President Obama Visits El Salvador on Latin America Tour

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Promotes “common prosperity,” but for whom?

In March, President Obama made his first presidential tour of Latin America, visiting Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. For decades, right-wing political parties in El Salvador held on to power through an intense fear campaign, threatening that if the leftist Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) were to win the Presidency, it would mean the end of diplomatic relations with the US. These threats, for example, that the US would block the remittances that Salvadoran immigrants send home to their families, were echoed by some Congressional Republicans as recently as 2009.                                      

Thus President Obama's decision to meet with El Salvador’s first progressive president, and his pledge to support President Funes’ economic and social development plans, has effectively deflated one of the right-wing’s oldest threats, giving the government and the popular movement some important breathing room to continue El Salvador’s political transformation. As President Funes told reporters, "We have won the battle against disinformation. We have dispelled the fear that relations would deteriorate.” To the contrary, forming strong “partnerships” with Latin America was the overarching theme of President Obama’s tour. But are these partnerships really designed to promote “common prosperity and common security” as President Obama stated, or do they promote continued US control in Latin America, albeit in a better disguise?                  

Before taking off for Latin America, the President declared that his top priority for the trip was to increase US exports to the region, that is, to ensure that Latin America import a majority of its goods from the US: not from China, the European Union, or other countries in Latin America.                   

Another top US priority is to expand its foothold in Central America through the “War on Drugs,” with El Salvador as its top security partner. During his visit to El Salvador, President Obama pledged $200 million for the new Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to combat organized crime and narco-trafficking. Both Presidents alluded to the “Mérida Initiative” in Mexico and “Plan Colombia” as guides for CARSI, despite overwhelming evidence that these disastrous policies have only increased the profitability of the drug trade at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives.                   

One positive change, however, was that both Presidents stressed the importance of Central American countries, not the US, crafting the initiative to suit the region's particular needs. President Funes emphasized the need for rehabilitation, prevention and job creation programs and both Presidents agreed that poverty is the root of violence and forced migration.                  

Unfortunately, Obama shamelessly promoted more of the same neoliberal economic policies as the solution to poverty, despite the fact that El Salvador is being sued by a North American mining company, the very kind of foreign investor that Obama was promoting as a path to development. Before his trip, Obama received letters from 150 organizations and 19 Congressional Representatives calling on him to condemn the lawsuits filed by two mining corporations under the rules of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) [one of the lawsuits, filed by Wisconsin-based Commerce Group Corporation, has since been dismissed]. The letters also called on President Obama to initiate a renegotiation of CAFTA in order to eliminate this form of corporate extortion; by maintaining his silence on the lawsuits, Obama once again ignored the chorus of international voices demanding change in US trade policy.                   

With a progressive president at the helm in El Salvador, there is certainly a greater chance that US economic assistance will be used to promote dignified employment and alleviate poverty. But with the US pushing its corporate interests every step of the way, El Salvador faces significant challenges to any real economic advancements through these “partnerships” with the US.                   

Perhaps the most widely-publicized moment on the trip was President Obama's visit to the crypt of El Salvador’s revered martyr, Monseñor Romero. While Obama is the first US president to honor the "voice of the voiceless", the visit fell short of recognizing the US role in training Romero's assassins at the infamous (and still operating) School of the Americas.                                     

Hundreds of Salvadorans gathered outside the presidents’ press conference, carrying photos of those killed and disappeared by the US-backed armed forces and death squads during the civil war. They were joined by Hondurans bearing crosses and carrying photos of resistance members who have been killed since the June 2009 coup, calling on Obama to end support for the murderous Lobo government in Honduras.                                    

The day before Obama’s arrival, an estimated 6,000 union members and campesinos filled the boulevard outside the US Embassy to deliver a message: “The global economic crisis, climate change, narco-trafficking, insecurity and the food crisis have their origin in the economic model imposed on our people by the great world powers, primarily the United States.”                  

Though Obama’s trip demonstrated that the pillars of US policy in the region remain largely unchanged, the political landscape in Latin America has shifted dramatically. Popular movements and leftist governments continue to resist the neoliberal agenda and chart a people-centered course, successfully forcing the US government to contend with some of the very political forces, like the FMLN, that it spent hundreds of millions trying to defeat in the 1980s.

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