Mixed signals from Washington have left Bernardo Álvarez Herrera, the ambassador from Venezuela, uncertain about where relations between Latin America and the United States are heading under the Obama administration.
But he thinks he'll know how to tell. After a long period of paying little attention to Latin America, U.S. policymakers have turned to the region again because of a June military coup in Honduras and controversy over U.S. access to military bases in Columbia.
"The two issues of the Honduras crisis and the bases — military bases in Colombia — are going to be turning points in the relationship," Álvarez Herrera told listeners in Bunche Hall on Thursday, Oct. 8. The lecture by the Venezuelan diplomat and political scientist was sponsored by the Latin American Institute and the International Institute.
On both issues, Álvarez Herrera said, some in the United States government are taking positions more in line with cold war strategy than with what he spoke of as the new reality in Latin America. The Obama administration pressed for the reinstatement of ousted President Manuel Zelaya following the coup in Honduras, but Venezuelan and other allies of Zelaya in the region have been alarmed by equivocal messages from the State Department and by congressional lobbying on behalf of the de facto military government in Honduras.
"The first thing these people (the coup leaders) did in Honduras was to try to come to Washington and get the support of people in Washington," said Álvarez Herrera. "That is an old tradition in Latin America."
Regarding U.S. plans to use military bases in Colombia, the ambassador said that Venezuela and other South American nations were now demanding "formal guarantees" limiting the types of operations launched from them. Earlier in the week, a State Department official said that the accord will merely formalize U.S. access to the bases for the joint anti-narcotics mission. But Venezuela and other members of the Union of South American Nations, Colombia excepted, have expressed suspicions about the arrangement.
"You cannot be talking about peace and at the same time increasing the presence of the military in Colombia," the ambassador said. Álvarez Herrera's criticism of President Obama on Thursday preceded the announcement that he had become the third sitting U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Álvarez Herrera, who was expelled from the United States in a diplomatic spat in the waning months of the Bush administration, also remarked that the election of President Obama offered hope for more dialogue and for a departure from the "classical imperial mentality" in which Latin America is the "backyard" of North America.
"At least we have a possibility. I think that possibility is very much linked to the personality of President Obama. He's a person with credibility, respect, and he's a new player."
As the representative in Washington of President Hugo Chávez's government, the ambassador is often advised to tread lightly and to try to create conditions for better bilateral relations over the long term.
"The thing is reality is moving, at least in our countries, at such a speed," said Álvarez Herrera. "Latin America has already changed. We have also to change this idea that we will change once the U.S. has changed."
In Venezuela, Álvarez Herrera credits Chávez with evading widespread civil unrest since 1999 by tackling poverty and social ills directly. In Latin America, said the ambassador, Chávez has been a unifying force who has offered a multilateral approach to diplomacy and real alternatives to the so-called "Washington consensus" of promoting neoliberal economic and trade policies.
One audience member asked Álvarez Herrera whether Chávez's heated rhetoric made the diplomat's job more difficult than it would otherwise be.
"Sometimes rhetoric is the only tool you have," explained the ambassador. "If there were more dialogue, direct communication, it would be easier for us."