2005: Another Terrible Year for U.S.- Latin American Relations

• Bush administration scrapes bottom in Latin American Polls.
• Evo Morales, latest in a series of “pink tide” presidents to assume office.
• The last generation of ideologues are replaced at the top by a new generation of foreign service officers who are ideologues in a lamb’s clothing.
• Condoleezza Rice reveals that she is as unlettered in comprehending U.S. – Latin American relations as was the case with her predecessor, Secretary of State Powell.
• Washington carries on a Latin American policy that has been un-revisited or reexamined for decades.
• U.S.-Cuba relations a caricature of professional diplomacy.

When Evo Morales won his stunning December 18 presidential election victory, he did more than become the latest in a string of populist, left-leaning candidates to take office in an uninterrupted sweep which has witnessed comparable triumphs in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and now Bolivia. The region’s politics, particularly in South America (as distinguished from the rest of Latin America) are markedly moving to the democratic left as its citizens embrace a new generation of leaders skeptical of the economic orthodoxy being passionately vended by the Bush administration. A tectonic rift is currently emerging between the U.S. and a growing number of its southern neighbors. This trend could have profound implications for the future of the hemisphere, and suggests that despite often broad policy discordances among this cohort of southern nations, a shared, mildly leftist credo seems to be profoundly uniting regional leaders of different tendencies as seldom witnessed since the colonial epoch and the wars for independence. Meanwhile, as was the case with Secretary of State Powell, his successor, Condoleezza Rice, seems unable to comprehend Latin America issues, or really care about them.

Standing Tall for Latin America
At the same time, Latin America has been becoming more autonomous in its development and performance: less psychologically and economically dependent on the U.S., and more open to new ideas and relationships that are challenging traditional hemispheric norms. These trends have bee accompanied by a growing unease throughout the region based on the belief that Washington’s neoliberal reforms are little better than snake oil, whose main beneficiaries are Western financial institutions and multilateral corporations, and that the privatization of state assets and market accessibility, along with tearing down of mixed economics, have done great damage to sectors of Latin American economies and have, in fact, seems to have only benefited a very narrow spectrum of Third World individuals, foreign investors and institutions. If this is so, then 2005 could be looked back upon as a decisive watershed where the region has begun to think of each other – via an expanded Mercosur – as well as the EU as their natural trading partners, and not necessarily the U.S. No wonder that. on average, poll readings show that the Bush administration has over 80% of all Latin Americans giving him an unfavorable reading.

Latin America’s current estrangement from Washington stems in large part from an ideological polarization which was the direct result of an amalgam of shortsighted, tactless, and gravely errant policy initiatives put into play by ill-prepared U.S. policy makers, since the Bush administration took office. Under the aegis of such uncredentialed political ideologues as Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, regional policy, as seen from Washington, came to be defined as a Manichean struggle between those who looked to Havana and those who were lashed to Washington in the battle between darkness and light.

You’re with us or against us
This binary interpretation of hemispheric politics eventually came to mortally taint free trade negotiations by making them a function of a now obsolescent Cold War view of the region, as Washington doggedly sought to impose an obsolete trade model which mindlessly continued the neoliberal policies pursued under the Clinton administration throughout the 1990s. These economic programs, born under the White House’s cramped world view had brought profound misery and plunging living standards not only to the region’s underclass, but to the lower middle class as well. As seen in Argentina and throughout the Andes, such policies are now being repudiated at the base, particularly among indigenous groups, although not necessarily at these nations’ leadership level. When Latin American presidents, spearheaded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, dared to voice their opposition to Washington’s normally self-serving initiatives after discovering that theirs was not necessarily a win-win situation, the U.S. quickly condemned them as Fidelistas.

In many respects, it was Washington’s flagrant patronization of its neighbors, combined with a willingness to sacrifice Latin America’s interests if they conflicted with its own, be it over Iraq, a coup attempt in Venezuela, Powell’s and Noriega’s rape of Haiti’s institutions, or arm twisting Central America into support of a patently one-sided free trade agreement in the form of CAFTA that unwittingly has fostered the region’s search for alternatives. These elements also directly contributed to the rise of alienated figures, who like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, have staked their political legitimacy upon an unwillingness to automatically assume the bended knee position by deferring to Washington. The latter’s role in championing a trade model that has generated a large disenfranchised population which has grievously suffered. Specific manifestations of this new generation of plucky leaders differ and have ranged from Lula (internationally lauded in the West for his economic orthodoxy) to Chávez’s “socialism for the 21st century.” But the connective thread binding them together is a mandate to govern from the left, or at least say that they are.

The New South America
Other countries may soon join the “pink tide” bloc. The current frontrunner in Mexico’s presidential race, former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, represents a moderate left-leaning ideology, which misguidedly might be seen as a threat by an increasingly isolated Bush administration. Furthermore, the rapid rise of Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, despite his being a somewhat problematic figure, indicates a profound dissatisfaction in that country with its traditional political elites and pro-Washington policies.

So what does this Latin American sea change add up to? First, it suggests a multitude of new possibilities. United by generic ideological commonalities, a range of new regional initiatives could be given wings. None of these are truly revolutionary, whatever the rhetoric, their actual policies tend to be main stream New Deal with a pinch of populism. For example, the Iberoamerican summit machinery is now being newly graced by the famed ex-IDB president Enrique Iglesias, as its first permanent secretary; it has been loosely connected until now. In the near future, however, it could be morphing into an organization of Latin American states, with Spain and Portugal acting as doors into the EU, which eventually could supplant or even replace the OAS, with the key distinction being that the U.S. could be left on the sidelines as, at best, an observer. Or, emerging energy integration programs, such as Petrosur, linking Venezuela’s oil fields with consumers and state oil companies in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, could be expanded to include Evo Morales’ natural gas reserves, the second largest in Latin America.

A New Alignment
As the South American left strengthens, other countries and their leaders could be drawn into its orbit. Only El Salvador, Colombia and Chile, as Washington’s most loyal servitors, can be categorically ruled to be beyond this new tendency, and even Bogotá has displayed occasional instincts of spunk that has managed to catch the U.S. off guard. Recently, Colombian conservative president Álvaro Uribe met with Chávez, and in an amicable discussion, confirmed their desire to construct an oil pipeline between the two nations; meanwhile, Uribe was chiding the U.S. ambassador to Bogotá for “meddling” in his country’s internal affairs. The solidarity of other pink tide countries helped to provide a few inches of backbone to several Andean nations in their negotiations over a free trade agreement with the U.S. – talks that ultimately broke down when Washington failed to offer sufficient concessions, and whose outcome likely would have been different if the winds of political change had not surprisingly veered from their traditional prevailing direction, normally heavily dependent on Washington’s magnetic pull.

Given Washington’s longstanding opacity in its Latin American policy, which characterized both the Clinton, and even more so, the Bush, administrations, South America’s leftist tilt is likely to trigger a stepped-up desire on Washington’s part to try to summarily defuse it by slamming down on what it sees as its renegade leaders. This would be by means of a number of approaches, including by a strategy of economic asphyxiation, subtle or sharp, depending on the circumstances. Out of habit and with the absence of even a single inventive idea, the Bush administration is unlikely to devise a new, more inspired and creative regional strategy that would try to conciliate these situations and interests out of a desire to be genuinely helpful. Nevertheless, no longer will the State Department be able to routinely assume that it will be able to freely coerce Latin American nations into accepting its supercilious diktats. This is because regional nations have now broken out of the ghettos and pens that have been faithfully maintained by the OAS as a service to Washington. As a result, they are now dealing with the rest of the world, from Libya to North Korea, as their own autonomous decision makers. Of equal importance, China and the EU are courting and being courted because the region is intent on diversifying and contracting new sources for its exports and imports, with the added dividend that its new partners will not evoke the ugly memories of decades of abuse and disrespect by Washington policymakers.

And if Washington is unable to convince itself that Brazil will be a superpower by the end of this century, the White House nevertheless is almost certain to find that the region which was once its back yard, now had its locks changed. But if Washington is willing to constructively alter its tone and methodology, it may well find that it is not too late for it to be relevant in the region and that these new leaders, to which local populations are now turning throughout Latin America, are prepared to work with their northern neighbor in a businesslike fashion, but only on equal terms and on the basis of mutual respect.

President-elect Morales said as much when he declared, “we welcome a relationship, just not a relationship of submission.” Also, in order for the U.S. to be germane to Latin America’s needs and aspirations, Washington must change its pitch as well as its personnel. Appointing an old Jesse Helms hack like Caleb McCarry is going to do nothing to rationally advance authentic issues surrounding the question of Cuba’s transition. McCarry has been placed in the pompously denominated “transition” office to cause mischief and to give comforting speeches in Miami as well as to pander to the declining number of Republican legislators prepared to walk the plank to secure campaign donations from rightwing elements of the Cuban American community and to insist that nothing will change as long as President Bush is at the helm.

Of course, the appointment of Michael Parmly to replace the bizarre James C. Cason as head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana is an improvement, but barely so, if only because it will be Paraguay’s President Nicanor Duarte’s poor fortune to have Cason hatching new plots in Asunción as he did in Havana. Given Cason’s reputation as a dance master whose baleful theatrics help to land scores of Cuban human rights activists in jail. You can expect a very activist U.S. embassy in Asunción under Cason. His appointment is a clear sign that the odds are mounting that a U.S. military facility will be built in Paraguay, although the Pentagon has repeatedly denied this.

In his statements up to now, there seems no reason to believe that Parmly will do little but to continue the State Department’s billingsgate on the subject of Cuba. As for Assistant Secretary of State Tom Shannon, undoubtedly smarter than his predecessors Otto Reich or Roger Noriega, he apparently is still using their old speech writer to issue diatribes against Cuba. Up to now his performance in his new post has been disappointing.

Change does not usually come easy, and for both Washington and Latin America, there are growing pains associated with this shift towards left-leaning governments and their more autonomous agendas. But Washington would be wise to interpret this trend as a positive development – one that offers far more opportunities than the rigid, imbalanced, and often self-serving and gaseous doctrines of the past, which emphasized the U.S. embargo against Cuba and Washington’s shrill campaign against Chavez – which ended up wasting Washington’s good name and its resources. If one acts as a poltroon, one cannot also insist that he is a gentleman. The question remains whether Washington is capable of giving up its ultra-conservative shibboleths and its shabby policies that have wracked up failure after failure in trying to devise a hemispheric policy more aimed at Miami than Latin America, and almost always out-of-focus because it tends to see Latin America almost exclusively through a Havana prism.