administration is a military one."

"The Obama Administration's human rights policy in Latin America has been missing in action," adds Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. "With the weak, contradictory response to the coup in Honduras, and a stand-by-our-man approach towards allied governments in Mexico and Colombia, the first year has been disappointing. Now that the President's human rights team is in place, we're hoping to see a greater willingness to take action. The Obama Administration must be strong on human rights, especially with allied governments receiving large amounts of security assistance."

Adds Abigail Poe, deputy director of the Center for International Policy, "Last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderón's visit to Washington made clear that our anti-drug policy needs fixing, and that our neighbors' proposals offer a starting point. From Mexico to Bolivia, we are hearing that U.S. aid should be less narrowly focused on short-term drug-supply reductions, more oriented toward strengthening governance and justice, and more open to alternative approaches to the entire problem – including demand reduction at home."

"We continue to see an increasing U.S. military role in relations with the region," says Joy Olson,director of the Washington Office on Latin America. "This is true whether the issue is military presence on the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. Southern Command filling the civilian leadership vacuum on inter-agency efforts, the emergence of new aid programs in the defense budget, or a declared U.S. military interest in helping the region confront internal threats like gangs."

The report notes that some signs of positive change began to emerge in early 2010, as Obama administration nominees finally entered posts with Latin America responsibilities. Waiting for Change lays out recommendations for how these officials can set things right: in earthquake-battered Haiti, post-coup Honduras, Cuba, the annual foreign aid budget, human rights, counternarcotics, and immigration.

Waiting for Change calls for a renewed focus on diplomatic engagement, including with governmen
ts considered to be adversaries, less emphasis on military-to-military ties, and greater transparency and consultation about U.S. military intentions with the region.

For more information, contact:

Kristel Mucino, Washington Office on Latin America kmucino@wola.org / 617-584-1713
Adam Isacson, Washington Office on Latin America aisacson@wola.org / 202-596-2321
Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group lisah@lawg.org / 202-546-7010
Abigail Poe, Center for International Policy abigail@ciponline.org / 202-232-3317