Washington’s Short-Sighted Policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean

Neighborly relations have been neglected far too long, making the U.S. an increasingly isolated nation among Western Hemisphere states. Assistant Secretary of State, Roger F. Noriega’s departure is unlikely to shift the situation.

After installing the controversial Haitian Interim Government, the U.S. virtually fled the scene, and all but refuses bona fide Haitian refugees from migrating to the U.S. in an effort to escape the increasing lawlessness on the island, spurred by the White House’s island protégés.

  • Panama, Nicaragua and Grenada are examples of countries which once were obsessively important to perceived U.S. national security objectives. Now, despite rampant corruption and drug trafficking besieging these favored governments, the U.S. has failed to pay due attention to their political and economic malaise.
  • Washington has shown little concern for Latin America’s democratization process beyond pitching some pro forma, pro-democracy rhetoric at a serious problem that requires inventive solutions.
  • Noriega’s legacy: ideological formulations, an incapacity for administration and an undermining of his Latin American bureau’s morale, by his non-stop fulminatings against Cuba, his abysmal failures on the FTAA and slowing MERCOSUR’s momentum, which threatens Washington’s trade aspirations in the rest of the hemisphere.
  • U.S.-Latin American policy has been marked by erratic and often discontinuous relations with its southern neighbors, betraying an ambivalence toward the region that does not augur well for its future political development. All too often, Washington’s desire to protect narrowly defined U.S. interests has relegated Latin America’s authentic democratization and development requirements to a legislative and budgetary sideline, leaving unaddressed some of the region’s most grave economic, political and social concerns. The White House’s monetary priorities (mainly longstanding anti-drug, national security and anti-terrorism interests) have encouraged its pursuit of paper thin policies ranging from claims of dedicated commitment to Latin America’s welfare all the way to hints of the abandonment of the region. Through it all, the U.S. has oscillated between the roles of “good neighbor” and a careless, often an abusive bystander. But Washington may soon have to taste the bitterness of its short-sighted and half-baked policies as illegal immigration from Mexico as well as the Caribbean (especially Haiti) begins to build. Increased drug trafficking from the Caribbean and Central America increasingly penetrates porous U.S. borders, and corruption weakens the stability and coherence of many Western hemisphere nations.

    The erosion of laudable democratic processes and the pervasiveness of corruption in the Caribbean and Central America do not only affect their governments and people. Washington would be wise to realize that instability in its neighborhood translates into a poisoned environment for trade negotiations and muddied efforts at various forms of political cooperation. The U.S. must find a way to pragmatically assess and be responsive to the social and economic problems of its fragile neighbors in accordance with Washington’s long-term political interests. However, given its track record of neglect and abuse, any usable formula still sits far off on the horizon. Hopefully, Washington may learn to look after its long-term hemispheric goals in a more perceptive, constructive manner, upon which more lasting friendships will be made and genuine interests be served.

    Problematic Relations Between the U.S. and CARICOM
    As the U.S. became increasingly security-driven after 9/11, it turned to the Caribbean for support at the UN concerning the war in Iraq and other Middle East issues. To Washington’s surprise, CARICOM did not automatically align itself with the U.S. cause, despite President Bush’s threat—passed on to the Caribbean by its then hardline White House Latin America aide, Otto Reich, via Barbados television— where the latter stressed that the U.S. would always “remember” those countries that did not give their entire allegiance to the U.S. in its overseas engagements. But CARICOM’s decision should have come as no shock to a Bush administration that repeatedly has ignored the Caribbean’s vital economic problems, centering on trade issues.

    Washington has put great pressure on Caribbean economies by opposing the EU’s preferential agreements on agricultural products (specifically bananas) with Caribbean producers under first the Lomé and then the Cotonou Agreement, and by applying new regulations concerning the numerous offshore financial services based on the various Caribbean islands. So far, the Bush administration has failed to grasp that the negative effects of its policy on those sectors will more than likely encourage drug trade and illegal immigration from the Caribbean, issues of prime concern to U.S. security. For example, many small-scale farmers in Dominica, where bananas constitute 90 percent of the nation’s exports, have predicted that they will have to resort to illegal dealings, including drugs, in order to survive.

    It is in the U.S.’ best interest that its policies toward its neighbors be fair and consistent, if only because it shares mutual interests with CARICOM. Economic and political stability in the region is crucial if the U.S. wants to prevent the surge of more illegal activities across its borders and achieve a successful trade relationship with the CARICOM and Central American countries, now that the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) has been joined by Central America-Dominican Republic Free trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). At the same time, it should be aware of the portentous consequences that could arise from the U.S. using its financial and trade leverage to bully the region over relations with countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti.

    Erosion Hits Washington’s Original Commitment to Haiti
    Haiti best illustrates how Washington’s episodic concerns can affect its stability while undermining democracy’s prospects throughout the Caribbean. On May 27, 2005, the U.S. Department of State urged American citizens as well as its non-emergency embassy personnel in Haiti to leave the country for security reasons. Washington’s decision triggered noticeable disappointment among Haitian officials, fearful that this would further contribute to the island’s isolation. Others were not surprised that the White House was only mildly cognizant of the plight of the benighted Caribbean country.

    The Bush administration seems unable to make up its mind on a course of action, affirming Haiti’s instability by deeming it unsafe for U.S. personnel and their families in the country, but summarily insisting on returning would-be Haitian refugees to the island after being intercepted on the high seas, denying that they are in fact attempting to escape harsh violence in their country. After supporting the ousting of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and installing Gerard Latortue to lead Haiti’s Interim Government (IGH), the U.S., publicly shunned any further substantive role in the country. On May 28, Latortue declared that the U.S.’ advice to its nationals concerning Haiti’s dangerous conditions was “regrettable, and occurred at a time when Haiti was desperately in need of international friends.”

    Moreover, there have been recent rumors that U.S. Marines may be sent to Haiti, despite the White House’s previous commitment to not involve its forces there. The deployment of Marines would clarify that one of Washington’s primary interests was all along to try to prevent Haitian ‘boat people’ from seeking asylum on U.S. shores, and that the Bush administration was not prepared to do anything to expedite the issuance of temporary parole status for Haitians in this country. On August 20, 2004, twenty Haitian asylum seekers were arrested for illegally entering the U.S. after their boat landed at Hutchinson, Florida. They were detained and quickly sent back to Haiti. Moreover, from February to August 2004, the Coast Guard has interdicted roughly 2, 000 Haitians and quickly repatriated them in spite of the general violence and possible reprisals facing them.

    If illegal immigration ranks high on the U.S. agenda, the movement of illicit substances unquestionably is a major threat to U.S. security, since counternarcotics efforts became merged with the U.S. War on Terrorism.

    Who Remembers Grenada?
    Grenada is the perfect example that engaging in non-democratic processes cannot be the best way to solve the rampant Caribbean drug problem. As illegal drug trafficking has overtaken Grenada, Washington may dearly come to regret its inconsistency in overlooking the fact that the final destination of narcotics transiting through the Caribbean is mainly the U.S. Grenada along with other agriculturally-based economies need relief.

    Grenada was once seen by the Reagan administration’s ideologies as vital to the protection of the kind of democracy that the U.S. was promoting in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1983, at the height of the friction between Castro and the Reagan administration, Grenada was moved to the top of the U.S. regional agenda. On the pretext that hundreds of American medical students attending St. George University were under the threat of the recently staged bloody coup by hard-line Marxist Bernard Coard, the U.S. invaded the island. In reality, the Grenada invasion was a small-scale manifestation of a larger conflict, as the coup gave President Reagan an excellent opportunity to display his unswerving anti-communist policy throughout the rest of the region by ordering hundreds of U.S. troops to seize the island.

    After the U.S.’ quick victory, its obsessive Cold War interest in Grenada precipitously waned, shortly after which Grenada became a major center of drug-trafficking and money laundering once U.S. forces departed. Along with six other Caribbean islands (Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines), Grenada forms the eastern edge of the Caribbean transit zone for drugs – mostly cocaine and marijuana products – traveling from South America to the U.S. and other global markets. It is estimated that 20% of all drugs entering the U.S. pass through this corridor.

    Nicaragua Has Reached the Desperation Point
    Washington has failed to act upon the realization that it has good reason to be interested in the economic, political and social stability of the Caribbean Basin nations. As a result, Central American and Caribbean countries are suffering from the effects of inadequate and inconsistent U.S. policies. After a long period of profound neglect, following an obsessive period of concern over the advent of leftist regimes in power in Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua and Guyana, Central America became once again á l’ordre du jour for Washington ideologies. However, stability, growth, and democracy are not as much the foci of this renewed attention as are the economic and political benefits that the Bush administration hopes to reap from the advancement of the now enacted DR-CAFTA.

    Like its predecessors, the Bush administration offered entrance into the free trade blocs (FTAA, CAFTA) it was pioneering as the curative agent for Nicaragua’s problems. Salvador Stadthagen, Nicaragua’s economic and social ambassador to the United States even observed, “CAFTA will be good for preserving democracy. It will be a vaccine against instability.” However, such a miraculous transformation seems unlikely since no fundamental rethinking of the country’s post-war political, economic and social conditions had been conducted or are even distantly fathomed. Roughly 75 percent of Nicaragua’s population is still mired in poverty, reflecting an annual per capita income of $750. In March 2005, violence peaked with the outbreak of protests throughout the country in which scores were injured. Social unrest gave way to political instability, and President Bolaños was forced to seek a remedy to what was fast becoming a fatal malady or resign his post.

    In 1990, after a decade of civil war under Sandinista rule, the successor conservative government, with Washington’s encouragement, adopted neoliberal economic policies, hoping to drag the country out of its economic plight. After an intense electoral campaign in which the U.S. overtly and covertly spent millions of dollars to defeat Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in the 1990 presidential race, a majority of Nicaraguans elected U.S.-backed candidate Violetta Chamorro, hoping that forthcoming U.S. aid would put their country on the path to economic and social development. More than a decade later, however Nicaragua remains the second poorest country in the hemisphere, only slightly better off than strife-ravaged Haiti. Throughout the years, the U.S. has extensively campaigned both publicly and privately for its preferred candidates in the country’s presidential races, with little concern for the democratic credibility of those being backed. Poverty and corruption have deteriorated state institutions, yet the U.S. maintains its ambivalence toward the country.

    High crime rates resulting from poverty, unemployment, and the seeming impossibility of achieving acceptable standards of living has bedeviled all of Central America. In Nicaragua, drug-related activities, which fuel the ubiquitous street gangs, have become fundamental to the economy. While the country was becoming a guinea pig for post-war neoliberal economic experiments, the U.S. lost its interest in a region no longer at the forefront of its foreign policy priorities. This is extremely unfortunate, because poor economic and social indicators are the corollary of political crisis. In the latest Latinobarómetro poll, 70% of Nicaraguans said that they would be willing to accept a de facto authoritarian government provided it resolved the country’s grim economic crisis. This choking popular consensus is not good news for the hemispheric champion of democracy, since U.S. economic interests in the region depend, among others, on the political stability of the Caribbean Basin countries.

    From the Panama Canal To a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)
    Panama’s experience with U.S. interventionist tactics strangely resembles Washington’s defining misapprehension of Latin American realities. As with Nicaragua, security concerns intermittently have come to the forefront of their bilateral relations, with Washington’s security and economic interests being aggressively pursued while social concerns tend to remain an afterthought.

    The signing of the Panama Canal Treaties in August 1977, although constituting a geostrategic victory for the U.S., increased political unrest among Panamanians. Some of the most nationalist among them, who viewed the canal as a symbol of national pride, felt betrayed by the Torrijos government and insisted that the treaties were fraudulent due to the additional stipulations that the Panamanian strongman had agreed to after the treaty had been signed, treaty that gave the U.S. residual rights to intervene in the canal’s operations and security.

    On December 17, 1989, the U.S., under the first Bush administration, re-engaged itself militarily in Panama. Earlier, Washington had charged General Manuel Noriega, an ex- U.S. Intelligence official, with drug offenses and eventually ordered its troops into Panama after attempting to marginalize the now pariah government through economic and political means. Because control of the canal was scheduled to be transferred to Panama by the year 2000, the U.S. felt it could not afford to permit an independent-minded Noriega to remain in power. Throughout its diplomatic relationship with that country, Washington has not been able to see past the canal, except perhaps when the Bush administration initiated talks in 2003 for a possible bilateral FTA between the two nations, even though the waterway had a diminishing silhouette for U.S. policymakers.

    In the post-Noriega period, after the deposed leader had been installed in his Florida jail cell, corruption became rampant in the country, in part perpetuated by the ambivalence of U.S. government officials. Not only is corruption widespread in the Panamanian service-based economy, but the country has also been involved in illegal arms transactions, drug trafficking and money laundering, all functions of Panama’s well-developed blackmarket economy. Illicit business practices have become the norm, almost sewn into the fabric of Panamanian society. The depth of this corruption is particularly ominous for U.S. interests, which could be threatened over the long term by the weakening of state institutions. The U.S.’ short-sighted neglect in the region has put its vital long-term goals at risk.

    In April 2004, an FTA with Panama was being drafted which would incorporate U.S. trade ambitions, but at the final moments the countries were unable to reach a consensus. After the prospect of a U.S.-Panama trade relations cooled down, the White House trade office, which initially was so enthusiastic about formulating a trade pact with Panama, seemed to lose interest. The passage of DR-CAFTA in the Senate and House has since eclipsed U.S.-Panama bilateral relations on Washington’s agenda, although the Panamanian legislature has yet to approve the agreement. The prospects of a comprehensive trade agreement have now taken precedent over Panamanian concerns like social stability and the economic well-being of its citizens. Panama’s experience illustrates the fact that trade agreements have had some difficultly in being accepted by the home population of a country whose political, social and economic institutions have been so severely eroded that they have become almost non-functional. The benefits of free trade, without proper social cohesion, cannot be assumed to automatically trickle down to the overwhelming poor majority of the country, a truism with which Washington is reluctant to accept.

    A New Vision of Hemispheric Relations
    Inevitably, popular discontent with current economic and political outcomes in the region will affect the U.S.’ most pressing interests in forthcoming hemispheric free trade agreements. Washington’s self-serving policies, together with its application of tough-fisted, military or diplomatic intervention stratagems and the imposition of its trade interests, simply will not do it for Latin America and the Caribbean anymore. Washington is likely to face greater challenges in coming years from the same Latin American and Caribbean countries that so complacently adjusted to its favored policies in the past or even at the present time. Over the last few decades, the U.S.’s foreign policy in the region has been characterized by a cold war-era power bloc mentality. Limited and self-absorbed foreign policy initiatives have facilitated the illicit activities such as drug running. Meanwhile, Washington was concentrating on neoliberal economic reforms. But for the Caribbean Basin countries, local socio-political insecurities and disappointingly low human development indicators dominate regional discourse. In its dealings with Latin America, the U.S. has shown only intermittent interest in local politics and comprehensive economic and political growth, with little evidence being exhibited of Washington’s capacity for long-term constructive engagement.

    Considering Latin America’s proximity to the U.S. and its current economic, social, and political instability, Washington’s relations with the Latin American-Caribbean region must be further up on its list of foreign policy interests. Andrew Selee, a senior program associate in the Latin American program of the Woodrow Wilson Center said in an interview with COHA, that “neighborhood makes a lot of difference. This is one of the most important lessons governments have learned over the years. Regrettably, the U.S. has not yet learned it very well.” Latin America is one neighborhood where engaged diplomacy, paired with the genuine pursuit of human rights and an acceptable standard of living, are fundamental to regional stability.

    Washington should prepare itself to restructure its emphasis on seeking pragmatic, comprehensive approaches to poverty alleviation, the elaboration of social justice and the encouragement of democratic institution-building, in order to augment the region’s capacity for political and economic cooperation with the outside world and the advancement of the common good.