Guest Column

A Blemished Latin American Record

By Larry Birns

Council on Hemispheric Affairs
In the February issue of the Foreign Service Journal, researchers at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) noted that the replacement of Secretary of State Colin Powell by Condoleezza Rice would provide an appropriate opportunity to assess his legacy regarding Latin America after four years in office. Underlining such an appraisal was the inescapable truism that Powell "never articulated a vision for the region." Rather, his policy was marked by an "apathy, revealing major flaws in the areas of staffing, an indifference toward democratic institutions and tolerance for intervention in the internal affairs of regional nations."

Powell brought with him a huge reputation but also a stunning lack of comprehension of Latin American economic and political realities. To the contrary, COHA director Larry Birns maintains that Powell allowed a small group of hard-right "ideologues like Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and his assistant Dan Fisk," along with the Department’s arch-rightwing zealot, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, "to define regional ties, primarily through an anti-Havana prism.” Reich was later named the White House's Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere after it was determined that he could not win Senate confirmation to be assistant secretary for Inter-American affairs. He took advantage of the vacuum that existed in the White House and State Department as well as Powell's lack of a “feel” for the Latin American portfolio, to promote a hyper-narrow, if perfunctory, focus on trade and terrorism but his main stance was a notoriously obsessive hatred of his former motherland, Castro’s Cuba. Such a stand “guaranteed a record at least as mediocre as it had been under all of his Republican and Democratic predecessors.” The two COHA authors maintain that “during Powell’s watch, U.S. regional policy has been marked by even more acts of arrogance, squandered opportunity and unbridled unilateralism – typified by the heavy-handed interventions in the electoral processes in Nicaragua, Bolivia, El Salvador and Venezuela.”

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State simply stood by as his Inter-American Bureau, first under Reich and then under Noriega’s command, blundered into interfering in democratic elections across the hemisphere and condoned or even facilitated coups against the left-of-center governments headed by Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in April 2002 and Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in February 2004. The toppling of Aristide, which led to heightened political instability, rampant human rights abuses and a deepening economic crisis in the Western Hemisphere's poorest and most fragile polity, will ultimately stand as one of the most damaging blemishes on Powell's now tarnished regional reputation. It was in fact the State Department's calculated refusal to authorize the dispatching of an emergency U.S.-led police force to protect the Aristide government in its final days that guaranteed the demise of Haiti’s democratically-elected government, and its replacement with the Washington-imposed and appallingly inept Latortue interim government, including its outrageously injudicious Justice Minister, Bernard Gousse, for which it never has had a public word of criticism.

According to Birns, "Though a dramatically new direction is needed to restore Washington's tarnished reputation in Latin America, any prospect for constructive engagement now appears distant." They go on to predict that during Bush's second term, "a regional policy even more disjointed and colored by ideological priorities" is likely to be seen, along with "four more years of gun-slinging, bluff rhetoric and the imposed 'diplomacy' it has experienced at the hand of the […] hard-liners under Powell."

Looking back over the last four years, observers of U.S. policy toward Latin America during this era will inevitably have to conclude that not only did Powell fail to provide a rational direction and a moderate guiding hand for
U.S. regional policy, it is far from clear that he ever intended to do so. Instead, he “allowed a small clique of political appointees,” who he always defended with inflated ceremonial language, to formulate an ill-considered series of policies that have driven the United States’ standing in the region to a new and historic low. Evidence for this can be seen in the failure of Powell’s “Latin America policy team which lacked the “basic sophistication to effectively grapple with one of the most significant regional developments in decades: the rise of an informal coalition of left-of-center democracies increasingly skeptical of Washington’s neoliberal diktats.”

The author of the forthcoming Foreign Service Journal article (February 2005 issue) are COHA Director Larry Birns

January 27, 2005


The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email coha@coha.org.

The monthly Foreign Service Journal, which is published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), has a circulation of 15,000. It is mainly distributed among U.S. career foreign service officers and others concerned with all aspects of U.S. diplomacy. A copy of the February, 2005 article, “A Blemished Latin American Record,” can be obtained by contacting the Foreign Service Journal’s Circulation Manager Ed Miltenberger at ffjads@afsa.org or by going to: www.afsa.org/fsj/current.cfm