by Michael Shifter
Few would dispute that the U.S. relationship with Latin America has deteriorated over the past decade, or that the past half dozen years have been the worst. Even Bush administration officials, and certainly many Republicans in Congress, concede as much. There is manifestly less trust in inter-American affairs.
The search for an adequate explanation should begin with the larger question of how the United States is exercising its power on the global stage. The specifics of Washington’s Latin American policy, while important, should be a secondary factor.
On three key questions – immigration, agricultural subsidies and free trade – President Bush has been more in sync with the region’s democratically elected governments than has Congress, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats. It would be hard to identify a major candidate from either party who can match President Bush’s early drive for pushing comprehensive immigration reform, reducing agricultural subsidies and promoting a free-trade agenda.
The Iraq invasion struck a real nerve in Latin America. For many there, the prevention doctrine was less a recent policy formulation than a historic reality. The United States carries a lot of baggage in Latin America, especially Central America and the Caribbean – the consequence of frequent unilateral military interventions carried out in the name of spreading democracy.
In the post-Cold War period under George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, many Latin Americans entertained the possibility that the United States would begin to pursue its interests with key allies in accordance with international law. Iraq shattered that notion.
If the United States could carry out a policy of “regime change” in the Middle East, what is stopping a comparable intervention in this hemisphere?
While serving as non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, Chile and Mexico opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Washington temporarily distanced itself from these countries, disappointed it did not receive unquestioning support from its strategic “backyard.”
The shocking U.S. abuses committed in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo effectively destroyed any credibility Washington may have had on human rights and the rule of law. The Bush administration’s hypocrisy has been more costly for U.S.-Latin American relations than any specific issue on the agenda. Particularly after 9/11, Latin Americans have been troubled about the yawning gap between Washington’s priorities and the region’s social and governance agendas. In the early part of the 21st century, Latin America has experienced social dislocations and pockets of instability.
Preoccupied with the Middle East, Washington reflexively assumed the region’s governments would 6embrace U.S. objectives. Of course, they didn’t.
The world has changed, and Latin America with it, but the U.S. remains stuck in its old mindset. To begin restoring some measure of trust, it needs to take a number of concrete steps. Before the next administration takes over in 2009, the Congress should approve pending trade deals with Peru, Panama and Colombia. Since most of the region falls through the cracks on assistance programs, Congress should also back the proposal for a social investment and development fund for Latin America. It is unrealistic to expect much progress on immigration until early 2009, but comprehensive reform would send an important signal to the entire region.
U.S.-inspired anti-drug policies have yielded meager results. In Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil and other countries, drug-fueled violence poses the most serious threat to democratic governance. As the world’s largest drug consumer, the United States has shirked its full responsibility.
In Mexico, for example, nearly all drug-related killings are committed with arms easily acquired in the United States.
The Bush administration’s tacit support for the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has cast further doubt in the region about U.S. motives.
Washington’s response to the Argentine financial crisis in late 2001 was notably cavalier, and its failure to back a troubled ally in Bolivia with even modest support was not very reassuring.
At the White House, just six days before 9/11, Bush had called the bond with Mexico “our most important relationship.” Even on policy questions where, on balance, Bush was generally supportive of Latin America, the upshot often left a bitter taste and increased irritation with Washington. His support later on for a “wall” on the border was seen as a serious affront to the region. On trade agreements with Chile and Central America, U.S. negotiators evinced little flexibility or generosity.
What is most needed to repair the relationship is for Washington to adopt a different style and fresh attitude. The new administration in Washington must take Latin America’s profound changes into account and treat the region with the seriousness it deserves, not as the stepchild of U.S. foreign policy. Trust, after all, has to be earned.
(Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. He teaches Latin American politics as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org). 2007