Will Obama Be Influenced by the Latest Big Task Force on Latin America?

News Abroad

Mr. Bohning is a former Miami Herald Latin America editor the author of  The Castro Obsession:  US Covert Operations Against Cuba 1959-1965.          

It’s virtually a right of passage when a new president takes office for a think tank or an advocacy group to present him with an outline for what it thinks his Latin America-Caribbean policy agenda should be.

After Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, he was to frame his policy heavily on the recommendations by the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations, better known as the “Linowitz Commission,” named after its chairman, the late Sol Linowitz. It was a high-powered group of academics, businessmen and political leaders from both North and South America.

 President Nixon reversed the process in 1968, when he named Nelson Rockefeller, the New York state governor, to head a fact-finding mission to every Latin American and Caribbean country to help the new administration “develop policies for the conduct of international relations throughout the Western Hemisphere.”  The mission’s report, entitled Quality of Life in the Americas,” was presented to Nixon in late summer 1969, several months after Nixon was inaugurated.

 Barack Obama is no exception.  Although overshadowed and largely ignored by the mainstream media due to the ongoing global economic crisis, the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue presented its recommendations for Obama at a press briefing on March 10, in a reported entitled, A Second Chance: US Policy in the Americas.

The so-called Linowitz Commission report turned out to have considerable impact on Carter administration policies, as will be noted later. On the other hand, the 133-page Rockefeller Mission made a short term splash as it traveled the hemisphere, but resulted in little of notable impact.

It’s still far too early to tell what, if any, impact on the Obama Administration’s hemisphere policy that the Inter-American Dialogue outlines in its “10 Challenges” report.

By far the most controversial relates to Cuba, which, the Dialogue notes, “Washington’s 50-year-old policy of isolating and sanctioning Cuba has never accomplished much,” adding that “there is no other issue on which Washington is so out of step with the rest of the region. Nothing would better demonstrate the new administration’s intention to dismantle the web of restrictions that the United States has imposed on Cuba. A policy shift on Cuba, which carries great symbolic weight in the region, would be a powerful signal that Washington will be more responsible to Latin American views.” It concludes by declaring that “a democratic society in Cuba should be the objective of U.S. engagement, not a precondition.”

  Listed among the other “10 Challenge” headings are: “Blunting The Impact of the Financial Crisis; Mexico: Working With a Troubled Partner,” “Confronting Crime,Violence and Drugs,” “Reforming Immigration Policy,” “Completing the Unfinished Trade Agenda,” “Cooperating With Brazil,” “The Challenge from Venezuela And Its Allies,” “Advancing Democracy,” and “Failing Haiti.”

As noted earlier, the Linowitz Commission, a fore-runner of the Inter-American Dialogue, had considerable influence over the Carter Admistration’s Latin America policy. Carter named Robert Pastor, the Commission’s staff director, as the Latin America representative to his National Security Council staff.

The Linowitz Commission’s recommendations played a huge role in the Carter administration’s push for human rights in a region then dominated by military dictatorships, and in transferring the Panama Canal from U.S. to Panamanian control.

 A November 1976 draft of Commission recommendations declared that it “reaffirms that the United States should consider human rights violations to be a major factor in deciding on the substance and tone of its bilateral and multilateral relations.

 “The new Administration, accordingly, should immediately seek appropriate means to disassociate itself from those regimes in Latin America whose record on human rights blemishes political life throughout the hemisphere.”

It was less categorical on Cuba, although it called on the U.S. to drop the economic embargo against the island if Cuba were to release U.S. prisoners; withdraw its troops from Angola and not engage in military interventions elsewhere in Africa; and limit its support for the Puerto Rican independence movement to moral and rhetorical encouragement.

It was under the Carter administration that limited diplomatic relations with Cuba were restored for the first time since 1961, with the opening in Washington and Havana of so-called “interest sections.”

The Rockefeller Mission, as the Linowitz Commission, was composed of more than a score of high-powered members from academia, the media, and private enterprise. It visited 23 countries over the spring and summer of 1969.

As Rockefeller noted in his transmittal letter to Nixon, it was Galo Plaza, a former Ecuadoran president, who was then secretary-general of the Organization of American States, who suggested the mission and recommended Rockefeller, who has business interests in Latin America, to head it. 

 Unlike the Linowitz Commission, the Rockefeller Mission recommendations were  much more general, citing such random national policy objectives as cooperating “with other nations of the Western Hemisphere in measures to strengthen security,” or “maintain close, open, intimate and effective ties with each of the hemisphere nations, on a country-by-country basis, recognizing that each nation is different and that bilateral relations and programs have an important role to play.”

As best as can be determined they had little, if any, impact on Nixon administration policy in the region.

Perhaps the most noteworthy event of the Rockfeller Mission came in Haiti. There Rockefeller appeared on the second floor balcony of the National Palace, waving to the crowd below with his arm around the late Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the country’s brutal and self-declared President for Life.

Rockefeller later explained that he was only trying to help steady Duvalier, who was ailing at the time.

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