Meet John McCain: Mr. Big Stick in Latin America
February, 14 2008
By Nikolas Kozloff
Now that John McCain has presumably wrapped up the Republican nomination, it’s natural to wonder what kind of foreign policy he might pursue towards the rest of the world if he were elected President. For example, how would the “maverick” McCain deal with Latin America? In recent years, the region has taken a decidedly leftist turn; new leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua have openly challenged U.S. diplomatic and political influence. McCain’s record suggests that he would pursue a very hawkish and antagonistic policy in the hemisphere. It’s even possible that the Arizona Republican, who has suggested that the United States might be in Iraq for hundreds of years and might “bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran,” could ratchet up military tensions in Latin America and escalate conflict with countries like Venezuela.
The International Republican Institute (IRI)
McCain has chaired the International Republican Institute (IRI) since 1993. Ostensibly a non-partisan, democracy-building outfit, in reality the IRI serves as an instrument to advance and promote the most far right Republican foreign policy agenda. More a cloak-and-dagger operation than a conventional research group, IRI has aligned itself with some of the most antidemocratic factions in the Third World.
On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society. In reality, however, the IRI is more concerned with crushing incipient left movements in Latin America.
One of the least known Washington institutions, IRI receives taxpayer money via the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. A.I.D.). The organization is active in around sixty countries and has a budget of $74 million. On the board of IRI, McCain has been joined by a who’s who of Republican bigwigs such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick.
IRI’s Latin American Activities
In Haiti, IRI helped to fund, equip, and lobby for Haiti’s two heavily conservative and White House-backed opposition parties, the Democratic Convergence and Group 184. The latter group, comprised of many of the island’s major business, church and professional figures, was at the vanguard of opposition to Jean Bertrand Aristide prior to the Haitian President’s forced ouster in 2004. At the same time, IRI funneled taxpayer money to hard-line anti-Castro forces allied to the Republican Party.
In Venezuela, IRI generously funded anti-Chávez civil society groups that were militantly opposed to the regime. Starting in 1998, the year Chávez was elected, IRI worked with Venezuelan organizations to produce anti-Chávez media campaigns, including newspaper, television and radio ads. Additionally, when politicians, union and civil society leaders went to Washington to meet with U.S. officials just one month before the April 2002 coup, IRI picked up the bill. The IRI also helped to fund the corrupt Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (which played a major role in the anti-Chávez destabilization campaign leading up to the coup) and Súmate, an organization involved in a signature-gathering campaign to present a petition calling for Chávez’s recall.
McCain and Cuba
McCain has taken a personal interest in IRI’s Cuba work and praises the anti-Castro opposition. The Arizona Senator has called Cuba “a national security threat,” adding that “as president, I will not passively await the long overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship … The Cuban people have waited long enough.” McCain wants to increase funding for the U.S. government’s anti-Castro radio and TV stations, seeks the release of all Cuban political prisoners, supports internationally monitored elections on the island, and wants to keep the U.S. trade embargo in place. What kind of future does McCain envision for Cuba? No doubt, one in which the Miami anti-Castro exiles rule the island. McCain’s most influential advisers on Latin American affairs are Cuban Americans from Florida, including Senator Mel Martínez and far right Congress members Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros Lehtinen.
For McCain, It’s Never Ending Free Trade and Militarization
On Capitol Hill, McCain has championed pro-U.S. Latin American regimes while working to isolate those governments which are rising up to challenge American hegemony. On Colombia, for example, McCain has been a big booster of official U.S. policy. Despite Colombia’s status as a human rights nightmare, the Senator supports ongoing funding to the government of Álvaro Uribe so as to combat the “narco-trafficking and terrorist threat.”
McCain has taken a personal interest in the Andean region. He has traveled to Ecuador and Colombia so as to drum up more support for the counter insurgency and drug war, now amounting to billions of dollars a year. McCain’s foremost fear is that the Democrats may turn off the money flow to Uribe. “You don’t build strong alliances by turning your back on friends,” he has said.
McCain seeks to confront countries such as Venezuela and Cuba by encouraging U.S. partnership with sympathetic regimes that support American style free trade. “We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region,’’ he has said. “Let’s start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas.”
Chávez has been one of the greatest obstacles to the fulfillment of McCain’s free trade agenda, however. In recent years, the Venezuelan has pushed his own barter trade scheme, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which promotes economic solidarity and reciprocity between Latin American nations. Concerned about growing ties between Cuba and Venezuela, McCain said “He [Chávez] aspires to be this generation’s [Fidel] Castro. I think the people of Venezuela ought to look at the standard of living in Cuba before they would embrace such a thing.”
Fighting the Information War in Latin America
Speaking in Miami’s Little Havana, McCain said that “everyone should understand the connections” between Evo Morales, Castro, and Chávez. “They inspire each other. They assist each other. They get ideas from each other. It’s very disturbing.” McCain said Chávez breathed “new oxygen” into Castro’s regime, and that the U.S. government should do more to quell dictatorships throughout Latin America. Perhaps not surprisingly given his historic involvement in IRI, McCain’s campaign Web site even featured an online petition calling for support in his quest to “stop the dictators of Latin America.” The petition called for the ouster of Chávez “in the name of democracy and freedom throughout our hemisphere.”
Though the petition was later taken down, McCain has staked out hawkish territory on Venezuela and would surely escalate tensions with the South American nation. Most troubling is the Senator’s strong push for renewed U.S. propaganda in the region. McCain has criticized the Venezuelan government’s decision to not renew Radio Caracas Television’s license, and has called for reestablishing an agency like the United States Information Agency (the USIA oversaw a variety of agencies including the Voice of America radio network before it was merged into the State Department in 1998).
“Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and the American message amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas,’’ McCain has said. “We need to re-create an independent agency with the sole purpose of getting America’s message to the world. This…would aid our efforts to communicate accurately with the people of Latin America.”
If McCain was ever able to push through his aggressive media initiatives, he would antagonize many nations in the region which resent the pervasiveness of U.S. dominated media. Already, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, and Uruguay have formed a joint satellite news station called Telesur (in my upcoming book scheduled for release in six weeks, I devote an entire chapter to the issue of media politics in South America).
From Bolton to Big Stick
To make matters worse, the Chair of IRI has sought to promote neo-conservative figures from the Bush regime such as John Bolton. During the latter’s confirmation hearings in the Senate, McCain urged his Democratic colleagues to approve the diplomat’s nomination quickly. Bolton has been a hawk not only on Iran but also Venezuela. McCain, who refers to Chávez as a “wacko,” said it was important to confirm Bolton. With Bolton at the United Nations, the U.S. would be able to talk back to “two-bit dictators” like the Venezuelan leader.
Like Bolton, McCain apparently shares his colleague’s disdain for the United Nations and wants to create a so-called League of Democracies. As envisioned by the Arizona legislator, the new body would take the place of the United Nations on such issues as conflict resolution, disease treatment and prevention, environmental crises, and access to free markets. Interestingly, McCain’s inspiration for the League is Teddy Roosevelt, who had a vision of “like-minded nations working together for peace and liberty.”
Roosevelt, however, was no dove: he wielded a Big Stick and practiced gunboat diplomacy in Latin America. It’s a policy which John McCain would probably like to revive if he is elected President in November.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2008), and Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006)