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Ten Years On, Bolivarian Revolution at Crossroads

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Obama and the School of the Americas

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President Obama? The Likely Reception from Brazil

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Obama’s Electoral Dilemma: Latinos or Reagan Democrats?

Though it might have appeared in the early primaries that Barack Obama would be able to transcend race and put together a winning coalition of whites, blacks, and Latinos, that hope has been dashed. If the nominating process has revealed anything, it is that the country is seriously fractured along class and racial lines. Having won the affluent, educated white vote and African American vote and lost the Latino and poor white vote, Barack Obama must now figure out how to reassemble a viable electoral coalition.

It’s a known fact that the Democratic Party has been seriously hemorrhaging conservative, downscale white male voters since the days of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Disaffected by social and political change, many Blue Collar whites no longer saw the Democrats as champions of their working class aspirations and concluded that the party was instead working primarily for the benefit of others: the very poor, the unemployed, African Americans, and other political interest groups.

By the early 1980s these traditional Democratic urban and rural lower middle class voters, located primarily in the Midwest, turned out for Reagan. Socially conservative, they were attracted by Reagan’s message of moral values, so-called fiscal responsibility and national security. Many of these Reagan Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton during the primaries and probably ate up the news media’s racist handling of the Jeremiah Wright story.

For some time, DNC Chairman Howard Dean has been determined to expand the Democratic Party beyond its usual base in the Northeast, Illinois and California so as to compete with the Republicans on their own home turf as well as in key battleground states. After Obama wins the nomination, there will surely be calls from within the party that the Illinois Senator should try to recapture the votes of the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Scenario #1: Recapturing White Reagan Democrats

In scenario #1, Obama could have Latino New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson campaign on his behalf in the American West but devote the lion’s share of his time and resources into trying to win back Reagan Democrats. By putting a centrist Democrat or Republican on the ticket with military credentials such as Virginia Senator Jim Webb or Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, Obama may hope to win back this voting bloc. Obama could also turn to Senator Jon Tester of Montana, another conservative who appeals culturally to the white male constituency. Yet another option for Obama would be to offer the vice presidential slot to Hillary Clinton in an effort to mend fences within the Democratic Party. Hagel or Tester might make Obama more competitive amongst Reagan Democrats around the country, but both Montana and Nebraska are solidly in the Republican column and would be difficult to tilt. Hillary Clinton might argue that if she were the vice presidential nominee she could put Ohio and Indiana into play, two states that she won in the primary season, or Florida.

If Obama is going to follow the Reagan Democrat strategy, picking Jim Webb of Virginia might be a better choice. Webb is not just a Reagan Democrat wannabe, he is a Reagan Democrat. A Vietnam veteran and former Secretary of the Navy under the Great Communicator, Webb is an anti-war Democrat who would give Obama leverage in Virginia. The state, which has 13 electoral votes, turned out heavily for Obama on primary day and the Illinois Senator did well amongst a range of different voting constituencies there. If you average the recent polls, McCain is winning in the state but not by much.

With Webb on the ticket, Obama could take the state and maybe even make neighboring North Carolina competitive for the Democrats. Right now North Carolina is considered close and Obama won the primary there by a wide margin last month. The southern state, home to Fort Bragg, has a long military tradition and having an ex-Secretary of the Navy could tip the state in favor of the Democrats. If Obama furthermore promised to give John Edwards a position as Attorney General, the former North Carolina Senator might be able to help sew up the state.

In this scenario, Obama narrowly loses the American West and Latinos but does well amongst the Reagan Democrats elsewhere in the country. If we assume that Obama takes the entire Northeast (and New Hampshire stays in the fold) and his home base of Illinois plus the neighboring Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota, and he holds on to California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, plus Webb and Edwards help Obama win in North Carolina and Virginia, the Democrats could triumph in the election by a razor thin margin, 270 electoral votes for Obama to 268 electoral votes for McCain. However, if Webb is able to make an impact upon Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt, the margin of victory could be higher.

Scenario #2: American West Latino Strategy

On the other hand Obama could pursue another strategy. He could deploy John Edwards or Hillary Clinton to the Rust Belt in an effort to woo Reagan Democrats but put the lion’s share of his campaign resources into winning the Latino vote in the American West. Because of the growing importance of the Latino vote in New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada, such a strategy now becomes possible (for more on this, see my earlier article: “Obama’s VP Quandary: Time for a Latino on the Ticket? June 2, 2008). What’s more McCain is now vulnerable on immigration having flip-flopped on the issue: in 2006 he was a key sponsor of legislation which sought to regularize the situation of illegal immigrants. Now however he says he’s “gotten the message” that the border must be “secured” before any other reforms can be carried out.

Obama could choose Latino New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as his running mate which would probably tilt New Mexico to the Democrats and put nearby Colorado and Nevada into play. An African American and Latino on the same ticket would represent a new historic first in U.S. politics. Obama could fly to Albuquerque and deliver one of his eloquent speeches about race. The Illinois Senator could talk about how African Americans and Latinos have both suffered discrimination. He could then argue that it is time for the two groups to band together.

What are the chances that a Western strategy might succeed? Unfortunately, Obama would face some daunting math. Let us suppose that he hangs on to the traditional Democratic stronghold of the Northeast plus New Hampshire, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii. If Obama can hold on to these traditional Democratic states and then add Latino states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada he would do well but still lose the election with 261 electoral votes against 277 for McCain.

Scenario #3: Latinos in American West and Florida

But consider another scenario: Obama could dispatch running mate Richardson to Florida during the campaign. Though Richardson is from the West, perhaps he might be able to sway Florida’s Latino voters, which now number more than one million, and bring them into the Democratic column. The idea of hinging one’s electoral strategy upon Florida is surely disquieting to the Democrats, but winning the state back is not as crazy as it sounds. At present, the state is leaning in McCain’s direction but still could tilt back Democratic. By November the number of Latino Democrats in the state will probably exceed the number of Latino Republicans for the first time. According to exit polls, the Democrats won the Latino vote in the 2006 mid-term election. It was the first time in 30 years.

Traditionally, the Republicans have locked up the Latino vote by appealing to conservative Cubans. But in recent years Florida’s Latino population has gone through dramatic changes. In 1988, Cuban-Americans made up 90 percent of the Latino vote. Now, that number has fallen to 45 percent. The influx of other Latino groups such as Venezuelans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans, and the deaths of older Cuban-American exiles, account for the changes. In the crucial “I-4 corridor” in Orlando and Central Florida, Latinos are growing in population. Many Puerto Ricans have settled in the Orlando area, taking jobs in the state’s stable tourism industry. Colombians, Nicaraguans and other Latinos have also moved to the area and typically lean Democrat.

The GOP may not even be able to hold on to its traditional base within the Cuban-American community. In Florida, the Republicans are running scared because a younger generation of Cuban-Americans is shedding its traditional loyalty to the GOP. Younger Cuban-Americans are more concerned about the economy, healthcare and the Iraq War than U.S. policy towards Cuba. In addition, Fidel Castro is gone from the scene and as a result the Republicans don’t have their traditional whipping boy anymore. With Richardson on his team, Obama just might be able to turn Florida blue. If Obama carries the American West, the West Coast, some Midwestern states and the Northeast, and adds Florida to the fold, he beats McCain with 288 electoral votes to 250.

Reagan Democrats or Latinos?

So which strategy should Obama pursue, Reagan Democrats or Latinos? From the point of view of simple electoral math, putting Webb on the ticket and going for Reagan Democrats probably makes more sense. The Virginia Senator could potentially help tilt his own state and North Carolina, and might make a difference in swing states Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Richardson could put the West in play but these states don’t have as many electoral votes as the Rust Belt and Upper South. The New Mexico Governor could perhaps help in Florida. But the Sunshine State, despite recent demographic trends, is much more challenging for the Democrats than Midwestern swing states which are closer in the polls. Moreover the last thing the Democrats want to do is rely on Florida to clinch electoral victory: the GOP still has a lock on the governorship, which brings back bad memories of voter manipulation in 2000 under Jeb Bush.

On the other hand, from a political perspective there are serious disadvantages to the Reagan Democrat strategy. History has shown that Reagan Democrats are enormously wary of liberal candidates and are susceptible to right wing media propaganda. Assuming that Webb or someone like him helps Obama win back Reagan Democrats, the Illinois Senator may wind up compromising his politics on the campaign trail and wind up like Bill Clinton, a politician who won the White House but who ultimately caused irreparable harm to progressive politics. By contrast, if Obama put together a new electoral coalition comprised of youth, affluent Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, and actually won, he would end his campaign on a more idealistic note of “change” and have more of a political mandate to move the country away from the conservative politics which have so dominated the Clinton-Bush era.

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Obama’s VP Quandary: Time for a Latino on the Ticket?

Barack Obama has a problem: having done poorly amongst Latino voters in primary contests, he now faces the very real possibility that he could lose this crucial constituency in the General Election.

He can ill afford to do poorly amongst Latinos come November.

Latinos now make up a larger share of the U.S. population (15.5%) than they did in 2004 (14.3%). In fact, at 46 million strong Latinos are the nation’s largest and fastest growing minority group. They also a make up a growing share of the eligible electorate—8.9% in 2007, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, compared with 8.2% in 2004. What’s more, according to the Pew Hispanic Center Latinos increased their share of the primary vote in many states between 2004 and 2008.

The Democrats look at Latinos and see opportunity. About 57% of registered Latino voters now identify as Democrats or say they lean to the Democratic Party, while just 23% align with the Republican Party. This adds up to a whopping 34 percentage point gap in partisan affiliation among registered Latinos.

This gap, fueled by Republican bluster on illegal immigration, has been steadily increasing over time: in 2006 the difference was just 21 percentage points – whereas back in 1999, it had been 33 percentage points. In 2004, Bush got about 40% of the Latino vote, a record for a Republican candidate. But with Latinos leaving the GOP in droves, Democrats are thinking payback.

Nevertheless, Latinos’ electoral clout is undercut by the fact that many are ineligible to vote, either because they are not citizens or not yet 18 years old. In 2008, Latinos will comprise about 9% of the eligible electorate nationwide. If past turnout is any indication however, Latinos won’t vote en masse: experts project that Latinos will only constitute a disappointing 6.5% of the turnout come November.

Key Battleground States: Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada

So if Latino turnout is so low, why are the Democrats so concerned about this constituency? To answer the question one need only look at the electoral map: Latinos live primarily in key battleground states that the Democrats want to flip from the Republicans. Of particular interest for Obama is the American West. At this point it looks like the Illinois Senator may have his work cut out for him in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, states with large Latino populations.

In Colorado most recent estimates from the 2006 U.S. Census indicate that Latinos make up almost 20% of the state’s population. The state recently elected a Latino Senator, Ken Salazar, and the Democrats have chosen Denver as the site of their upcoming convention. In 2000 Bush won the state by almost ten points. Four years later Bush still won but this time his lead was cut in half. The state has nine electoral votes.

In New Mexico Latinos dominate even more, accounting for 44% of the population. In some cities such as Las Cruces and Santa Fe they make up as much as 50%. In recent years the state has become a true battleground: in 2000 Gore won New Mexico by a razor thin margin. In 2004 Bush won the state by a small but safe margin. In 2008 the Democrats are going to have to turn out Latino and Native American voters, two of their traditional constituencies, if they wish to capture the state’s five electoral votes.

By most recent census data, Nevada’s population is about 25% Latino. Las Vegas’s population is skyrocketing and Latinos represent a formidable presence in the city. Historically, Nevada has gone Republican but the Democrats hope to turn the state into an electoral battleground. In 2000 Bush won Nevada but only by three points; four years later it was much the same result against Kerry. The state has five electoral votes.

From Great Unifier to Polarizing Figure

Four months ago, it looked as if Obama might be able to bridge the color barrier and appeal to Americans of all different racial backgrounds. Following his electoral victory in the Iowa caucus, Obama addressed his white supporters. “They said this day would never come,” he said. Obama then remarked upon his own unique racial heritage which included “a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas and a story that could only happen in the United States of America.”

It was probably only a matter of time however before the issue of race would burst forth and poison the political landscape. Obama ran a deracialized campaign which sought to avoid the impression of overt blackness. Aspiring to be a Great Unifier, Obama probably hoped that race would simply disappear from the presidential race.

It didn’t.

On February 5 (Super Tuesday), racial divisions were on vivid display as Latino voters turned out for Clinton en masse. By the end of the day, Clinton had amassed 63% of the Latino vote to Obama’s 35%. Clinton’s biggest win amongst Latinos was in her native New York, where she drew 73% of the vote. The only state where Obama nailed the Latino vote was Illinois, but even there it was a virtual draw 50% to 49%.

One of Obama’s core strengths during the campaign has been the youth vote, but tellingly on Super Tuesday young Latinos were not as likely to vote for the Illinois Senator as white and black youth. Meanwhile, 28% of Latino voters on Election Day said that race was important in reaching their decision. Of those voters, a full 64% voted for Clinton while 35% voted for Obama.

In many other primaries held since Super Tuesday the Latino vote was inconsequential, but Clinton’s dominance of the Latino vote continued on Sunday in Puerto Rico. Hillary trounced Obama 68% to 32% on the island. That’s a slightly greater percentage than Clinton got on Super Tuesday, perhaps due in part to her name recognition and status as New York Senator where many Puerto Ricans reside.

On the other hand, race apparently played a role: according to CNN exit polls 31% of Puerto Rican voters said race was a factor in their vote, and of those 63% voted for Clinton and 37% for Obama.

Obama’s VP Stakes

Perhaps if Puerto Rico had voted in February, prior to the Jeremiah Wright affair, Obama would have done better. Unfortunately for the young Illinois Senator, Hillary has played the race card and now Obama must try to reverse the impression that he is somehow “foreign” in the eyes of many voters—including Latinos.

One way that Obama might hope to limit the political damage thus far is by picking New Mexico’s Latino Governor Bill Richardson as his running mate. Such a move would certainly represent a historic landmark in U.S. politics and inspire minority voters. With Richardson on the ticket, Obama could really put the West into play and reconfigure the entire electoral calculus. By pursuing a “Western Strategy” instead of a “Southern Strategy,” Obama could put together a new coalition of blacks, Latinos, and affluent whites.

There are drawbacks to such a scenario however.

Partly as a result of the Clinton slime machine, which injected race into the electoral contest, Obama now has a problem amongst not only Latinos but also poor whites. If Obama picks Richardson he may help flip New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado but ultimately wind up losing Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The Illinois Senator, who sought to overcome race at the beginning of the campaign, is now in a bind. Perhaps, fearing an electoral debacle in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, Obama will pick a kind of Blue Dog, centrist white running mate with a military background such as Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska or Senator Jim Webb of Virginia. By doing so, Obama may hope that poor whites and Latinos will forget all about race and Jeremiah Wright and come back to the fold. He’s got a lot of lost ground to make up amongst these key voters.

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It’s All about Vagueness: Puerto Rico, Obama and Politics of Race

The longer the Democratic nominating process goes on, the more the issue of race exposes ugly fissures within the party. With his early wins in Iowa and Wisconsin, two states with a predominantly white electorate, Barack Obama hoped that he would be able to transcend racial divisions.

Then we got Jeremiah Wright and the unflattering media coverage which followed. The Illinois Senator started to lose primaries in white states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. In particular, race played a critical role in the latter state, with one in five admitting that the issue affected their decision once they got into the voting booth.

At the same time, Obama has been racking up the black primary vote in record numbers: in South Carolina he got 78%, and in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. he received nearly 90%.

The media has made much of this white- black split. But what about other racial divisions on the campaign trail?

Latinos: Obama’s Achilles Heel

In Texas Latinos made up nearly one third of the vote. According to CNN’s exit poll, they supported Clinton over Obama by a margin of two to one in the state’s primary. In the Nevada caucus, Clinton nailed the Latino vote two to one. In California, where Latino voters make up 30% of the Democratic electorate, Clinton had an even bigger blow-out: the New York Senator won 67 percent of the Latino vote to 29 percent for Obama.

Surely, Clinton benefited from high name recognition within the Latino community whereas Obama by contrast was little known. But given the lopsided numbers, it seems logical to wonder whether Latino voters, like the whites in Kentucky, may have voted at least in part on the basis of race.

These are very sensitive questions and, not surprisingly, we haven’t heard much discussion about such issues in the U.S. corporate media. While white pundits have occasionally mentioned white racism towards blacks they have ignored racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, perhaps because they feel awkward wading into the discussion. And yet, as we near the Puerto Rico primary on June 1st, Latino-black race relations could play a vital role in the nominating process.

Puerto Rico: Determined to Make an Impact

Puerto Ricans are used to feeling disenfranchised in the electoral process. Island residents are U.S. citizens but they cannot vote in the general presidential election. They have no voting representation in Washington, D.C. though the island sends a symbolic, nonvoting delegate to Congress. Because Puerto Rico is a semi-autonomous commonwealth and not a state, only Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland may cast ballots for president in November.

Determined to make an impact upon the nominating process this year, Puerto Rico, an island of about 4 million people, has made some important electoral changes. The island has scrapped its traditional caucus in favor of a primary in which 55 delegates will be at stake. In addition, Puerto Rico has moved its primary up to June 1st, which means that Montana and South Dakota will vote last on June 3rd.

Puerto Rico Democratic Chairman Roberto Prats said that caucuses were fine in previous years, when the party nominee was settled by the time Puerto Rico voted and the only task was to choose delegates to the national convention. "Now it’s different," he told the Democratic National Committee’s rules panel in a conference call. "This is the first time in decades that Puerto Rico will be participating in an event of this magnitude."

Obama and Clinton: It’s all About the Vagueness

Puerto Rican politics largely revolves around the long-standing question about what the island’s future relationship to the U.S. mainland should be. To this day, Puerto Rico is divided between one major party advocating statehood and the other favoring a continuation of the current arrangement, known as a “free associated state.”

If Puerto Rico were to become a state, then the island would receive voting rights and equality under U.S. law. However, it would also mean that Puerto Ricans would be subject to federal income tax, a fate which statehood opponents are determined to avoid. The island has voted on and rejected statehood four times.

At a recent campaign rally on the island, Clinton said, “I believe you should have a vote in picking the president,” even before the issue of the island’s status is resolved. Taking questions in the city of Bayamón, Obama heard an array of concerns from residents who said they felt like second-class citizens. “What it comes down to is respect,” he said.

For the most part however, both Clinton and Obama have tried to remain neutral on the overall issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status.

“I believe all people are entitled to a representative form of government at all levels of government, and that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine by majority vote the status you choose from among all the options,” Clinton said while campaigning. “I have no preference. My only commitment is to work with those from all factions and with the congress to give you the right to make that decision. I want that done within my first term as president.”

Advantage: Clinton

Will Clinton continue to rout Obama amongst Latino voters once Puerto Rico votes in its primary? No opinion polling has been conducted on the island so it is difficult to predict the electoral result. As the junior Senator from New York however, Clinton probably has the advantage in Puerto Rico. About four million Puerto Ricans reside in the U.S., with the largest concentration in the three-state New York City metropolitan area. While campaigning on the island, Clinton refers to herself jokingly as "the senator from Puerto Rico."

Clinton is familiar to most Puerto Ricans as a result of her stint as first lady. Under husband Bill, she got involved in disaster relief after Hurricane Georges and met with protesters seeking an end to the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Vieques for bombing practice. In an effort to make her mark in the last stages of the campaign, Clinton has dispatched not only Bill but also daughter Chelsea to Puerto Rico.

Obama by contrast is less well known. Until his arrival this past weekend, Obama had visited just once, for a fund-raiser last year. To level the playing field, he has sent wife Michelle as well as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Puerto Rico to campaign on his behalf. In seeking to appeal to Puerto Ricans, Obama emphasizes the fact that he was also born and raised on an island far from the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile the island’s political establishment seems pretty split between Obama and Clinton. Puerto Rico’s Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed Obama. However, other members of Acevedo-Vila’s Popular Democratic Party, as well as politicians from the opposition New Progressive Party, are reportedly leaning towards Clinton.

Hardly a “Racial Democracy”

With no clear ideological differences between the two candidates, race may enter into the political equation. In an interesting article in the New York Times, the paper remarked that “Obama’s biracial identity is perceived as working to his advantage” in Puerto Rico. The article goes on to quote Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, a political commentator: “On the mainland, Obama is black, but not in Puerto Rico. Here he is a mulatto, and this is a mulatto society. People here are perfectly prepared to vote for someone who looks like them for president of the United States.”

On the surface at least, the New York Times would seem to be talking some sense. African slaves were imported into Puerto Rico to run the island’s sugar plantations during the colonial period and mixed with the native population. To say however that Puerto Ricans identify as blacks or mulattoes is overly simplistic and ignores the fact that racism has long characterized social life on the island.

Many scholars agree that Puerto Rico is stratified along color lines, ranging along a color continuum from white to brown to black. Puerto Ricans of darker skin color have faced racial discrimination in private schools, the University of Puerto Rico, private enterprises, voluntary associations and residential areas. Loiza, the town with the largest proportion of black people, is one of Puerto Rico’s poorest and has been plagued by complaints of police brutality.

According to Jorge Duany, a leading Puerto Rican sociologist, “Although the empirical evidence on racial politics in contemporary Puerto Rico is still scanty, several studies have documented that blacks are a stigmatized minority on the Island; that they suffer from persistent prejudice and discrimination,” and that they concentrate in the lower classes.

Puerto Rico Primary and Racial Identity

Duany writes that Puerto Ricans have developed an elaborate racist vocabulary to refer to racially stereotyped characteristics. Kinky hair, for example, is referred to as “bad” (“pelo malo”). Meanwhile racial prejudice is apparent in folk humor, beauty contests, media portrayals, and political leadership. “In all these areas,” Duany says, “whites are usually depicted as more intelligent, attractive, refined, and capable than are blacks.”

All of which is not to say that racism in Puerto Rico works in the same way as the United States. However, the island is hardly a “racial democracy” as some of the island’s boosters have claimed. Indeed, many Puerto Ricans deny their cultural heritage and physical characteristics and buy into an ideology of “whitening” through intermarriage with light skinned groups. Interestingly, a whopping 81% of Puerto Ricans called themselves “white” on the 2000 U.S. census.

What does all this racial politics portend for the territory’s upcoming primary? Obama has swept U.S. states with sizable African American populations like South Carolina. Puerto Rico however could be another story however as it is by no means clear that island residents self identify as black. On June 1st, we may see Latinos continue to vote en masse for a white candidate over a black one.

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How Obama Could Seize Pennsylvania The Clintons and Their Sordid Colombia Advocacy

With the Pennsylvania primary fast approaching on April 22, Barack Obama will have the opportunity to end the race for the Democratic nomination once and for all. If he wins by only a slim margin in the state, the "punditocracy" will declare him the presumptive choice of the party and the pressure will build on Hillary Clinton to withdraw. Obama should do well in Philadelphia amongst black voters and will probably pick up a decent percentage of the white affluent vote in the city’s suburbs.

In order to clinch the victory, however, Obama will have to make inroads amongst blue collar workers in the more industrial, western section of the state. In Ohio, Obama lost that constituency to Clinton and he’s desperate to cut into her lead amongst this critical voting bloc. But with less than two weeks to go, how can he turn things around?

In one word: Colombia.

The Scandal Breaks

Recently, Clinton handed Obama a golden opportunity to sew up the nomination when her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was caught up in a scandal involving the pending free trade deal with Colombia. Bush has been pushing hard for the agreement, which would allow for duty free commerce with the United States. Many Democrats and most unions oppose the initiative because of Colombia’s appalling labor record.

Penn’s ties to Team Clinton go back some time: the PR man was originally admitted to Bill’s circle by consultant Dick Morris in an effort to shore up the 1996 presidential campaign. Penn headed up a global public relations firm called Burson-Marsteller; the company has offered public relations help to such unsavory entities as Blackwater, the security contractor accused of killing Iraqi civilians, and Countrywide, a major lender of risky subprime mortgages.  Penn was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress. Penn’s ties to the Colombian government were revealed when the Wall Street Journal reported that the PR man held a private meeting with the Colombian ambassador.

News of Penn’s ties to the Colombian government proved acutely embarrassing to Clinton, who has gone on record as opposing the agreement. Surely fearing that she might lose out amongst the blue collar constituency in western Pennsylvania, Clinton promptly demoted Penn—though he remains on the campaign staff as a pollster and adviser.

It’s odd to think that the Penn-Colombia story could exert an impact on domestic U.S. politics. Most Americans, if they are aware of Colombia at all, probably associate the country with drug cartels and little else. The media has done a swell job of ignoring Colombia as a news story, despite the fact that successive administrations in Bogotá have been proud recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid.

Álvaro Uribe: Creating a Climate of Fear for Colombian Labor

On the other hand, the recent scandal within the Clinton camp might touch a nerve among angry, blue collar workers in the industrial heartland. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for labor organizers. In the six years since President Álvaro Uribe took office, over 400 labor activists have been murdered, according to Colombia’s National Trade Union School (Escuela Nacional Sindical). In 2008, almost one unionist a week has been murdered, while 39 unionists were murdered in 2007, far more than in any other country. In addition, threats of violence and murder are now sufficient to halt an organizing drive or to abort a strike.

The connection between this horrific labor climate and the Uribe government is pretty clear. Indeed, there’s been mounting evidence of collusion between many of Uribe’s allies and right wing paramilitaries who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents. Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President.

So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.

At the very least, the Uribe regime has created a climate of impunity in which labor activists have been targeted. Recently, human rights groups wrote a letter accusing a top Uribe adviser of endangering the lives of labor leaders by claiming that a protest march against right-wing death squads had been organized by FARC left wing guerrillas. The letter charged that four people involved in the march were subsequently murdered, and dozens more threatened with death.
In Colombia, there’s little chance that the paramilitaries will face justice: since the reign of terror against trade unionists began in the 1980s, only three percent of the cases have been clarified.

Riding the Colombia Gravy Train

The Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, but clearly that is not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement. The winners in this equation include U.S. corporations which for years have been trammeling human rights in Colombia. Big business sees the trade deal as opportunity to increase its fast-track looting of Colombian human and natural resources.

Together, the Colombian government and its lobbyists have launched an all out assault in an effort to sway members of Congress into signing on to the deal. According to the New York Times, there have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort. Uribe has visited Washington to make personal appeals. Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal.

In this fight, Clinton staffers like Penn are intent upon picking off as many Democratic legislators as possible in an effort to secure the trade deal for the Colombian elite and U.S. multinationals. Major corporations such as WalMart, Citigroup and Caterpillar stand to benefit and are working double time to ram the deal through Congress.

From Colombia to Pennsylvania

Colombia’s sorry track record is not lost on the likes of organized labor in the U.S., which says the Andean nation’s record in curbing assassinations of labor organizers by paramilitaries remains poor. In Pennsylvania, the Colombia story has political traction: one of four primary voters in the state hails from a union household.

Just yesterday, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa went to a Hershey-owned York Peppermint Patty Plant in Reading, Pennsylvania to denounce the Colombia free trade agreement. Hoffa was in Reading as part of a three-day tour through the state, meeting with Teamsters in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Reading and Pittsburgh.

"These so-called trade deals are killing American jobs," he said. "They aren’t about trade; they’re about helping companies move their factories to countries with cheaper labor. The last thing American workers need is a trade deal with Colombia, one of the most anti-union countries in the world," Hoffa added.

In traveling to Reading, Hoffa was making a political statement about Latin American free trade deals. The Hershey plant will move to Monterrey, Mexico by year’s end, resulting in the loss of 260 jobs. It’s yet another painful blow to the residents of Reading, which has already lost one-fourth of its good-paying manufacturing jobs since January 2001.

Appearing at an Obama rally in Scranton, Hoffa declared, "In 1998, we lost 1,000 jobs at Tops Chewing gum, those jobs went to Mexico. In York, Pennsylvania, Peppermint Patties is closing 600 union jobs will go to Mexico (where) they won’t pay health care. They won’t pay unemployment it’s about money. And these CEOs don’t care about America."

Pennsylvania has been especially hard hit by foreign trade. More than 44,000 jobs were lost due to NAFTA since it took effect in 1994, and Hoffa claims that 1,583 plants, offices and warehouses have closed in the state as a result of the trade deal. Pockets of the state have suffered from chronic unemployment and low wages since many factories and steel mills closed.

What this adds up to is a fired up electorate which is prone to punish any candidate tied to corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Change to Win, a labor alliance which has endorsed Obama, called Penn’s meeting with the Colombian ambassador "outrageous" and urged Clinton to fire him. "We have questioned Penn’s role in the Clinton campaign in the past for his representation of union busting employers," Change to Win executive director Greg Tarpinian said. Meanwhile, significant union leaders like Hoffa continue to call for Clinton to fire Penn outright.

Pressing Colombia’s Agenda: Hillary’s Sleazy Advisers

Though Clinton herself has opposed the Colombia free trade agreement, her campaign is knee deep in Colombia sleaze. In addition to his public relations work lobbying for the Colombia free trade agreement, Penn also worked as an adviser to Coca-Cola, a company which faces legal action in connection with its bottling plants in Colombia.

A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida accused the Coca-Cola Company, its Colombian subsidiary and business affiliates of using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders at the multinational soft drink manufacturer’s Colombian bottling plants. The suit was filed by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian union that represents workers at Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants.

The story doesn’t end there, however.

Another top Clinton campaign aide ­ spokesman Howard Wolfson ­ is an owner of the Glover Park Group, to which the Colombian government pays a $40,000 per month retainer to lobby for the US-Colombia free trade agreement. In the wake of the scandal involving Penn, Clinton promoted Wolfson to take over the campaign’s "strategic message team."

In other words, Hillary’s clarifications on Colombia notwithstanding, Glover Park Group has been arguing the same position on the free trade agreement as Penn (several other Glover Park employees have deep connections with the Clintons, including founding partner Joe Lockhart, who served as the White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Joel Johnson, who was a senior communications adviser in the Clinton White House).

Bill’s Sordid Colombia Past and Present

In addition to Penn and Wolfson, there’s also husband Bill to consider.  As President, Clinton went to bat for Andrés Pastrana, whose administration was equal to if not worse than the sordid Uribe regime when it came to protecting human rights. Clinton backed so-called Plan Colombia and approved $1.3 billion to the Andean nation while waiving human rights conditions. More than $900 million of the U.S. contribution went toward military and police equipment, including attack helicopters and other lethal aid, ostensibly in an effort to prosecute the drug war.

What’s particularly jarring is that Clinton backed the Pastrana government despite rampant human rights abuses in Colombia at the time. According to Human Rights Watch, right wing paramilitaries massacred civilians, committed selective killings, and spread terror with the tolerance and open support of the armed forces.

Labor was hit particularly hard during the Pastrana years: the Colombian President enacted strict austerity measures and began selling off state-owned banks and other nationalized enterprises. When some 800,000 state workers struck in protest, Pastrana declared the strike illegal.

Meanwhile, labor leaders were assassinated.

Bill’s Colombia advocacy has continued under the Uribe regime. According to the Politico, the former President was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.

As early as 2005 Clinton remarked that he was in favor of a Colombian free trade agreement. In that year, he went to Bogotá personally to meet with Uribe. The Colombian President said that he needed Clinton’s support to ensure the passage of the free trade agreement. Clinton agreed to follow up on the request once he returned to the U.S.

After speaking with the Colombian President, Clinton accompanied Uribe on a walk through downtown Bogotá. The two headed from the Tequendama Hotel to the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Convention Center. During their walk Bill greeted the city’s many street vendors, many of whom were surely cast out of the formal economy as a result of Colombia’s draconian labor policies.

On Colombia, Hillary is little Better

Though Hillary hasn’t made personal junkets to Bogotá, her record on Colombia does not inspire much confidence. In the Senate she has been careful not to stick her neck out on behalf of human rights in Colombia, leaving this task to more principled liberal folk.

In 2002, The Latin American Working Group singled out the late Paul Wellstone, Patrick Leahy, and Russ Feingold for their tireless efforts to raise the issue of human rights in Colombia. All three denounced aerial fumigations of coca leaf which had dire environmental consequences in Colombia. Clinton was nowhere to be found on the issue.

In 2003, the usual Senate suspects including Dodd, Feingold, Leahy and Kerry sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing serious concern about a speech given by Uribe. In chilling fashion, the Colombian President accused some human rights groups of acting as "terrorist spokespeople," remarks which put human rights defenders in danger. The Senators’ letter of protest also opposed amnesty for paramilitary leaders involved in grave human rights abuses.

Where was Clinton? The junior Senator from New York refused to sign on to the letter.

Fast forward to 2004, and the dire plight of trade unionists continued unabated. Once again it fell to Feingold and Dodd to lead the charge: the two drafted a letter to Uribe urging him to make progress on breaking ties between the Colombian army and paramilitary forces. Feingold and Dodd expressed concern about ongoing attacks against human rights and union activists, and raised concerns about policies granting police powers to the military.

Again, Clinton refused to sign the letter.

In 2005, it was again the same: Leahy, Dodd and Leahy signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on her not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions in law until greater progress was made on a series of cases. Clinton passed when it came time to add her name.

And as recently as 2007, Hillary refused to sign a letter sponsored by Leahy and Dodd that expressed concern over public statements by government officials, including Uribe. The statements led to attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of civil society.

Obama’s Contrasting Record

In contrast to Hillary, Obama has shown some spine when dealing with Uribe. The Illinois Senator has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with Bogotá and, unlike Clinton, signed the letter to Condoleezza Rice. Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.

To his credit, Obama has taken a strong stance advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks. The Bogotá government, he argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then "maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify."

On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal, remarking "I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers." On the campaign trail, Obama added that he opposed the treaty “because when organizing workers puts an organizer’s life at risk, as it does in Colombia, it makes a mockery of our labor protections.”

On the positive side, Obama recognizes the need to rethink the nature of trade agreements. "I think it is very important for us in our free trade agreements with any country to ensure that basic human rights are being observed, basic worker rights are being observed, basic environmental rights are being observed," he remarked.

Uribe recognizes the potential threat posed by an Obama administration. A few days ago, the Colombian President chastised Obama for not being aware of Colombia’s "efforts" on trade. Apparently, Uribe was referring to the Colombian government’s public relations campaign in Washington, designed to whitewash human rights atrocities.

Obama retorted hotly, "I think the president is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition…That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward."

What’s striking is that Uribe would openly meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign, perhaps underscoring the Bogotá government’s deep nervousness about the future. One might ask though: why did Uribe not criticize Hillary, since her stance on the Colombia trade deal is identical to Obama’s? Clearly, Uribe isn’t too concerned about a Clinton administration in Washington. After all, the Clinton machine has a long history of backing the Colombian far right, its politicians and death squads, of whom Uribe is the top leader.

Sewing up the Nomination in Pennsylvania

Mark Penn reportedly believes that the entire Colombia story, and the issue of his conflict of interest within the Clinton campaign, will ultimately blow over. According to Huffington Post, Penn remarked that the fiasco would vanish from the news cycle within a couple of days.

Camp Obama seems to be catching on to the importance of the story, however. A campaign spokesperson sent reporters a note reading, "Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments." For whatever reason, however, Obama doesn’t mention Penn’s name while campaigning in Pennsylvania.

It’s a mistake.

Unfortunately, Obama still hasn’t given white voters in the western part of the state much of a compelling reason to vote for him. He must draw a starker contrast to the Clinton campaign on foreign policy and labor rights. Having already delivered a major speech on race, he could now discuss class within the context of Pennsylvania’s de-industrialization. He could point out, poignantly, how free trade benefits the corporate elite in Colombia and the United States and harms workers in both countries.

Threatening to cut off economic aid to Colombia unless Bogotá improved its labor record would be a gutsy move and make Obama an instantaneous hero to organized labor. He could top it all off by riffing a bit about Clinton and her campaign’s unseemly ties to the Uribe regime (it would be drole, and that is putting it mildly, to see the mainstream media struggle to play catch up on the story. Having systematically ignored the issue of labor in Colombia during the Pastrana and Uribe years, it would now have to explore the underbelly of U.S. foreign policy in the Andes).

If Obama were to take such a daring move, he could sew up Pennsylvania and the nomination. If he fails to electrify working class voters however, the nominating contest goes on, perhaps even to the Convention. The Illinois Senator would still probably prevail, but the public will lose interest in the campaign and "Obama-mania" could fade somewhat.

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