Conservatives have really got their shorts in a bunch over the Barack Obama – Hugo Chavez exchange over the weekend at the Summit of the Americas. Their discomfort is yet another example of Obama’s detractors, digging in their heels, opposing every aspect of the three-month-old presidency; further, this conservative meme is no more rational than any of the others. However, their outrage over a simple greeting between Obama and Chavez is illustrative of a deeper problem within the American ideological divide.
Perhaps the best example of irrational criticism came from a potential Obama opponent in 2012: Newt Gingrich. Satyam Khanna summed up Gingrich’s position in a April 20, Think Progress post:
The right wing has responded with outrage to Obama’s meeting with Chavez, claiming face-to-face talks with a dictator show that Obama is projecting weakness. On NBC this morning, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama “bows to the Saudi King and is friends with Venezuela” and claimed the President showed “shallowness” in talking with Chavez. Gingrich then claimed that U.S. presidents do not “smile and greet” with Russian leaders…
Khanna goes on to explain why Gingrich, a former history professor, needs to brush up on his history. The author provides a series of photographs of past US leaders smiling and greeting Russian leaders during the height of the Cold War. But, Gingrich’s factual error is emblematic of the larger issue: Americans tend to forget their nation’s history.
Not only do we forget our history, many among us are inclined to guild memories of the past, providing them with a veneer of propriety that isn’t always deserved. The past behavior in question — the contentious relationship between the US and Latin America — is a prime example of our historical ignorance.
Now, before you start with the “anti-American” or “Blame America Firster” accusations, hear me out. American treatment of its neighbors to the South has been neither all good, nor has it been all bad. Indeed, much of the most egregious offenses were undertaken with the best of intentions: the prohibition of Soviet influence in Latin America. While Americans are justifiably proud of their nation’s efforts in quashing their communist foes during the Cold War, too often we fail to empathize with Latin American populations who were adversely affected by US actions.
Consider that, historically, the US has, sometimes covertly, intervened in Latin American affairs over 50 times. Regardless of the legitimacy of the interventions, a common result of such actions was American support of repressive right wing dictators for the sake of preventing leftist regimes from coming to power.
Hugo Chavez, whose handshake with Obama has garnered so much conservative ire, was able to come to power in Venezuela because of that history. Additionally, American support of a coup attempt to oust the Chavez regime in 2002 has served to strengthen his position in Venezuela.
In a March 2006 post at CommonDreams.org, Medea Benjamin described the consequences of the Bush Administration’s subversive actions in Venezuela, encouraging her readers to imagine if the shoe were on the other foot:
To this day, Bush Administration officials routinely deny their involvement in the coup, in spite of official US documents that prove otherwise. But the truth is widely known in Venezuela, and forms the basis for the antagonism that plagues the US-Venezuela relationship. To be fair, Chávez engages in regular verbal tirades against Bush and Rice which overreach presidential diplomacy. But imagine how the US government would treat a foreign government that had financed domestic groups that participated in a coup against the US government…
Well, what do you think? How would you react to a foreign coup attempt? I look forward to your comments, but consider this final question: If it was a sign of weakness for Obama to interact with the Venezuelan President at a diplomatic summit, what action or actions could Obama have used in order to display strength? Of course, Gingrich did not offer a suggestion.
Instead he railed against his own President, and did so without any consideration for how the Obama – Chavez encounter may have impacted the perceptions of the Venezuelan people. Gingrich conveniently forgot that the eight years of Bush’s diplomatic neglect, combined with a long history of intervention in the region, contributed to the Venezuelans being predisposed to relish in Chavez’s anti-American rants. His neglecting to include such considerations reflects his tacit acknowledgment that, Americans who are predisposed to accept such cynicism are ignorant of their own history. As a former history professor, Newt Gingrich should be ashamed of himself.
Photo from Flickr.com user: artemuestra - by way of CreativeCommons.org