Ambivalence in the Americas

Latin Americans have mixed feelings about their northern neighbor. Unfortunately, restoring U.S. credibility in the region is not going to be easy, says Julia Sweig.

Should Iranians ever desire a South American getaway, they can now fly direct to Caracas, Venezuela. Certainly, this bizarre route has more to do with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's recent chumminess with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than with a desire to stimulate tourism. While undoubtedly an extreme example, it is indicative of Latin America's turning away from the United States. A "bereft [U.S.] policy toolbox" and the United States's global predominance have changed Latin American perceptions of the United States, said Council on Foreign Relations expert Julia Sweig at The National Interest on July 26.

U.S. policies towards Latin America often take on an experimental flavor-to the detriment of the United States' reputation. The United States has used the region as a "proving ground" for democracy promotion and counter-insurgency tactics-both of which are now important parts of the U.S. global agenda. Therefore, the "unilateralism of the U.S. deployment" looks "quite familiar"-and somewhat disconcerting-to Latin Americans, said Sweig, CFR's Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America studies.

While Sweig believes that Latin American malaise stems more from the nature of U.S. power than from specific U.S. policies, she stated that the United States badly botched its attempts to promote democracy in the region. Democracy should be America's "strongest suit", she observed. Yet the United States undermined its democratic credentials during the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. When the coup's conspirators appeared to have booted the democratically elected Chávez from office, the United States's reaction was "ding dong, the witch is dead", she noted. Worse, the White House's public approbation of the coup flew in the face of a 2001 U.S. commitment to support regional democratic institutions. Latin Americans quickly honed in on the hypocritical U.S. position-and have doubted the United States's commitment to democracy ever since.

The United States's economic approach to Latin America has also backfired. U.S. officials and experts used the region as a "test case" for globalization, advising leaders to adopt liberalizing reforms. U.S. officials-especially in the 1990s-assumed that privatization and free-trade agreements would spread much-needed prosperity in the region. Despite U.S. policymakers' efforts, poverty is still widespread, and income inequality is still a pressing problem. Since many Latin Americans have yet to benefit from globalization, they have become frustrated with capitalism. Latin Americans see the free-trade agreements with the United States as "our big guys running roughshod over their very underdeveloped business environment", Sweig remarked. She noted that there is "some truth to that accusation"; trade is "necessary but vastly insufficient" to development.

The recent death of the immigration-reform bill and the plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border have also aroused Latin America ire. Like the other elements of the United States' Latin America policy-trade, drugs and democracy-the immigration issue has been determined by domestic politics, rather than regional realities. Agricultural subsidies to U.S. farmers, for instance, have largely shaped our trade policy with our southern neighbors. The subsidies artificially depress the prices of U.S. agricultural products, making it impossible for Latin American crops to compete in the U.S. market. U.S. drug policy-which includes aid to Colombia and destruction of coca plants-has failed to curb cocaine production. Yet U.S. politicians continue to wage this endless War on Drugs because it plays well with their constituencies.

Of course, the direction of Cuban policy is also entirely charted by domestic concerns. Since Florida is a crucial state in the presidential elections, the views of its Cuban expatriates-who oppose any rapprochement with a communist government-must be accommodated. Unless the United States makes a unilateral move to re-establish ties with Cuba, the situation is "stuck in DC, stuck in Miami and stuck in Havana", Sweig said. Cubans have such low expectations of the United States that only bold U.S. actions will get them to take notice.

Some concrete steps can be taken to improve U.S.-Latin America ties. Lowering or eliminating agricultural subsidies will help, as will simply acknowledging the poverty and crime that plague Latin America. The United States must also take the burgeoning Tehran-Caracas relationship seriously and somehow stay engaged in Colombia. The one positive outcome of the drug-eradication program there is that it places a check on the Colombian military. Should the United States reduce its presence in Colombia, the military would have too much latitude-with potentially disastrous results.

More generally, the United States needs to get its "arms around the fact that ambivalence [towards the United States] is the state of nature in Latin America", Sweig said. Lowered Latin American expectations of the United States may not be so terrible, since the United States has unrealistically represented itself as a regional "panacea." In any case, Latin America is already "diversifying diplomatically and economically", establishing commercial relationship with resource-hungry China.

Although the United States' Latin American policy should be adjusted, it is "delusional to think that a new president" is going to restore U.S. credibility in Latin America "overnight", Sweig stated; this challenge may take a generation to resolve.

"I wish I had a happy fix, but I don't", she said.

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.