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Sweig: Rice, Hughes Aim to Show Relations with South America "Not as Negative as they are Perceived to Be"

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
Interviewer: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
March 9, 2006

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After being largely neglected after 9/11, South America is again on the U.S. State Department's agenda. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes will attend the inauguration of Chile's president-elect, Michelle Bachelet, March 12. Hughes will remain for nearly one week, visiting four other South American countries, at a time when many experts say U.S.-South American relations are at a new low.

Julia Sweig, CFR's senior fellow for Latin America studies, tells cfr.org that Hughes' visit is meant "to demonstrate that America's relations with Latin America are not as negative as they are perceived to be." Sweig adds: "They have nowhere to go but up in that respect."

Sweig also says the United States must realize it is no longer the sole dominant power in the Western hemisphere, and that the leftist governments being voted into power in recent South American elections "are not a rejection of the market." Instead, Sweig says, "they're a statement that the existing institutions and the traditional elites cannot deliver."

Secretary Rice is going to Chile for the inaugural of president-elect Michelle Bachelet and Karen Hughes is also visiting four countries besides Chile -- Brazil, Colombia, Panama, and El Salvador. What sort of issues will likely be raised during her trip?

I think we should separate out the Karen Hughes visit from the Rice visit. What Hughes needs to demonstrate is that the United States doesn't believe itself to be the answer to all of Latin America's questions and problems. She needs to demonstrate that we take seriously how the Latin Americans themselves define their own national interests, that we understand that our national interests—whether they be security or economic—are not necessarily universally appealing. We must demonstrate we understand Latin Americans have a broad set of issues they're trying to deal with and that what we've put on the table in the past few years just isn't enough to help them address their problems.

Some of the issues South American countries are facing today are elections, electoral reform, trade deals with partners outside the Western Hemisphere—China, the European Union. So what do you think most Latin Americans themselves see as most important?

First of all, why is the Left coming to power in Latin America? Because as I see it, and this is in my [forthcoming] book [Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century], the dynamics of globalization and democratization, which the United States launched as our recipe for prosperity and leveling the playing field, are in a sense on a collision course.

On the one hand, globalization hasn't delivered for Latin America. Inequality is worse there than it was ten years ago. But on the other hand, societies are open, the military is back in the barracks, previously excluded groups and social movements are now voting. And why they're voting the way they're voting, in so many of these countries, is because they are deeply disenchanted with the perpetual and worsening social exclusion that they're experiencing. These votes for the Left are not a rejection of the market; they're a statement that the existing institutions and the traditional elites cannot deliver.

So, these new governments need to diversify their trade and diplomatic ties, and want to do that, because they no longer want to depend exclusively on the United States. But they also have to—and will be accountable for—delivering to their electorate services, infrastructure, the basic building blocks of competitive, market economies that exist in Europe and the United States and Asia, which still don't exist in Latin America.

Your book looks at the history of U.S. policy in Latin America, which sounds more like it was a one-size-fits-all policy. What are you proposing, then, should change in terms of U.S. policy in South America?

Small countries need to hook themselves up to the global economy. But the fundamental message the United States sends on trade is one of hypocrisy. Our own domestic protectionism sends a signal to protectionists in Latin America themselves that that's OK. Our emphasis on the importance of trade as something that can, in and of itself, resolve all of these domestic, economic, and political problems, needs to change. Trade is something that is mostly beneficial to our economy; that is, if our investors can get into Latin American economies, that benefits us and we ought to be a lot more honest about that.

So the trade dialogue needs to take place in a broader context. Sixty [percent] or 70 percent of Latin American workers are in the informal sector. That means there is all this untapped revenue the government can't even get [in order] to build institutions, to make the investments in infrastructure and human capital. So, I think the overarching point is the United States has to be much broader and comprehensive in how it looks at the problems Latin America faces and no longer pose trade as the answer to solving all those problems.

The United States needs to be comfortable in no longer being the go-to power in Latin America. The real dynamic unfolding is that the United States no longer calls the shots there. We need to accommodate to Latin Americans themselves, who are endeavoring to have important trade and diplomatic and political ties with one another and with other parts of the world, either in Europe or in Asia.

Who is the diplomatic voice, then, of the region? It sounds like, from U.S. coverage of South American politics, that [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez is taking the lead in terms of putting a public face on the region. But it doesn't sound like, on the ground, he carries as much weight.

I think we have a kind of laziness factor that affects the way our press and our political class sees Latin America. And so, Chavez is a great character because his rhetoric is hot, he's flamboyant, he gives four-hour speeches, he's provocative, he's taunting, and he's got these petrodollars that he can throw around. So across the board, he's a great character to cover and he's one of the few that's willing to openly and directly confront the big "empire."

But in fact, [President Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva], in Brazil, is much more—in terms of foreign policy—sophisticated and much more important as far as leadership within [regional organizations like] MERCOSUR. People look to Brazil. But Brazil's foreign-policy establishment isn't yet totally comfortable having a leadership role. Brazil is traditionally an insular country and they've just started in very, very recent periods to try to assume a higher profile and leadership role—not only in the hemisphere, but also within the G-20 and at the WTO and they're interested in a Security Council seat at the United Nations.

Chavez may be appealing in terms of his rhetoric and on the street, but with other governments, I think he is seen as actually undermining their attempt to responsibly become more independent because he sucks the energy out of a room. He's a polarizing figure, so the United States focuses on him. I think what Rice and Hughes are endeavoring to do is to take the focus off of Chavez to the extent they can—Chile, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, Panama—to demonstrate that America's relations with Latin America are not as negative as they are perceived to be. They have nowhere to go but up in that respect, so they'll probably come back thinking that they've made some strides.

These five countries [on Karen Hughes' agenda] have been called "success stories" in the region, especially Chile's economic progress. Are other countries looking to Chile in terms of an economic model?

I think they are, but I think there's a kind of nationalism that clouds how one Latin American country looks at another. There's a kind of defensiveness. And when the Americans come along and say, "Look how wonderful Chile is," that might even undermine things and make it worse. And although Chile has reduced poverty levels, inequality is worse. It's not clear yet in Chile whether they're going to be able to expand the pie. We've got a big problem with youth unemployment, so it's not all rosy pictured.

But politically in Chile, the really wonderful thing is that, since the country was so bruised by the [General Augusto] Pinochet experience, there's a very deep and strong commitment to democracy. And the Left and the Right have really built a compact. There's a very strong understanding about needing to protect that democracy. That's why someone like Bachelet can do so well and get votes from independents and from the Right.

So, looking ahead to the rest of 2006, which direction do you see U.S. policy going? There are elections, but the administration is also very concerned about dependence on foreign oil, much of which we import from Latin American countries.

I think for the United States to get it right with Latin America as the Left comes to power, the Left and the Right in the United States have to put away their old Cold War battles. And what a guy like Chavez, the possible resurgence of [Sandinista leader] Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales [in Bolivia], and how Chavez has reinvigorated Fidel Castro in Cuba, what those developments bring out in our own debate are these sort of old fights over the Left. And we need to recognize that this isn't the 1970s, that the Left that's coming to power essentially embraces the market but wants to harness it more democratically.

I think that Latin America is probably—other than the Middle East and Israel—one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to [U.S.] domestic politics and one of the last bastions of a Cold War theme I think we have to get over. And you see we're not over it, yet. When you see someone like [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld characterizing Chavez as Hitler and [Christian televangelist] Pat Robertson talking about needing to assassinate him and all sorts of chatter about the so-called Red Axis of Evil on one hand, and the State Department trying to tone things down with Venezuela on the other, I think that will help polarize things in Latin America and will prevent us from coming up with a set of policies that make sense.

Is Karen Hughes' trip this week a sign of this attempt to relate in a new way to South America?

If the message sounds florid and rhetorical but lacking in substance, Latin Americans will see right through that. The discussion about the President's Freedom Agenda without recognition of the context in which Latin Americans live each day—which is 200 million people living on two dollars a day or less, personal insecurity [and other] deep, deep, social problems—if she doesn't recognize that, talking about the Freedom Agenda is going to sound like pure propaganda.

 

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