Return of the Good Neighbor: From Cuba to Geneva

The standing of the United States in Latin America has not been so low in at least three-quarters of a century—perhaps ever. And this tarnished image is not restricted to Latin America. The Bush administration has managed to reduce drastically U.S. credibility and prestige in the world at large.

It need not have been so. Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, there was an outpouring of support for and solidarity with the United States. The world faced a new threat, and, it was believed, the United States would now lead the way in confronting it, consulting with its allies and working carefully with the United Nations as it did so. As many saw it at the time, it was an opportunity not only to defeat the terrorists, but also to strengthen the international system. The United States was seen, briefly, as the champion of a noble effort.

Bush Downgrades Collective Security and Respect for Geneva Conventions

But the Bush administration quickly dispelled any such illusions, making it clear that it gave—and gives—little importance to the collective security system that had prevailed for the past half-century. Shortly after 9/11, for example, it announced its intention to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, considered to be a central component of the system of arms control and reduction treaties that had helped neutralize the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. In 2002, it did withdraw.

Perhaps even more disturbing was its announcement in 2002 of a new national security doctrine which moved sharply away from adherence to collective security to one of preemptive military action against any state deemed by the United States, without consultations or regard for anyone else’s view, to be a "potential threat." When seen against the way the United States went to war in Iraq the next year, on the basis of imaginary threats and outright lies, and with only a sneer for the UN Security Council, this new doctrine raises the specter of a dangerously unpredictable international system in which the United States takes preemptive military action against anyone it wishes on the basis of no hard evidence at all.

What of Cuba, for example? Immediately after 9/11, it had expressed its solidarity with the American people and offered to cooperate fully with the United States in efforts against terrorism. But these overtures were ignored and the Bush administration soon announced that its objective was to "bring an end to the Castro government."

In prudence, then, the Cubans must be prepared for U.S. military actions against them. So must the Venezuelans. Indeed, the United States had already tried to overthrow—or assist in the overthrow of—the Chavez government. There is abundant evidence that the Bush administration was fully informed about and encouraged the 2002 coup against Chavez. Prior to that, Chavez had seemed open to some accommodation with the United States. Subsequently, as one would imagine, everything has gone in the opposite direction.

The United States, it might be said, had taken a wrong turn even before Bush was elected, when in 1998, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and, then, in 1999, the International Criminal Court. But in the latter case, the Bush administration made matters worse by insisting that governments that do support the court must sign "bilateral immunity agreements" with the United States so that they cannot use the court against U.S. citizens. If they refuse, the United States threatens to reduce or cut off any aid it gives them. This has infuriated governments around the world, who regard it as a sign of extreme arrogance on the part of the United States. Most Latin American governments have refused to sign.

In the same way, the Republican-controlled Senate had refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming even before Bush took office. But, again, his administration made matters worse by not only vociferously rejecting any thought of adhering to its provisions but even questioning whether global warming is anything that humankind can address. On this, it is at odds with virtually the rest of the world.

The United States had long been seen as a leading defender of human rights and as scrupulously respecting the Geneva Conventions. No longer. Not with the horrifying pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the reports of abuses at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. These reports are rendered even more damaging by the memos coming out of the Pentagon and Justice Department which make it clear that the abuses were condoned—and at the highest levels of the U.S. government.

International Reaction

All this, and especially the reports of prisoner abuses and violations of the Geneva Conventions have done grave damage to the U.S. image and reputation, even among our closest allies. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament, for example, in 2005 charged that the Bush administration had committed "grave violations of human rights" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. The European Parliament called for an investigation of the situation at Guantanamo, and the Council of Europe, a human rights body more than half a century old, denounced the United States for resorting to the torture of prisoners. And in Latin America, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in 2005 called for immediate hearings to determine the status of prisoners held at Guantanamo. True to form, the Bush administration ignored the commission’s call, as it ignored all expressions of concern on the part of the European entities.

Most other governments in the hemisphere disagree, often angrily, with the positions taken by the Bush administration on such issues as "preemptive military action," the International Criminal Court, and global warming. Increasingly, they are distancing themselves from us and opposing us in international meetings. This was pointed out most clearly, for example, at the Summit of the Americas conference held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November of 2005. Not only were there massive demonstrations against President Bush, but the overwhelming majority of representatives of other governments flatly rejected the only thing President Bush had to offer—a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas, which now, in 2008, is virtually a dead letter—except in the case of Colombia.

The stark erosion of U.S. influence had been seen also at the Ibero-American Conference held in Salamanca, Spain, in October of 2005. There, despite strenuous lobbying efforts on the part of the United States, the foreign ministers of Latin America, of Spain, and Portugal, unanimously and vociferously backed Cuba in calling for an end to the U.S. "blockade" of the island. Nor has any support for the U.S. position developed over the past few years. On the contrary, now, in 2008, it can be said that U.S. policy toward Cuba has the support of not a single other government. Israel votes with us every year in the UN General Assembly to maintain the embargo. It does not, however, respect the embargo. On the contrary, it is one of Cuba’s most active trading partners.

To Restore the U.S. Image

In discussing hemispheric relations with me recently, a Latin American friend stressed that: "Most of us in Latin America are not anti-American, it’s that we strongly oppose President Bush and his policies."

President Bush’s term of office expires in less than six months. Part of the problem, then, will soon be removed in the natural order of things. President Bush will be gone. Initially, however, most of his policies would remain. Obviously, then, those who wish to restore honor and credibility to the U.S. image in the world at large should dedicate themselves to removing the more harmful of these policies as quickly as possible. A good beginning would be to reaffirm full respect for the Geneva Conventions and for human rights. There should be a clear statement that henceforth prisoners will not be abused and that any memos seeming to authorize such abuses will be rendered null and void. The prison at Guantanamo should be closed. This will take time, but our intention to close it should be announced immediately.

We should also announce immediately that the doctrine of "preemptive military action" will no longer be considered operative. Rather, the United States will return to full respect for and adherence to the system of collective security provided for by the United Nations and various other international arrangements.

As the keystone to a new approach in this hemisphere, the new administration should emphasize that it will fully respect the sovereignty of all states and deal with them as equals. As Col. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s aide when he was in the State Department, has so well noted, there is perhaps no better way to initiate and give credibility to our new hemispheric approach than with an opening to Cuba. Although Raul Castro has several times indicated his willingness to begin a dialogue without preconditions, the Bush administration has totally ignored the offers; rather, its objective has continued to be to bring an end to the Castro government—an objective it has no means of achieving. It is a policy that could hardly be less realistic.

We should return to reality by beginning to lift travel controls, leading off with those now imposed on Cuban-American families. At the same time, the new administration should indicate that the United States has no further hostile intentions toward the Cuban government, that all operations which in the past have flowed from such intentions, mostly on the part of the CIA, will be halted, and that the United States is prepared to begin a dialogue with the Cuban government to discuss, on an issue-by-issue basis, the various disagreements between us, with a view eventually to normalizing relations. As part of this process, the United States could at a given point discuss the return of the Guantanamo Naval Base to Cuba.

We would of course wish to see Cuba move in the direction of a more open society—and one without political prisoners. Threats, pressures, and pre-conditions however, will not achieve that. On the contrary, the more we threaten, the more defensive the Cubans become. We have a much better chance of encouraging liberalization by reducing tensions and beginning a dialogue. We could hardly achieve less than has the Bush administration over the past eight years.

The new administration should also consider how it might support or renew our adherence to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the International Criminal Court. In some cases, of course, this would require the support of the U.S. Senate. We should respect them all, whether we are listed as members or not. Certainly, however, we should fully subscribe to and participate in efforts to control global warming. We can no longer pretend that it isn’t a problem.

Historical Precedent

What we face today is reminiscent of the situation we faced just before entering into the Good Neighbor Policy. Essentially from the early 1900s until 1930, the United States had followed a policy of "gunboat and dollar diplomacy." It took the position that as under the Monroe Doctrine the United States had the duty of keeping extra-hemispheric countries from interfering in the countries of this hemisphere, the United States also had the duty of making certain the countries of this hemisphere paid their debts or did not in some other way invite the intervention of extra-hemispheric powers. Thus, if, say, the Dominican Republic did not pay its debt to European states in timely fashion, the United States would simply land Marines, take over the customs operations, and possibly other parts of the government, and make certain the debts were paid promptly. This was done under what was called the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.

Needless to say, the Latin American governments resented this U.S. assumption that it had a right to intervene in their internal affairs. The interventions, by and large, were confined to Central America and the Caribbean, but all states objected, Argentina most forcefully so. Latin American objections indeed became so unanimous and strongly voiced that they could not be ignored. The policy began to backfire.

To his credit, as he became president in 1928, Herbert Hoover shifted toward a new approach by ordering the State Department to examine the question of whether the Monroe Doctrine in fact gave the United States the right to intervene in the nations to our south. In 1930, in the J. Reuben Clark memo, the Department said that it did not. This ended the interventions and opened the way to the Good Neighbor Policy, fully embraced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and then given added strength by the U.S. pledge at the 1936 Pan American conference in Buenos Aires that it would not henceforth intervene in the internal affairs of any state.

The United States was as good as its word and there then followed the most harmonious, productive relationship between the United States and Latin America that we have seen, essentially, we can say, from 1932 until 1954. During those years, and especially from 1936 on, the United States respected the sovereignty of the other states, refrained from intervening in their internal affairs, respected international treaties and agreements, and worked closely within, first, the Pan American Union and then the Organization of American States. This was the high point in U.S.-Latin American relations, something seen clearly during World War II, when with the exception of Peron’s Argentina, all the states of this hemisphere were our loyal allies, providing raw materials, naval and air bases for U.S. forces, and even, in the cases of Brazil and Mexico, armed forces of their own who fought alongside ours. The Good Neighbor Policy, however, came to an end and the Cold War came bloodily to Latin America with the CIA’s overthrow of the Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954.

There is no reason now not to return to something resembling the Good Neighbor Policy, no reason certainly not to commit ourselves to respect international laws and treaties, and to fully respect the sovereignty of the other states. The Cold War is over. International terrorism is not entrenched in Latin America. The United States, in short, faces no serious security threats in this hemisphere. And to prevent any from emerging, its best option is to work closely with the other governments, as we did during the era of the Good Neighbor Policy.



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