The Americas' new independence

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
26 March 2006

There are times when history surprises us with bizarre twists. Just when no other country equals its military might, the United States' influence in the Americas is dwindling; other countries in the region are recoiling from the US and moving to the left. Traditional relationships are becoming increasingly dysfunctional as South America's new independence emerges.

It all started in the 1980s, when the Ronald Reagan administration reinvented US foreign policy, purportedly to introduce structural economic reforms, and strengthen electoral democracy and human rights in Latin America.

Also by Sergio Aguayo Quezada in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril" (April 2005)

"America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (November 2005)

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Subsequent successes contained the seeds of their own failure, given that neo-liberalism carried an enormous social cost. Amplified by the fierce anger of the historical context, blowback from US policies inflamed resentment against Washington. The resulting democratic wave legitimised Latin America's new leftwing leaders, who managed to distance themselves from the US without a complete break.

If their shift to the left stands out so much, it is because the US is moving towards a new manifest destiny which announces, with enormous arrogance, its claim to be the guarantor of world peace and democracy, and to have the right to decide when and how to use troops or torture – in sum, to be the ultimate judge who distinguishes the good from the bad.

Peter Hakim synthesises that attitude in a new essay ("Is Washington Losing Latin America?" (Foreign Affairs, January-February 2006) about the US's deteriorated relations with other countries within the western hemisphere: Washington "rarely consults with others, reluctantly compromises, and reacts badly when others criticize or oppose its actions".

The US rightwing tilt is structural. It stems from an uncontrollable advance of the conservative right that departs from universally accepted principles.

If we adopt rationality as a method to evaluate the legitimacy of public policy – criteria implicit in the principles of the French revolution – the United States fails to measure up. Why? Because rationality itself is under attack in the country; some surveys have found that almost half of the population endorses the religious movement that is attempting to expel the teaching of evolution from American classrooms.

It might seem surprising that a country whose scientific community has received 224 of the 509 Nobel prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry is educating a significant part of its youth in fundamentalist theories founded on the literal reading of Biblical scripture.

This irrationality is apparent, too, in United States foreign policy, which is deepening the gap between the superpower and much of the rest of humanity. It also helps to explain the paradox that the mightiest country, in military terms, is actually losing its international influence.

It is possible to quantify the consequences of this phenomenon. Some 86% of Latin Americans, according to a Zogby poll quoted by Hakim, disapprove of US foreign policy. Canada and Mexico are united with the superpower by geography, commerce and migration, but share the rejection of Washington's behaviour. Surveys by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and Ekos indicate that, in 2002, Canada and Mexico had a favourable opinion of their powerful neighbour (of 64% and 72%, respectively); by 2004-05 that support had precipitously declined to 36%.

Also in openDemocracy, a small selection of our material on Latin American politics:

Ivan Briscoe, "Néstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell"
(May 2005)

John Crabtree, "Peru: the next Andean domino?" (June 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: the state we're in"
(October 2005)

Roberto Espíndola, "Chile's new era" (January 2006)

Arthur Ituassu, "Lula's flame still burns" (January 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela"
(March 2006)

Justin Vogler, "Latin America: woman's hour" (March 2006)

The gap is also evident in actions taken by governments in the Americas. Only seven of the thirty-four Latin American and Caribbean countries endorsed Washington's adventure in Iraq; in the selection of the last secretary-general of the Organisation of American States in May 2005, the US-backed candidate, Luis Ernesto Derbez of Mexico, was defeated, with the post going to José Miguel Insulza of Chile; and Brazil and Argentina freed themselves of the yoke of the International Monetary Fund, Washington's neo-liberal policy instrument.

When America rejected colonialism centuries ago, the southern continent gradually fell under a singular kind of domination; one that might be described as an "anti-colonialist imperialism", because (with the exception of strategically-determined expansionism) the United States normally abstained from direct occupation of the region's territories.

Now, two centuries later, there is a mood of independence in Latin America; it rejects absolutism and is experimenting with alternative economic and political models. This is also a peculiar time because there are new actors in the hemisphere, the most spectacular being China, which is moving to secure the energy and raw materials its insatiable economy demands (see Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela" (2 March 2006).

It is normal, to a point, that once-rejected Europe is recovering its former attractiveness to Latin America. European economic integration arrived hand-in-hand with subsidies to the less-developed countries and a commitment to a social net that preserves the dignity of the national populations.

While those who govern the nation of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King work to dismantle the protections of human rights, old Europe recomposes and responds to the Central Intelligence Agency's scandalous traffic of prisoners accused of terrorism. The words of the Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, summarise the division: "It cannot be two ways. Human rights are indivisible." That kind of language gives comfort to the kind of regimes that are painfully being built in Latin America today.

It is impossible to foretell how history will play out. So far, though, the tendencies are clear: the Americas are burning with a fever for self-determination, away from a superpower that is busy building walls, perhaps unconsciously trying to hide the irrationality which is disfiguring its soul.

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