Latin America succeeds at
more than just the World Cup
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
June 29, 2010
If Latin America disappeared into thin air tomorrow what would it be remembered for? Historically for the decimation by the Spanish Conquistadors of the great civilizations of the Incas and Aztecs, for the twentieth century plunder of the Amazon, for the worst income inequalities in the world, for the highest crime levels of contemporary society anywhere and for giving house room to the drug mafias.
And the pluses? - the near absence of major interstate wars and the concomitant achievement of relatively low expenditures on arms, its nuclear weapons free zone, the first of its kind (not including the one for Antarctica), its lack of institutionalised racism (although there is plenty of discrimination) and the non-existence in any period of its history of Jim Crow laws, its outlawing of capital punishment long before the rest of the world got round to it, and now home to some of the world’s hot spots of economic advance, particularly Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. Perhaps we should add to that its achievement in dominating the final rounds of the World Cup!
Yet, despite the pluses in its history, which many would argue far outweigh its negatives, America has never given Latin America the attention it deserves, unless, as with John F. Kennedy and Cuba, Ronald Reagan with Central America, George W. Bush with Chavez’ Venezuela, it convinced itself that the Marxists were about to take over and had to be confronted. And unless they were the home of major drug traffickers, Colombia and Mexico in particular.
When Barack Obama became president, facing so many demanding issues elsewhere, it was assumed that the “backyard” would be relegated, once again, to the province of an assistant secretary of state and, drug trafficking aside, all but forgotten in the White House. It didn’t happen. Almost immediately the administration organised high level visits to the continent. It eased the restrictions on travel and the sending of remittances to Cuba by Cuban Americans. And it changed the reflex, hostile, attitude to the populist, left leaning, governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela. It was not going to find itself on the wrong side of the road as did the administration of George W. Bush when it welcomed an attempted coup against Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, only to have to reverse itself a day later when it became clear the coup had failed.
Nevertheless, only a year and a half later, some of the positive impetus appears to have been dissipated. Immigration reform has slipped down the agenda. The administration’s embrace of the campaign to stop the export of small weapons that were fuelling the deadliness of Mexico’s drug mafias has been shelved under the influence of America’s powerful gun lobby. Likewise, it has allowed to lapse an experimental programme that allowed Mexican trucks to enter the US. It has postponed action on the free trade agreements being negotiated with Panama and Colombia. It has continued to subsidize US corn-based ethanol (a substitute for petrol) and maintained high tariffs on ethanol exported from Brazil.
Washington, or at least the State Department, also seems to find it hard to accept the emergence of Brazil as a heavy hitter on the world scene. Brazil makes up half the Latin American continent and now, after decades of low and unequal growth and high inflation, it has an economy and a foreign policy to match its size.
Late last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Latin American and Caribbean governments that might be tempted to “flirt with Iran” to “take a look at what the consequences might be”. When Brazil, alongside Turkey, recently tried to broker a compromise with Iran on the issue of its uranium enrichment programme the State Department was critical, even though before the negotiations actually began Obama had sent a letter to President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva encouraging him to launch his Iranian initiative.
Although for the Obama administration “regime change” is out of the window, whether it be Cuba or Venezuela, the threat of the “big stick” still seems to be the instinct, if not of the White House, at least of important parts of the American government.
The old assumption that whatever the issue - arms sales, trade protectionism, immigrant flows, drug running and foreign policy - it is Washington that lays down the road to be followed no longer works. Not just Brazil but a sizeable number of Latin American states are comfortable in their own skins. They see their economies growing and are well enough run that even the Great Recession of 2007-2009 has not badly affected them.
They know they are making progress on poverty. And, increasingly, they recall the “pluses” of their history which until recently were downplayed by the world outside and they themselves allowed to be half forgotten.
Copyright © 2010 Jonathan
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