FOR THE first time in nearly two centuries, the United States will find a Latin America that has unapologetically dropped the region's traditional deference to U.S. power. When President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive for the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April, they will step into a political and diplomatic environment dramatically different from that confronting any of their predecessors. Understandably, the Obama administration will assert its disposition to forge partnerships, recover ground lost in recent years, and work toward the shared prosperity, social inclusion and common security agenda to which the region's governments have loosely agreed. But, with a global financial crisis and domestic recession constraining resources, not to mention a foreign-policy agenda that is all but saturated with other strategic priorities, the United States faces clear limitations on what it can achieve in its own neighborhood. Still, the forces of interdependence within the Americas remain as compelling as ever and require a strategy that advances U.S. interests in this new environment. As the countries of Latin America become stronger and more independent, the United States will face an uphill battle to make relationships work.
President Obama must take stock of several new hemispheric "facts of life" that will frame the political-diplomatic calculus for U.S.-Latin American relations in the coming years. Most important, the new administration must endeavor to see the hemisphere as it is and not through the lazy filters of "best-friendism," wishful thinking or demonization. Only then will the president be able to leverage the goodwill his election has bestowed and forge tangible policies that both enhance U.S. interests and reflect a healthy respect for those of the region.
While longtime observers of Latin America in Washington often reflexively label the shortcomings of U.S. policy toward the region a form of "neglect" (with the implication that "neglect" be redressed with greater, more sustained attention and policy activism), in fact, recent U.S. preoccupation elsewhere made it easier for Latin American nations to dramatically diversify and expand their trade, investment, diplomatic and in some cases security-related ties to outside powers such as China, Russia, Spain, India and Iran. Likewise, without a heavy U.S. hand, regional powers like Brazil and the now-less-potent Venezuela have emerged in their own right, asserting themselves on the global stage and fostering the construction of new regional and subregional institutions that explicitly exclude the United States-whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) or the more firmly grounded Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), led by Brazil. Neglect, it turns out, can be a very good thing.
THE MOST difficult new dimension for American policy makers to internalize is that the U.S. government is increasingly marginal to the lives of Latin Americans and to the choices of their governments. Gone are the days when local militaries relied on training by American counterparts in the arts of repression, regime change and low-intensity conflict. Gone are the days when the U.S. embassy and its resident ambassador could unabashedly insinuate themselves into the domestic political and economic affairs of Latin societies (although they may still try). Gone, even, are the days when a more benign, less intrusive form of U.S. stewardship was widely, if ambivalently, expected or even likely. Simply put, the U.S. government no longer has the cachet, influence or political weight it exercised during much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In part, this is the product of natural evolution: economies have grown; Latin American states have become more active in the international community; globalization has broadened the region's connections of commerce and culture around the world. Clearly, Latin American nations lag behind their Asian counterparts in many of these categories. Yet along the path of the region's more limited growth, democracies have still matured, and so have their publics. Problems of state capacity, crime, rule of law and corruption remain endemic, but citizens now expect local institutions, not the United States, to deliver goods, services and solutions. And as these trends have taken root, however gingerly, so too has the region rekindled its lingering desire to truly realize its often-thwarted independence and sovereignty. Latin Americans have long protested various manifestations of U.S. hegemony, whether the Monroe Doctrine in the nineteenth century, a series of military interventions in the early twentieth, or the various carrots and sticks leveraged by the United States since then. With the institutional and economic gains of recent years (notwithstanding the effects of the current economic climate), it is not surprising that Latin Americans have sought to put a bit of distance between themselves and their domineering neighbor to the North.
THE FAILURE of U.S. policies over the last two decades to sufficiently address what the majority of Latin Americans now view as their most fundamental concerns has further distanced North and South. The gulf between the results of U.S. policies and the needs of the Latin American governments and publics is wide. Since 1989, democracy promotion, counternarcotics and trade liberalization have constituted the core of U.S. priorities for Latin America. This trifecta is no longer adequate, if it ever was, to meeting the region's challenges, especially those related to expanding social inclusion, alleviating poverty and inequality, and increasing public security.
In the case of democracy promotion, Latin America certainly looks more democratic than a generation ago. However, because the second Bush administration entwined the democracy agenda with its pursuit of regime change through military force, the United States has lost the moral authority it once enjoyed as a beacon of democratic freedoms. This perversion of the U.S. commitment to democratic forms of governance has made it easier for some leaders in the region to justify consolidating authoritarian rule or suppressing voices of opposition. At times, the collapse of American credibility on this front strengthened a search for nationalist alternatives to the American model, and included-as a reaction to the prevailing faith in market fundamentalism-a variety of statist economic strategies. The chicken-in-every-pot patronage politics of President Hugo Chávez, funded by oil and natural-resource wealth, combined with a steady stream of anti-American rhetoric, is a ready example.
Meanwhile, aggressive counternarcotics programs focused on eradication and interdiction continue to absorb the lion's share of all assistance programs for Latin America. Resources for alternative and viable rural development remain woefully lacking. Although the statistics from year to year at times show a decline in net acreage of coca-growing land, the daunting reality is that after twenty years and billions of dollars spent annually (over $8.5 billion between just 2000 and 2008, for example), more coca is cultivated in the Andean region than ever before, while street prices are lower and the quality more pure. Preponderant evidence of the failure of America's war on drugs suggests it is time for a reckoning that squarely addresses both demand and the slew of other dimensions of the industry (arms trafficking and exploitation of illicit financial networks) that keep it thriving.
Finally, trade liberalization, mantra of the Davos elite and the Washington Consensus, has fizzled-with agonized debate over the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement only the latest victim in a progressive unraveling that saw the once-vaunted Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal fall apart. In the Latin American context, U.S. policy makers have often appeared to believe that free trade alone would alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. As well, they seemed to assume that the region's still-stratified societies possessed the institutional capacity, political will and outlines of a basic social contract necessary to endure the dislocations of free trade and take advantage of market openings. With exclusion and hardship persisting for the region's majorities (and for all the debate about the benefits and downsides of the various agreements negotiated), the American trade agenda faltered under the weight of high expectations. Together, the combined effects of the collapse of the Doha round, the emergence of the G-20 and the global financial crisis-not to mention growing reticence to free trade among an American public watching manufacturing jobs flee abroad-have effectively torpedoed the trade-as-panacea reflex informing U.S.-Latin American relations for the past fifteen years.Essay Types: Essay