Vanishing U.S. Influence in Latin America

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 10, 2014


The Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly held in Paraguay on June 3 to 5, 2014, did not generate much news in Latin America. The decreasing importance of the OAS annual meetings is directly related to the vanishing role played in Latin America by the United States, the nation that was historically the strongest promoter of the organization. As US influence in the region dwindles, the OAS inevitably fails to capture the attention — both positive and negative — that it used to have.


Since the end of the Cold War, Latin American countries have experienced uneven democratic consolidation. With the exception of Cuba, all other countries in the region have democratically-elected leaders. Though some presidents have failed to govern to high democratic standards, elections remain the sole mechanism to replace leaders in the region. Two decades after President Bill Clinton declared that democracy was the only game in town in Latin America, the region has internalized the defence of electoral democracy to the point that Washington no longer needs to be an advocate for democratic elections in the region.


Together with the consolidation of electoral democracy, Latin American countries have experimented with different economic development models.


After two decades in which the market-friendly and fiscally responsible Washington Consensus model dominated economic policies in the region, in recent years alternative models have been tried. To be sure, many countries, like Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Peru continue to embrace Washington Consensus policies. A few others, like Venezuela, have attempted to implement state-led economic growth. Some others, like Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, have tried a mixed public-private sector model, resembling the import substitution industrialization model, prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s.


The fact that the Washington Consensus is no longer the only economic model prevalent in the region highlights more than anything else the decreasing influence of Washington.


Two decades after the US pushed the region’s leaders to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the overall picture of free trade agreements in the region looks messy. The US has free trade pacts with Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru and Chile, but the deadline for the adoption of an FTAA passed in 2005 and the initiative is now defunct. No new negotiations are underway between the US and any Latin American country.


From the viewpoint of Washington, the agenda for Latin America was a partial success. Democracy is the only game in town — even if there are countries where democratic institutions are underperforming. Market-friendly policies are not the norm everywhere, but the countries that have done best in terms of economic growth continue to embrace the Washington Consensus. Free trade agreements are in place with four out of the seven largest countries. From Chile to Mexico on the Pacific side, all but one country have free trade agreements with the US.


However, despite these positive results, the US seems uninterested in further consolidating and expanding its influence in the region. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on US soil, Washington has shifted its attention from Latin America to elsewhere. After President George W. Bush declared — days before the 9/11 attacks — that Mexico was the most important country on the US foreign relations agenda, priorities shifted. The new Washington focus on fighting terrorism inevitably led the US away from deepening ties with Latin American countries. Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming to an end, Washington is preoccupied with China and Russia, not with Latin America.


After more than a decade of neglect from Washington, Latin American countries have moved on. Strengthening ties with Washington is no longer part of anyone’s priorities in the region. The US and Latin American have simply grown apart.


That has costs on both sides of the border. Motivated by recent political developments in Venezuela, the US has failed to successfully engage Latin American leaders in helping to defend institutional order and democratic principles in Venezuela. US diplomacy carries little weight these days in Latin America.


In turn, Latin American countries have missed the opportunity to benefit more directly from the recent US economic recovery. Precisely now that economic growth in China is slowing down, Latin American countries seem to have forgotten that their powerful northern neighbour offers attractive opportunities as a trade partner.


In a distant past, the influence of the US in Latin America could be demonstrated by the role played by Washington in presidential elections and political debates in the region.


Left-wing candidates— but occasionally a few conservative candidates too —would normally run against US imperialism. Now, China, world trade and regional integration are the favourite foreign affairs topics for Latin American presidential candidates.


The US is absent from debates in the political arena. Nobody seems to care what the US wants, needs or stands for.


The little attention paid in the region to the recent OAS General Assembly underlines the new reality of distant and disengaged relations between the most powerful nation on earth and its Latin American neighbours to the south.