By James Bargent
Since leaving office in 2001, Bill Clinton has found a niche as a globetrotting philanthropist. The former US president has used his political contacts and populist touch to bring together corporate interests, politicians, non-profit organizations, and major charitable donors to promote his vision of market-driven development. Working through the Clinton Foundation and in roles such as UN Special Envoy to Haiti, much of Clinton’s work has focused on Latin America.
Aside from his work in Haiti, Clinton has focused on Colombia and Peru with foundation projects ranging from free cataract operations to worker training programs. (Clinton was in Bogota just a little more than a week ago for a charity golf tournament.)
Part of the reason for Clinton’s efforts in the region is self-explanatory: Clinton has declared tackling inequality and instability as two of his primary objectives, two problems Latin America has in spades. But is his focus on Latin America simply a case of help where it is needed?
Professor David Scott Palmer is a political scientist at Boston University and author of US Relations with Latin America During the Clinton Years: Opportunities Lost or Opportunities Squandered? He believes Clinton’s post-presidential work in Latin America has been a “natural extension” of the Clinton administration’s policies.
As president, Clinton spearheaded the push for trade liberalization in Latin America, ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement and establishing the Summit of the Americas process and its now dead dream of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. While Latin America in general has since moved away from the “Washington Consensus” of trade liberalization, Haiti, Peru, and Colombia are notable exceptions.
Free Trade and a Service Component
Clinton remains a fierce advocate of free trade agreements (FTAs) and campaigned for agreements between the US and both Peru and Colombia through behind-the-scenes lobbying, according to leaders from the two countries. His philanthropic objectives are also closely linked to trade liberalization. Clinton says his vision is of sustainable development in a globalized world, achieved by “building up the positive forces of interdependence and reducing the negative ones.”
Professor Palmer says he believes Clinton’s work in Latin America is “in part an effort to try to work in the interstices of an FTA – which tends to emphasize the role of the private sector – and add a service component and support for where human development needs are the greatest.” He adds, “He is now out of the political arena and he can pursue it as he sees fit and I think he feels like he is not constrained anymore as he was during his administration by the weight of the labor movement.”
However, as a centrist politician dedicated to the so-called “third way” combination of free markets and moderately progressive social policies, Clinton’s relationship with free trade is sometimes ambiguous, an ambiguity at times reflected in his development work.
In Haiti, Clinton has brought together foreign investors and local power brokers to promote the idea of the island becoming a free trade hub and a leading location for technology industries, a vision he continues to pursue even as the population struggles against starvation and disease following the 2010 earthquake.
“A Mistake” in Haiti
However, he has suggested the motivation for his involvement in Haiti is to repay the debt he feels he owes the country due to the failure of his trade policies. When president, Clinton pushed for Haiti to lift its import tariffs to secure US farmers a competitive advantage, a move which killed off the key domestic rice and sugar industries. “It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2010. “I live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.”
In contrast, Clinton has claimed his promotion of free trade in Peru helped boost economic growth and reduce poverty. However, inequality and poverty levels remain stubbornly high, and, in Clinton’s words, “the benefits of prosperity have not been equally distributed.” The Clinton Foundation’s flagship project in Peru, the Poverty Reduction Alleviation Project, attempts to address this by targeting sectors traditionally hit hard by increased competition from free trade, such as subsistence farming, by helping small producers find new markets for their products.
According to Professor Palmer, Clinton’s post-presidential work in Latin America has also been built on alliances forged from his time in office. “It is natural to expect that a former president now a private citizen who has developed close contacts with certain individuals during his administration … builds on those relationships in the private sector,” he said.
Clinton retains especially close ties to Colombia, where he is a regular visitor and has forged a firm alliance with ex-president Alvaro Uribe. Although Uribe took office after 2001, it was Clinton’s “Plan Colombia” program that bankrolled the Colombian’s hardline security policies with $7 billion of military aid. While Plan Colombia remains controversial on human rights grounds and its success in tackling drug trafficking is hotly disputed, in a 2009 speech Clinton labelled it one of the most “outstanding achievements” of his presidency, and an “amazing success.” Both Clinton and Uribe point to how Plan Colombia contributed to security gains that sparked an investment boom as foreign firms rushed to invest in what had previously been no-go areas – a boom set to be fuelled by the FTA finally approved by US Congress last year.
In addition to his development work, Clinton has said he also sees his role as “restor[ing] my country’s leadership for peace, prosperity, security, and social justice at a time when we have become alienated from much of the world.” This has dovetailed neatly with the policy of the Obama administration, which made it its first priority in Latin America to repair relations strained by eight years of unilateral policy and tough rhetoric under George W. Bush.
The political goodwill Clinton generates from his charity work combined with his staunch defense of US state policy has made his role as a self-proclaimed “ambassador to the world” increasingly useful for US interests in Latin America.