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  1. Long reads
7 November 2008

The challenges facing Obama

Just what direction will the president-elect take on South America, Israel and the wars in Iraq and

By Kenzie Eliasen

How can one put this diplomatically?

Barack Obama, who thrilled a majority of the US people with his electoral victory on Tuesday, has to be careful about the information he receives from his advisers about Latin America if he is not to repeat the blunders committed by his predecessor or indeed commit similar ones.

Much of the rest of the world has justifiedly been cheering the triumph of a man of mixed race and the son of a black father. He is about to move into a White House built with black slave labour (and subsequently burned by British soldiers). Yet those cheers have obscured foreigners’ enduring distaste with a US whose political plans were as ignorant as its financial strategies were catastrophic.

Mr Bush, for instance, heard his diplomats in the State Department telling him that they had squared foreign politicians to accept the US international kidnapping policies – euphoniously renamed “extraordinary rendition”, and torture policies – equally misnamed “abuse”. Misguidedly he went on to believe that the peoples of Europe and elsewhere were meekly accepting Washington’s sustained flouting of international treaties and the elementary rules of natural justice. Hence the Republican Party’s blubbering mien in recent years and its surprised and anguished cries of “Why don’t they love us?”

Sadly there are signs that the future president’s councillors have already been setting him on the wrong rails, filling his head with ideas for an even more militaristic US. “I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines,” Obama told an audience in Chicago in April. Where are they going to fight?

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And how will he vary US economic strategies when he accepts big fat campaign gifts from such as Goldman Sachs ($799,821), JPMorgan Chase ($529,012), Citigroup ($523,948) and Lehman Brothers – when they were still alive and solvent – ($403,624).

His advisers have been steering him down a cul-de-sac by telling him to accept Israel’s policies on the Middle East and pledge US finance and military support for that country’s illegal occupation of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territory.

In Latin America the President-elect appears, for instance, to believe that the legitimate president of Venezuela, one Hugo Chávez, is some sort of dictatorial mountebank because bodies such Human Rights Watch allege – on little or no evidence – that he is.

Have we heard any protests from the Obama camp, say about US political skulduggery against the equally legitimate government of Bolivia? Will the man who has done so much to strengthen the self-respect of people of African blood in the US side with white racists in South America – from Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Guayaquil – in their savage struggle to keep the indigenes down? Do we hear murmurs when the President of Ecuador shows that US agencies had their fingers in the murderous raid by Colombian forces on Ecuadorean territory a few months back? Have the Obama advisers come out against the comfortable presence on US soil of convicted terrorists from Central America and the Caribbean such as the man who blew up a Cuban airliner off Barbados with the loss of scores of lives?

Is there any indication that an Obama government would call of the increasingly bloody and futile “war on drugs” – the minor narcotics such as cocaine and marijuana, not the major ones like tobacco and alcohol which produce corporate profits and government tax revenue? As anyone with local knowledge could have foreseen, this “war” has in recent weeks produced more murders in Mexico and more scandals among the ranks of the armed forces of Colombia than ever before.

The unfortunate fact is that none of these questions has had the right answer.

More immediately the impending arrival of a strong flotilla of the Russian navy in Venezuelan waters will challenge the gifts of political judgement of a president-elect who is about to inherit a country whose foreign military adventures have bought widespread death, destruction and bereavement to millions in the Arab world. The testing of Obama is already starting.

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