By Larry Birns
President Bush (who begins a 5-country tour of Latin America March 8) has been witnessing the advent of a new bloc of left-leaning and sometimes robustly anti-American leadership that has sprung up in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, among others. At the same time, there are a number of recent developments throughout the region that Washington only now is beginning to correctly see as a menace to its own narrow definition of U.S. national interests. Bush will discover that the region will never be the same now that Washington’s obsession with Iraq has freed up the region to go its own way on a number of global highways. Preceding by several weeks President Bush’s upcoming visit to Latin America, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad stopped off in Caracas, Managua and Quito in mid-January to welcome an expanding crop of tough-minded and often abrasive hemispheric figures willing to aggressively speak out on regional issues, often at Washing-ton’s expense. Ahmedinejad’s visit coincided with civil unrest in Mexico, threats of secession in Bolivia, and President Chávez’s crackdown on a rabidly right-wing Caracas TV network.
Until recently, it seemed that the flowering of a new generation of hemispheric populist leaders symbolized by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales who appeared to have less to do about leftist rhetoric than with hard policy aimed at advancing a coherent political system which would best serve their basic constituency, the poor, but not necessarily Washington’s. Now, however, with Washington’s massive distraction over Iraq and its deteriorating relationship with Iran, the challenges posed by a restless Latin America have resulted from an unexpected opportunity to break from its traditional moorings and sail free. Ultimately the U.S.’ ability to lead and inspire its neighbors, will no longer be automatic, but will have to be earned.
Bush is No Student of Latin America
When Bush thinks of the region, images of his amiable paladins like El Salvador’s Tony Saca, whose administration could not survive an audit, or Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias, who sees only his own reflection in everyone’s mirror, come to mind. But they are hardly anything more that yesterday’s Latin America, a function of failed U.S. regional policies. With the U.S. mired in its problematic “War on Terror,” a new faction of self-absorbed Latin American nationalists are becoming increasingly emboldened by Washington’s mounting irrelevance in the region’s future.
The Bush administration is being made aware that its leverage in Latin America is rapidly dissipating. Even well-meaning kinsmen found at the top in Brazil, Colombia, Chile, let alone its Central American banana republics, don’t always salivate when the bell is rung. If this is true, the U.S. could be running out of conventional diplomatic options to “stay the course.” Today, apart from Central America’s durable servitors like El Salvador and Costa Rica, and the White House’s victory in turning the CAFTA-DR free trade pact into a portal for the U.S.’ entry into Central America’s markets, only Mexico remains to be accommodated. Meanwhile, the moderate left in South America seems to be fast escaping from Washington’s grasp as the region goes global, not only in matters of trade but in mindset. With the region’s leaders offering growing resistance to Washington’s free trade model and their refusal to take a U.S.-sought defiant stance against Chávez’s provocative rhetoric and leftist goals, Latin America is signaling that it will not necessarily follow a Washington-defined development path, which is better known for its inability to break away from Cold War instincts.
A Rising Tide Which May Actually Lift all Boats
The rise of moderate leftist leadership in Latin America is the result of a series of reasonable events. One possible explanation is that an oversold nexus of free trade pacts over the past two decades has failed to bring tangible benefits to a wide spectrum of the region’s population, particularly to those trapped in structural poverty. Some of those who originally were active proponents of regional trade pacts like NAFTA, have since acknowledged that such ties often have failed to live up to expectations. Skimpy economic growth, low levels of job creation and entrenched corruption have been some of the more notable aspects of the pact’s failure, but are certainly not the only ones.
No matter how often the White House refers to free trade as alchemy’s most perfected draught, the limited success of Washington’s free trade dogma has prompted a skeptical attitude regarding the alarming growth of financial inequality throughout Latin America. As a result, brimming economic nationalism stemming from endemic frustration over the continued dominance by traditional political elites has reemerged. These components have helped bring to power a crop of leaders who have promised their electors that they will fairly spread authority among the region’s perennially-exploited indigenous and other disadvantaged elements of the population. As has been seen in recent months, many of these new leaders have broken from the above cliché and appear to be acting on their rhetoric and not simply poised on their laurels.
Coping with the Pre-occupation of Iraq
Despite the White House’s recent botched efforts to coerce favorable verdicts from a record number of presidential elections in Latin America, non-U.S.-anointed populist candidates are still winning the predominant number of votes of their electorate. An example of this is Nicaragua’s 1980s revolutionary leader, now-President Daniel Ortega, who reemerged victorious despite overt U.S. interference and two decades of repudiation by the electorates.
Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Shannon (currently the administration’s leading Latin American policymaker), and U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield (outgoing U.S. ambassador to Caracas) have been relatively restrained in their handling of Latin Amer-ica’s most recognizable populist, Hugo Chávez. Shannon and Brownfield, though, have ventured beyond the Bush Administration’s normally primitive and ideologically-driven strategy, and are calling for constructive engagement with the Venezuelan leader.
Deputy Secretary of State, John Negropontewho has been convincingly accused of being one of the lead plotters of the Honduran death squads while he was ambassador to that country in the early 1980’shas managed to avoid answering a stream of potentially embarrassing questions on such matters by seeking refuge in his tendency to contract selective amnesia. He has just been confirmed by the Senate as the State Depart-ment’s number two man. This change of command could be catastrophic for the region because Negroponte, who already has expressed his desire to act forcefully against Chávez, will have seniority over Shannon. Even before his confirmation, Negroponte sharply criticized some of Chávez’s actions, which should be considered indicative of the much tougher policy line that he is certain to follow once he gets settled in.
How can this be done?
Latin American editorialists increasingly are raising the question: what will the Democrats’ congressional sweep mean for Washington’s policy toward the region? They are aware of Bush’s vast unpopularity and the singular opprobrium that his policies are attracting from both rich and poor throughout Latin America. Several weeks ago, a bipartisan congressional delegation traveled from the U.S. to Cuba seeking new ideas and reviewing old components from a long-soured relationship, and several U.S. legislators have independently visited with Chávez in Venezuela. Still others have traveled elsewhere in the region, seeking to engage a new generation of leadership in meaningful dialogue. In general, all of these trips have produced at least some positive results. The Democratic leadership would be wise to approach the subject of future U.S.- Latin American relations with a coherent and open mind, as the subject can only be broached by a frank discussion with some of the region’s most fractious leadership. It can be argued that until problems with Venezuela and Cuba are resolved, such an exercise could be pointless. Only through a process of negotiations, rather than a series of diktats, will real progress be made.
Though trade ties may be of transcendent importance to the Bush Administration, they cannot possibly define the entire relationship between Latin America and the U.S. Major regional powers such as Brazil and Argentina, as well as some of the smaller nations, require leeway to develop their own sense of economic and geopolitical national destiny. Bolivia, for example, where the majority of the population is impoverished, also suffers from high rates of illiteracy and meager levels of foreign investments. Creative initiatives coming from the U.S. alone will not necessarily generate effective and immediate solutions to age-old problems, but could at least start improving the situation. Furthermore, the trade agreements sought by the U.S. need to be accompanied by guarantees of corruption-free and environmentally-conscious incentives, as well as acute attention being directed to potential regional trading partners.
Washington would also be wise to reverse the expanding roster of skeptics by approaching the region with the same dogged determination to clean out the Augean stable, whose growth dates back to the closing years of the Clinton administration. Political appointees such as Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and John Bolton, were para-diplomats who specialized in empty heroic rhetoric devoid of any substance. Their antiquated Cold-War approach relied upon bullying smaller countries into line when it came to persuading them to join the coalition of the willing and conjuring up information in order to advance the administration’s messianic anti-Castro credo. At the same time, these discordant players worked tirelessly, if not destructively, to advance narrow and hegemonic U.S. trade and security interests, which often came at the expense of the region’s poor.
Larry Birns is Director of The Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.