Briefly back on the agenda

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 10, 2012


Yesterday’s visit of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff to Washington DC and President Barack Obama’s presence in the Summit of the Americas this coming weekend in Colombia will briefly put Latin America back on the agenda in the United States. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Americans will take advantage of the opportunity to engage more actively with Latin America. For many Americans, Latin America is a liability and a potential threat for the U.S.  By failing to take advantage of the opportunities Latin America offers, the U.S. will further erode its declining economic and political power in the world and Latin America will find partners for development elsewhere.


Latin America has not been among the top priorities for the United States in the last decade. The Middle East and rising China have captured American attention and fueled domestic fears of diminishing American hegemony.  Immigration issues and the drug problem, together with a history of instability and underdevelopment have given Latin America a bad reputation in the U.S.  In past years, Latin America was normally seen as a part of the problem, not as a region where solutions could come from. During the Cold War, regime instability in Latin America transformed the region in a potential liability.  The region was ripe for revolutionary leaders who wanted to expand the area of Soviet influence around the world.


Two decades after the end of the Cold War, with democracies in Latin America consolidating and the economy expanding given the high demand for commodities produced in region, the U.S. should take a new look at Latin America. Latin America should be seen as an opportunity for the United States. No other region in the world has had a similar history of cooperation and proximity to the United States.  Undeniably, there have been difficulties on the road. The U.S. has a history of meddling with the political and economic affairs of several Latin American countries. The wounds caused by U.S. support for brutal rightwing dictatorships during the Cold War are still open in many countries.  Yet, U.S. involvement in Latin America was not as traumatic as the conflicts the U.S. experienced in Asia or Europe.  Moreover, there have also been very successful experiences of cooperation and collaboration between the U.S. and Latin American countries that have created useful precedents to build upon.


Although it ended more than 20 years ago, the legacies of the Cold War still resonate in U.S.-Latin American relations. The obstinate Washington decision to keep the trade embargo against the dictatorial Castro regime in Cuba has made it difficult to leave the past behind. Latin American left-of-center regimes have made ending the embargo against Cuba a litmus test for the U.S. to show its willingness to move past the contentious issues of the Cold War. Admittedly, Latin American countries have had a disappointing soft position on helping restore democracy in Cuba.  But by insisting on the embargo against Cuba, Washington is experiencing political loses with the rest of Latin America that exceed by far the meager success the embargo has had in helping bring an end to the island’s authoritarian regime.  Moreover, precisely because the Cuban revolution is one of the last remnants of the Cold War, American politicians have a tendency to continue dealing with Latin America in a Cold War framework.  The way left leaning presidents like Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa are characterized by American politicians, including Republican presidential candidates, reduces the complex political processes in those countries to an oversimplified good-and-evil approach.  Dividing the world in such a dichotomous way unnecessarily caricaturizes democratic regimes that face their own challenges in the road toward consolidation. Moreover, given that the U.S. has growing political, economic and fiscal problems—with an worrying increase in inequality and many democratic institutions in need of fine tuning—this is not the best time to point fingers. 


Obsessed with the rise of China, American public opinion has failed to update its understanding of the world.  The rise of China and other emerging economies has altered power relations all over the world. Latin America’s rapid economic growth is opening trade opportunities for industrialized countries.  By neglecting its former privileged position in the region, the U.S. is letting other countries gain ground. 


Despite President Obama’s declared intention to strengthen ties with the region, it seems unlikely that American politicians will rise to the occasion and realize that Latin America should be seen as a source of opportunities and not as a set of liabilities. The U.S. could counterbalance its decreasing power and influence elsewhere by strengthening ties with Latin America, increasing commerce and deepening cooperation.  Future historians will probably render President Roussef’s visit to Washington DC and President Obama’s presence at the Summit of the Americas as irrelevant.  They will however remember the present time as a moment when the U.S. failed to recognize and take advantage of the opportunities Latin America offered and when Latin America countries simply chose to form alliances and partnerships with countries other than the U.S.