The U.S. and Latin America after Chávez

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, March 12, 2013


The death of Hugo Chávez creates new opportunities to strengthen U.S.-Latin American relations. Although current priorities in Washington and Latin America make it unlikely that such opportunities will materialize, policy makers in the U.S. and Latin America should seize the opportunity to build stronger and healthier relations.


As he enthusiastically rallied against Washington, Hugo Chávez always had the U.S. atop his concerns. With his departure, the U.S. loses a foe, but it also loses an unlikely ally. No other Latin American leader has shown as much interest in the U.S. in recent years as Hugo Chávez. His departure will reduce the opportunities for Latin America and the U.S. to engage in discussions and debates over issues of mutual concern, but it will also generate opportunities for positive interactions (and will allow both sides to put behind past mistakes).


Chávez was no friend of the United States. Relations between Chávez and the U.S. were never cordial. Yet, Washington and Caracas showed genuine interest and concern about their policy priorities and ideological views. Only a few Latin American leaders have been able to attract among American circles the kind of interest that Chávez generated. True, Chávez often generated the wrong kind of interest. But without Chávez, Latin American issues risk falling down a few places on the list of U.S. priorities.  


Chávez legacy was more symbolic than real on U.S. Latin American relations. Chávez was wrongly blamed for blocking free trade initiatives between Washington and Latin America. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, ALCA in Spanish) did not materialize primarily because Brazil and the U.S. failed to make necessary concessions to put traction to the talks. President Bush’s war against terrorism also shifted America's attention away from Latin America.


Chávez did rally against FTAA—with his famous alca, alca, alcarajo speech—and pushed for his symbolic but limited ALBA integration initiative. But the influence Chávez had on rallying against trade with the U.S. was limited. In the 14 years he was in office, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Peru and Colombia signed free trade agreements with the U.S.  The ideologically charged rhetoric used by Chávez only drew support among Latin Americans already opposed to the U.S. The Venezuelan President won no new sympathizers for the anti-American brigade.


The slow progress in U.S. Latin American relations coincided with Chávez’ tenure, but it was caused by diminishing interest in Washington in the events unfolding in Latin America. Under George W. Bush, though there was progress in advancing free trade agreements, the tough rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, the U.S. obsession with Cuba—including the support for the unpopular and ineffective trade embargo against the Castro dictatorship—and the support given by Washington to the coup against Chávez in 2002 made it difficult for Latin American leaders to cooperate with Washington in expanding and deepening U.S. Latin American relations. The little enthusiasm the U.S. found in Latin America for the war in Iraq also discouraged the Bush administration from engaging more actively with the region.


Under the Obama administration, things got off to a good start, but there was little follow up. President Obama's visit to the region in 2011 produced discrete results and left a sour taste. Obama came to Latin America with little to offer and little to ask for. It was a courtesy visit that reflected how thin the bilateral agenda had gotten. True, there are no major reasons for concern or conflict, other than those inherited from the Cold War, including Cuba and drug trafficking. But there are very few items on the agenda that can generate enthusiasm or interest. President Obama failed to put new items on the agenda and Latin American countries began to look elsewhere—especially to Asia—for new trade opportunities and for other cooperation initiatives.


Hugo Chávez’ death has put Latin America back on the news in the U.S. Since they have not paid a lot of attention to Latin America in recent years, Americans will learn that the region has developed economically, poverty has decreased and democracy has strengthened—with a few exceptions. Opportunities abound to expand and deepen trade and develop other cooperation initiatives that can bring benefits to both sides of the Mexican-American border. As the American economy gathers steam and defense spending cuts force the U.S. to reassess its foreign affairs priorities, Washington should take a new look at post Chávez Latin America.


After a funeral that brought together most presidents from the region, Latin America is ready to move forward and engage with the U.S. in mutually beneficial relations. Trade opportunities and attractive investment projects abound on both sides. Without Chávez, there will be less confrontational rhetoric between the U.S. and Latin America. If that leads to less engagement and weaker interactions, the window of opportunity will be lost. Yet, if Latin America and the U.S. seize the opportunity and benefit from the friendlier political mood, the next few years can become a period of stronger trade integration and fruitful cooperation initiatives.