Most people will probably read Obama’s Miami speech on Latin America policy and focus on the parts about Cuba and meeting with Raul Castro, but what I found striking was Obama’s account of the rise of left-populist governments in the hemisphere:

Since the Bush Administration launched a misguided war in Iraq, its policy in the Americas has been negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in peoples’ lives, and incapable of advancing our interests in the region. 

No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past. But the United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that this stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua [bold mine-DL]. And Chavez and his allies are not the only ones filling the vacuum. While the United States fails to address the changing realities in the Americas, others from Europe and Asia – notably China – have stepped up their own engagement. Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela, and just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil profits.

Obama does not delve into the absurdities of Santorumesque warnings about a Tehran-Caracas axis, but he drifts in that direction a lot more than one would like to see.  Why did the “stale vision” make inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua?  Nicaragua is a slightly different case that turned on Ortega’s pretense to taking a more accommodating view towards the Catholic Church, among other things, but in the case of Ecuador, Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, Argentina, the “stale vision” took over in direct reaction against the neoliberal (Argentina, Bolivia) and drug war (Bolivia, Ecuador) policies promoted by pro-American regimes throughout the continent.  There were also indigenous causes for the rise in popularity of a left-populism that seemed to serve the interests of the poor majorities in Bolivia and Venezuela, but frequently what propelled left-populists into power was a popular backlash against extensive U.S. involvement in their countries and what was perceived to be the co-opting of their governments for the sake of corporate and foreign interests.  The people in these countries were being alienated by these things, but it wasn’t for lack of engagement or involvement on Washington’s part–as usual, there was too much engagement of a particularly harmful sort.  The “stale vision” has made the inroads it has because of democracy and “people power,” the sort of thing that people in Washington praise when some form of it puts criminals and dictators into power on Russia’s doorstep but find very worrisome when it empowers coca farmers and socialists in our hemisphere.  What is notable about Obama’s critique of this in particular is that the left-populism he attacks here is just the extreme edge of the general leftwards movement of Latin American countries towards more social democratic models that is taking place everywhere, even to some extent in Chile.  No doubt he is correct that the left-populism on offer is stale and will fail, ultimately to the detriment of the poor majorities that empowered Morales, Chavez, Correa and the rest, but his outline for what “leadership” in Latin America would entail has a certain unreality to it. 

For example: 

So my policy towards the Americas will be guided by the simple principle that what’s good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States.

But this is not always the case, or rather it redefines what is good for the United States according to what is good for other nations and then, thanks to this redefinition, it can never be proven wrong.  An argument can be made that pushing neoliberalism on Latin America has been bad for Latin America and for the United States, but I don’t think that’s what Obama means. 

Next he says, “The United States must be a relentless advocate for democracy.”  Not terribly surprising, but what does Obama make of the fact that the democracy he wants to advocate relentlessly has produced, by his own admission, a number of governments that are not going to be good for the countries they govern?  He acknowledges that Chavez is elected, but does not “govern democratically,” as if democratic despots are unimaginable.  Generally, when Obama says democracy he is actually referring to the undemocratic structures of constitutional states: “strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law.”  Democracy qua democracy is easily the enemy of almost all of these, so I wonder why we keep talking about it as if it were the unimpeachable good.

His vision of a souped-up drug war sounds ominous:

We have to do our part. And that is why a core part of this effort will be a northbound-southbound strategy. We need tougher border security, and a renewed focus on busting up gangs and traffickers crossing our border. But we must address the material heading south as well. As President, I’ll make it clear that we’re coming after the guns, we’re coming after the money laundering, and we’re coming after the vehicles that enable this crime. And we’ll crack down on the demand for drugs in our own communities, and restore funding for drug task forces and the COPS program. We must win the fights on our own streets if we’re going to secure the region. 

Doesn’t that have just the slightest ring of “we’re fighting them here so we don’t have to fight them over there”?