The journalist Scotty Reston once said that Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it. After years of neither reading nor doing much about the region, Washington is gazing south once more, roused by the petrodiplomacy and anti-American rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Latin America has long been the road where the United States test-drives its policies of the moment—be they wars against communism, drugs or terrorism—before taking them global. In particular, Washington has often fixated on personalities, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, as the sources of the region's maladies.
Enter Chávez, Washington’s Latin bad guy du jour. By flirting with rogue regimes from Pyongyang to Tehran, giving Havana an economic and political boost, and seeking to export his oil-fueled, left-wing “Bolivarian revolution” throughout the region, Chávez has played into Washington’s worst fears about what happens when its traditional subordinates run loose.
“I view him as a threat of undermining democracy,” President Bush said last week. The U.S. Southern Command in Miami has persuaded the Pentagon to regard Venezuela as a threat worthy of war planning. Members of Congress fret openly about what the United States will do if oil supplies from Venezuela are cut off. And the State Department counterterrorism office is assessing whether Venezuela is soft on terrorism by selling visas in the Middle East or providing a haven for the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Yet the prospect of Chávez supplanting the ailing Castro as the new Latin threat of the post-Cold War world is vastly overblown—and the notion that he could drive the rest of the region toward the left is even more so. Unfortunately, though, the people who still set the tone for Washington’s Latin America policy have barely changed since the Cold War. For most of the Bush administration, day-to-day affairs of the region have been left to former staffers from the office of archconservative former senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); architects of the Nicaraguan contra war of the 1980s; Hill veterans of the Castro's-head-at-any-cost clique; or, because of the Cuban vote, the White House political machine.
These operatives still rely on their old Cold War Rolodexes to understand Latin America, without recognizing that the region's address book has changed. With the military largely confined to the barracks, with polls and ballots the rule, and with women, Afro-Latinos, indigenous leaders and former guerrillas now in elected office, the region looks nothing like it did at the height of the Cold War. Sure, Washington will breathe a collective groan if Sandinista leader Ortega returns to power in the Nicaraguan presidential election this year, and Chávez is striving to replay Castro's old anti-imperialist rhetoric.
But the new generation reaching power today—including Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay and Manuel Zelaya in Honduras—reflects not Washington’s wishes or nightmares, but the unique historic, ethnic and class conditions of their countries.
These leaders seek to redress persistent poverty, income inequality, weak institutions and rampant crime—the real reasons behind the region’s political polarization and its penchant for populism—amid fierce pressures from both global markets and democratic electorates. They are not cookie-cutter Fidelistas, but neither do they necessarily regard their interests as wed to those of the United States.
The diversity of views from the region has not been matched by the thinking in official Washington, which is barely considering the critical questions it should be asking about Latin America. Why are voters electing a rainbow of left-leaning heads of state? Beyond oil, threats and political theater, how should the United States manage its relationship with Venezuela and Chávez?
And, setting aside the size and shape of a fence that some politicians fantasize might keep Mexicans away, why do so many Latin American countries have difficulty creating the social contract—the jobs, security, enforceable laws, investment and hope—that could help keep millions more of their people gainfully employed at home?
My entrance to this world came in the 1980s during one of Washington’s bouts of interest in the region, when I was among a group of college undergraduates visiting Cuba for a week. We flew on a charter from a hidden Miami International Airport terminal, the kind that appears only for travelers to Cuba and only in the middle of the night. With Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s warnings of Cuba as the source of Communist instability, the invasion of Grenada and the counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the island seemed a logical place to discover how it felt to be under the thumb of the American empire.
We took the standard solidarity tour: cutting sugar cane, visiting clinics and glimpsing the beginnings of the UNESCO-financed restoration of Old Havana’s colonial architecture. Our hotel, the Riviera—barely changed since the 1950s when mobster Meyer Lansky ran its casinos—teemed with Angolans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans on leave from their wars. The international schools were filled with teenagers from Central America, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico; years later, they would fill the ranks of their countries’ political parties, cabinets and legislatures. Because of the investments it made decades ago in such public diplomacy, Cuba built a vast network of friends and contacts throughout the region to draw upon.
Of course, these Cuban initiatives atrophied when the Cold War ended and Moscow's subsidies dried up. But over the past few years, an oil-rich Chávez has taken on this role. He has provided Castro with key financial and political support; young people from poor countries throughout the region are once again going to college in Cuba, and the combination of Cuban know-how and Venezuelan cash is helping to send Cuban doctors to treat the region’s most impoverished. And Chávez has also sought (with mixed success) to help elect like-minded (read: anti-American) heads of state in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Peru.
Washington has made little effort to compete. When not focused on terrorism and Iraq, U.S. policymakers still rely on Latin America's traditional economic and political elites, who are disconnected from the region’s new realities. These are usually the English-speaking wealthy set, those who send their kids to school in the United States or Europe, keep their money in Miami banks and have learned to manipulate U.S. fears and desires.
The Colombian government’s mastery of Washington is a case in point. Since 1998, Colombian Presidents Andrés Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe persuaded a Democratic and Republican White House and several sessions of Congress to appropriate billions of dollars for Colombia. Until Sept. 11, 2001, Colombia’s talking points with the White House, Congress and the media focused mainly on drugs. Within weeks of the attacks, however, Colombia pivoted, asking its public relations firm in town to change the storyboards to represent its objectives as combating terrorists. Washington followed suit, shifting into an all-encompassing fight against terrorism, in which Latin America became but one more front, with the Colombian government as a model ally. Today, Colombia receives the lion's share of U.S. foreign assistance for Latin America.
Unfortunately, Colombia’s human rights climate remains disproportionately cruel to journalists, trade unionists and Afro-Colombians—the same people whom America's democracy programs ought to support. No matter; the Bush administration listens to and rewards those who confirm its worldview, reinforcing the green-zoning of U.S. foreign policy.
The irony of U.S.-Latin American relations is that, while the rise of Chávez and the region’s tilt to the left makes Washington fret that it is losing the region politically, Washington has already begun losing Latin America economically.
Growing trade and investment initiatives from Asia and Europe are providing the region with alternatives to the United States’s historic dominance. For example, the Chilean economy—long touted as a regional model for poverty reduction and pro-market policies—already exports more to Asia than to all of the Americas, including the United States. China is becoming an increasingly important partner for Latin America, both as a source of investment and an important customer for commodities such as soy, wheat, steel and oil. Agricultural exports from Brazil to the United States account for only 18 percent of Brazil's total, with 43 percent destined for emerging markets, including East Asia and India. And a number of Latin American countries, including Mexico, have reached trade deals with the European Union and Japan, while others have joined the main trade bloc of Asia and the Pacific.
Sure, in addition to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, the United States is gradually piecing together bilateral trade agreements with Central America, Chile, and soon with Colombia and Peru. But Latin America’s integration into the world economy, independent of the United States, suggests that many Latin Americans now see little incentive to endure unconditionally Washington’s mix of attention and indifference.
This shift entails real costs for the United States. Despite the caricatures, Latin America offers us far more than cocaine and a border headache. Including Canada and Mexico, the hemisphere accounts for nearly 50 percent of U.S. energy imports. About 28 million Latin Americans live and work in the United States with varying shades of legal status. They fill jobs in the booming service sector and send home billions of dollars, helping to stabilize their own countries. Even Latin American media is increasingly part of the U.S. cross-cultural zeitgeist, and Miami rather than Buenos Aires or Mexico City is the new corporate nexus of Spanish-language media and music.
The energy, demographic, labor, language, cultural and trade ties between the United States and Latin America will accelerate regardless of the ideology of those in the White House or in presidential palaces throughout the region. But for the United States to fashion new thinking that reflects these dynamics, it will have to exorcise the ghosts of the Cold War.
In another era, Scotty Reston was right. His insight surely helps explain why Latin America has long been treated like a vocational school for U.S. foreign policy, with the true Washington heavyweights too busy tending to important affairs elsewhere in the world. But however unpleasant the ideological dissonance of the moment, the truth is that we are stuck with one another. Recognizing that may help Washington conjure an approach to the region that bypasses the rhetoric of Chávez and addresses the conditions that help him thrive.
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