Secretary of State Kerry Outlines U.S. Hemispheric Foreign Policy

By Josh Manley

Josh Manley is a senior in the international affairs program at George Washington University, and is a GHRC Fall 2013 Intern.

Kerry, courtesy of flickr user MarkGregory

On November 18, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the Organization of American States on the Obama Administration’s foreign policy toward the Western Hemisphere. The Inter-American Dialogue co-sponsored the event, and leading Latin America policymakers attended, including Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson.

Monday’s speech marked the first time that Secretary Kerry spoke at length about U.S. foreign policy toward the region since taking office in February. It is the most recent example of Latin America’s rise on the agendas of leading U.S. officials. This year alone, President Obama visited Mexico and Costa Rica; Vice President Biden went to Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad & Tobago, and Panama; and Secretary Kerry traveled to Guatemala, Brazil, and Colombia. The fact that President Obama won 71% of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election may play a role in this renewed focus on the region.

Secretary Kerry made a good choice of venue. In recent years, the Organization of American States has been criticized by certain conservative members of Congress as a sort-of “talking shop” for the left-wing countries forming the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra America (ALBA). And some ALBA countries have accused the world’s oldest regional organization of being a tool of U.S. imperialism. Ultimately, Kerry’s decision reinforced the value of having a neutral setting for the countries of the Americas to exchange ideas on the very issues that he highlighted in his speech.As expected, Kerry’s declaration that the era of Monroe Doctrine was over received the most press attention at home and abroad. It was a signal that  perhaps it’s time for economic and geopolitical changes to alter the historically asymmetric power relationship that Washington had with its neighbors south of the Rio Grande. Indeed, the Americas must increasingly analyze issues through a partner-partner perspective, not a patron-client one. And with that telling introduction, Kerry overviewed the U.S. position on the major focus areas driving U.S. policy in the Americas.

The majority of the speech addressed the broad themes of democracy, economic prosperity, and climate change. Secretary Kerry painted the democratic advancements of Latin America in positive terms, albeit with expected criticism of Cuba and Venezuela. Of the countries he could have mentioned in this section, I was waiting to hear about Guatemala, and Secretary Kerry did not disappoint. He said that he met with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz in June and that “she has made extraordinary progress in combating corruption and organized crime, protecting women from violence, and prosecuting human rights violations.” This was no ordinary shout-out, and Secretary Kerry knows the political significance his words.

Kerry was right to say “democracy is not a final destination; it is an endless journey.” Arguably all countries in the region, to varying extents, face contestation of democratic institutions, and Guatemala is no exception. Even though Attorney General Paz y Paz was nominated for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize for her work, most notably leading the Prosecutor’s Office through the historic genocide trial against Efraín Ríos Montt, judicial institutions remain weak and impunity remains high. Powerful elements in Guatemalan society, like Ricardo Mendez-Ruiz’s Foundation against Terrorism, consistently attack human rights defenders and judicial actors that try to make decisions independent of political pressure. Strengthening democratic institutions requires support from the United States.

When the Secretary of State highlights the work that the Attorney General’s Office does, it is meaningful. When U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Arnold A. Chacon sits in on the genocide trial proceedings, it is meaningful. These actions, while they cannot be seen in the U.S. Foreign Assistance spreadsheets, are no less important. The legitimacy of these processes in the eyes of the United States government counters the onslaught of domestic malignment. This is what status quo forces do not want: a United States that partners with Guatemala to make democracy real and more than just elections. It will be a tough journey for the country, but continued encouragement and support from the United States goes a long way.

Secretary Kerry also highlighted the importance of economic opportunities, energy, and climate change. As mentioned in the speech, Latin American and Caribbean economies grew 4 percent in 2012 and the United States has invested in small and medium-sized businesses throughout the region. Although it is important that economies grow and trade occurs, we should not forget that all too often, Guatemalans do not receive or see the benefits of these economic “good times” equally. According to the World Bank, Guatemala’s GDP in 2012 was $50.54 billion. Unfortunately, the United Nations Development Program gave Guatemala the second worst Latin American Human Development Index score (0.581) for the same year. When adjusted for inequality, 33 percent of potential human development was lost.

Finally, Kerry connected the threat of climate change to the need to find alternative energy sources. Many countries agree that alternative energy sources are required to meet increased demand, but Guatemala should ensure that indigenous communities can participate in the processes that affect their livelihoods and communities. In recent years, Guatemala has turned to hydroelectric dam projects to deliver electricity to the country. Communities that oppose these projects, like the one in Santa Cruz Barillas, are often repressed and persecuted by the military and the judiciary. When indigenous communities reject extractive mining projects due to concerns like environmental contamination, they are often denied free, prior, and informed consent (consulta previa) and their rights under the International Labor Organization Convention 169. While it is good to focus the economies of the region, the United States should keep in mind those impacted by different types of economic change.

Secretary Kerry rode back to Foggy Bottom after articulately explaining the increased focus on the Western Hemisphere and where the United States would place the bulk of its efforts. Those whose work deals with regional countries and issues should welcome this renewed attention, but should not interpret it as a time to relax.

Countries like Guatemala, no matter how much monetary or political support they may get from the United States, still rely on the support of NGOs and human rights activists to advocate in solidarity with people like Claudia Paz y Paz to reduce impunity or local community leaders only asking for a voice and vote on development issues that affect them. Secretary Kerry invoked President Kennedy’s vision of “a hemisphere of nations, each confident in the strength of its own independence, devoted to the liberty of its citizens” and the proverb “la unión hace la fuerza.” In these times of challenge and opportunity, grassroots activists and private organizations, through continued hard work, can help make that vision a reality and that proverb a general practice.

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