US President Obama returns to Latin America

The US is in no place to lecture the people of Mexico and Central America on democracy and human rights, writes author.

"President Obama's trip to Mexico and Costa Rica provides an opportunity for the US and the region to recommit themselves to strengthening democratic institutions and respecting human rights," writes Allison [AFP]
"President Obama's trip to Mexico and Costa Rica provides an opportunity for the US and the region to recommit themselves to strengthening democratic institutions and respecting human rights," writes Allison [AFP]

United States President Barack Obama travels to Latin America today for a three-day visit with stops in Mexico where he will meet with the newly-inaugurated President of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and in San Jose, Costa Rica, where he will meet with the presidents of Central America and the Dominican Republic. While Mexican, Central American and US leaders look to broaden the discussion points beyond a narrow focus on security, noticeably absent in their public pronouncements have been questions about democracy and human rights.

In Mexico, Obama and Pena Nieto’s talks are planned to “cover competiveness, education and innovation, along with border infrastructure, commerce, migration and citizen security among other subjects of shared interest”. In recent comments on Mexico, President Obama stated:

“There’s so much more to the relationship – in terms of commerce, in terms of trade, in terms of energy. And so we want to highlight some of the close cooperation that’s already been taking place and to continue to build on that, so that we’re creating more jobs and more opportunity on both sides of the borders.”

President Obama’s comments are similar to those made by president-elect Pena Nieto during a pre-inaugural meeting at the White House in November 2012. In Costa Rica, Obama is scheduled to attend a Central American Integration System (SICA) summit. SICA was created in 1991 in hopes of advancing Central American integration “in order for the Isthmus to become a Region of Peace, Freedom, Democracy and Development”.

In attendance will be the host, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla as well as the Dominican Republic’s Danilo Medina, El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes, Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Panama’s Ricardo Martinelli. While security related to drug trafficking, organised crime and transnational gangs will be on everyone’s mind, the talks are likely to address a wide variety of bilateral and multilateral issues, including commerce, immigration and clean energy. However, the approach falls short of making Central America a region of peace, freedom, democracy and development.

Grave human rights violations

The US is in no position today, nor has it really even been, to lecture the people of Mexico and Central America on democracy and human rights. Gridlock in the US Congress, drone-enabled killings without due process for enemy combatants, even if they are US citizens, the ongoing embarrassment that is Guantanamo Bay, and its wavering support for democracy in Honduras, are only four recent issues that undermine US authority to speak out on human rights and democracy. 

US immigration system moves towards reform

However, it is important that President Obama not neglect the promotion of democracy and human rights in the region during his upcoming trip. The benefits of foreign direct investment and trade, immigration reform, foreign aid and numerous programmes designed to provide security assistance to Mexico and the nations of Central America will have limited positive effect if there is not a concerted effort to strengthen democracy and respect for human rights.

Twenty-three Republican and Democratic members of the US Congress recently wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry to express their “serious concern about the persistence of grave human rights violations in Mexico” and to strongly encourage the US “to make the defence of human rights a central part of the bilateral agenda with our neighbour”.

Mexico has experienced an alarming increase in recent years of homicides, disappearances, complaints of human right violations against soldiers and federal police, and threats and attacks against human rights defenders and journalists.

The US Congress is withholding a symbolic $18 million in security assistance from Mexico until there is progress in the area of human rights. In addition to assisting with the implementation of a national database to track missing persons, the US needs to support its Mexican partners to hold accountable, through a court of law, those security forces complicit in disappearances and other human rights violations and to work more effectively to reduce the criminal involvement of the country’s security forces in the future.

Enrique Pena Nieto has only been in office five months after returning the PRI to power late last year. The PRI had governed Mexico as a one-party state for seven decades until its defeat in the 2000 election. Similar to the late 1990s, the PRI controls the executive branch but must work with the National Action Party (PAN), the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and other political blocs to implement its legislative agenda.

The change in government in Mexico provides an opportune moment for the US and Mexico to take a fresh look at what has worked and what has not worked since the PRI lost power. A six-year drug war launched by former President Felipe Calderon weakened democracy and respect for human rights and led to the deaths and disappearances of tens of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans. The two countries must take advantage of this critical moment to reverse the backwards slide.

Like the relationship between Mexico and the US, the relationship between the US and the countries of Central America go well beyond the stories frequently covered in the international media such as drug trafficking, transnational gangs and violence. Obviously, those issues are vitally important as Honduras, Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala maintain some of the highest homicide rates in the world, but they are not the only issues that drive the agenda.

The population of Central America is approximately 41 million. Over 3 million Central American immigrants reside in the US and nearly half of them are thought to be undocumented. Approximately 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product comes from remittances that Central Americans residing in the US and elsewhere send to their native countries. That percentage is closer to 20 percent in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Comprehensive immigration reform

As a result of these issues, the leaders and people of Central America as well as Mexico are highly interested in what the President has to say about comprehensive immigration reform. Guatemala will also be interested in learning whether there has been any progress on its request for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

El Salvador, on the other hand, awaits word on whether TPS for its citizens will be extended past its expiry in September. How the US treats people, whether documented or not, within its borders is a test of democracy and human rights.

However, as in Mexico, Obama needs to somehow make the strengthening of democracy and the promotion of human rights priorities in the US’ relations with Central America. Honduras has been unable to recover from the June 2009 coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office; with the highest homicide rate in the world, police officers, lawyers, teachers, journalists, taxi drivers, gays and lesbians, and democracy and human rights activists are now being killed at alarming rates.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches are all at loggerheads with one another and are perhaps more the problem than the solution. While popular, President Daniel Ortega continues to erode democratic structures in Nicaragua following his questionably legal re-election in 2011. 

Obama for better El Salvador ties

In El Salvador, the country’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Court have had to beat back elected officials’ efforts to undermine the integrity and independence of the judicial branch in both 2011 and 2012.

There are too many former military officials in the civilian government of former general and now president, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala. Attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, indigenous leaders, lawyers, and police are all too frequent. Some of the institutions that have shown the most progress in recent years, the attorney general’s office and the courts, have come under attack by those who benefit from the current lawlessness.

While perhaps not as serious as the situations in Mexico and the other nations of Central America, press freedom and attacks against indigenous groups in Panama and corruption in Costa Rica are also cause for concern.

It is unlikely that Obama is going to announce a significant increase in US economic assistance to the region and the US already has free trade agreements with Mexico (NAFTA) and Central America (DR-CAFTA). The US is unlikely to agree to significant drug policy reforms, such as decriminalisation and regulation, desired by so many. Nor is the US likely to cut security assistance to Honduras and Mexico even as their forces continue to be involved in wide-scale abuses, including extrajudicial executions.

Obama could make a difference, however, returning democracy and human rights to the top of the agenda. In a 1989 conference of the Council of the Americas, President George HW Bush said that a commitment to democracy and market economies would help define relations between the US and Latin America.

At the first Summit of the Americas to take place in Miami, Florida, in 1994, President Bill Clinton and the heads of state of every Latin American country, except Cuba, agreed on an ambitious plan to deepen democracy and human rights, to achieve economic growth and improve income redistribution within market economies, eliminate poverty and discrimination, and secure environmentally sustainable development. Progress on each of those issues was uneven, at best, during the Clinton and George W Bush administrations.

President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Costa Rica provides an opportunity for the US and the region to recommit themselves to strengthening democratic institutions and respecting human rights.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

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