Obama Should Reboot Relations with Latin America

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Mar 21, 2009

The election results in El Salvador show the time has come for the Obama administration to upgrade Washington’s relations with Latin America.

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidential election last Sunday. This is the same group that President Reagan waged war against during the 1980s. The U.S. government spent $6 billion trying to defeat the FMLN rebels, and the CIA worked with death squad operatives whose brutality left a scar on the entire country.

The bloody proxy war left a ravaged country and 75,000 people dead – the vast majority at the hands of the U.S.-backed army and allied death squads.

The FMLN traded the bullet for the ballot in 1992, becoming a legal political party with the signing of peace accords.

El Salvador’s newly elected president is Mauricio Funes, a bookish and charismatic former journalist who is considered a political moderate within the leftist FMLN. His victory brings an end to 20 years of one-party rule by the far-right ARENA party.

Statements by House Republicans a week before El Salvador’s election attempted to derail Funes’ victory. They called his party “pro-terrorist” and threatened to cut off the flow of cash remittances sent to Central America by Salvadorans working in the United States. The congressmen warned that the legal immigration status of Salvadorans in the United States would also be jeopardized by an FMLN win at the polls.

The last time Salvadorans voted for president, in 2004, Bush administration officials made nearly identical threats, helping sway voters toward ARENA.

But things turned out differently this time. After an outcry by U.S. foreign policy watchdog groups over the threats made by Republicans, Obama’s top diplomat for Latin America announced the administration was willing to “work with whomever the Salvadoran people elect.” And the day after Funes won, the State Department congratulated him on his victory.

That shows a maturity that has been sorely lacking in U.S.-Latin American relations.

With Funes’ election, El Salvador joins a group of nearly a dozen Latin American nations that have elected left-leaning leaders. The Bush administration’s hostile reception to this regional political shift left U.S.-Latin America relations at their lowest point since the height of the Cold War.

The Obama administration should work quickly to mend these frayed ties. El Salvador – still reeling from violent U.S. intervention in its civil war – would be a good place to start.

Reaching out to Funes with more than words would send a clear message across the region that President Obama is willing to work with Latin American leaders, regardless of their political stripes.

In appealing to voters, Funes asked Salvadorans to leave behind the tired Cold War rhetoric.

We should do the same.


more articles

  • Morales Re-Election Shows Failure of U.S. Policies

    Miami Herald, Op-Ed, Oct 17, 2014

    The re-election of Bolivian President Evo Morales to a third term is a stark reminder of Washington’s self-inflicted irrelevance south of the border. His life history is itself a story about U.S. policy blunders in Latin America.

  • 60 Years After CIA Coup, U.S. Policy Hasn't Changed

    McClatchy-Tribune News, Op-Ed, Jun 16, 2014

    Washington stood on the wrong side of history when it overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected president on June 27, 1954. To this day, the U.S. government has failed to learn the lessons of its Cold War interventions in Latin America.

  • Colombia's Chance for Peace

    The New York Times, Op-Ed, May 23, 2014

    For peace negotiations underway between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government to break the country's cycles of violence negotiators must address land inequality and the drug trade as interconnected problems.

  • 20 Years After Escobar's Death, the Drug War Drags On

    The Progressive, Op-Ed, Dec 03, 2013

    Twenty years ago this month, U.S. authorities helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Washington’s global war on drugs has not let up. In fact, it has become costlier, bloodier, more widespread and futile.

  • Obama Administration's Global Surveillance Hurting U.S. in Latin America

    The Progressive, Op-Ed, Nov 01, 2013

    The backlash from revelations that the United States spied on world leaders once again shows the dangers of our runaway surveillance state. The Obama administration has got to rein it in. This time, it's our most important diplomatic alliances on the ropes.

  • Hugo Chavez’s Legacy: A More Independent Latin America

    The Progressive, Op-Ed, Mar 11, 2013

    Hugo Chavez proved that Venezuela and the rest of Latin America could chart an independent path in the world. Chavez was the first in a steady stream of left-leaning leaders elected to office in a region that Washington had once claimed as its backyard. Chavez was the most vocal advocate of this growing autonomy.