The Americas and Washington: moving on

Ivan Briscoe
17 April 2009

Fidel Castro, reincarnated by some imaginative deity as a bedridden blogger, has recently annotated with the detail of a station-master the movements across Europe of the new United States president. Whereas decades of national and international history have been founded on the rock of antagonism between Havana and Washington, this Castro appears to have a mild heart-flutter concerning Barack Obama.

Ivan Briscoe is senior researcher at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride), Madrid. He was previously editor of the English edition of El País newspaper in Madrid and also worked for the Buenos Aires Herald, the UNESCO Courier and in the field of development research

Also by Ivan Briscoe in openDemocracy:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (30 July 2003)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America" (18 October 2005)

"The Summit of the Americas' free-trade farewell" (4 November 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10 February 2006)

"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?" (28 September 2006)

"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006)

"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)

"A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March 2007)

"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007)

"Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

"Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)

"Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007)

"From the shadows: Spain's election lessons" (11 March 2008)

"Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008)Some rapprochement between the young United States presidency and the more radical political leaders of Latin America was inevitable in the aftermath of George W Bush's crass gringoism. The fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago on 17-19 April 2009 will soothe, if only symbolically, some of those outstanding sore points. These have already included a major relaxation of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba from Florida and points beyond (which Castro has welcomed with a touch of asperity), with a more profound unwinding of the embargo possibly to follow soon. New measures for the 12 million largely Hispanic illegal immigrants in the United States, credit lines for the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and concessions on biofuel trade could also be expected.

But as Castro's blog hints, it is the ambition of the new relationship that is truly daunting. In early November 2005, the unthinkably divided leaders of the Americas managed to assemble in the bear-pit of an Argentine hotel for a day of baiting. There, they buried a hemispheric free-trade plan amid every sign of a continental chill: the US, Colombia, most of central America and Peru lined up against pockets of "refoundational" socialism, moderated at its fulcrum by a Brazil intent on supplanting the north as the arbiter and hegemon of the region (see "The Summit of the Americas' free-trade farewell" (4 November 2005).

Since then, the left has only managed to spread. Bolivia succumbed weeks after the Mar del Plata summit to Evo Morales, who in September 2008 expelled the US ambassador, followed soon after by the ejection of the Drug Enforcement Administration and exit of the Peace Corps. Venezuela followed suit in solidarity. Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua have veered to the left, as has Ecuador; even Mexico teetered in 2006 towards the socialist Andrés Manuel López Obrador following a case of alleged electoral fraud, inventing a shadow government that sparred with a real government which has gone on to fight an internal drug war.

Yet the overtures in the approach to the gathering in Port of Spain - particularly the intriguing three-hour closed-door meeting of all the thirty-four leaders, without translators or aides - could not be more blissful. Chávez has already envisaged rather more than a thaw: "let's make an alliance to fight against hunger, war, violence, racism, drug trafficking and terrorism."

To regard this as a quixotic gesture would be unfair, for there is wider evidence of a large ambition at work. Francis Fukuyama may have observed that the mention of Latin America to a group of "foreign policy cognoscenti" would see "eyes immediately glaze over" (see Francis Fukuyama, "A Quiet Revolution: Latin America's Unheralded Progress", Foreign Affairs, November-December 2007); but in the event, Washington's think-tanks - including the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and Inter-American Dialogue - have been generating an extraordinary supply of briefs, books and seminars on repairing the north-south divide, each proposing a new source of pacts and partnerships. Two leading insiders - Thomas A Shannon, the highest serving state-department authority on Latin America, and Jeffrey Davidow, a White House adviser - have spoken of the summit as a therapeutic exercise in listening and learning; while vice-president Joe Biden has declared the "era in which we gave orders" to be over (see Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Washington and Latin America: farewell, Monroe" , 7 October 2008).

There is no doubt that this mood of reconciliation hinges on the Cuban embargo. All the weight of Latin American diplomacy - from Mercosur's summit in Sauípe (Brazil) in December 2008 to the procession of presidents through Havana and the restoration of ties with El Salvador and Costa Rica in March 2009 - has pressed for a renewal of full relations with the island. As a mark of US tolerance for ideological and institutional diversity in the continent - whatever the democratic failings that this retreat from the Monroe doctrine suffers - Cuba is unmatched. But much greater obstacles, squirreled in the depths of political life, stand in the way of a trusting and cooperative inter-American era.

The anti-American impulse

It is a truism that anti-Americanism contains within itself the seeds of contradiction, berating what Washington does at the same time as it demands a better, more selfless use of US power and resources. Thus the critics of the north have rounded on the measly financial contributions of recent years ($2.2 billion in 2009, against the $32 billion invested by Venezuela in its Bolivarian allies from 2004-08, $18 billion of them to Cuba), and on the use to which these crumbs have been put, particularly Plan Colombia. Both criticisms are more than reasonable. But in the case of the embargo on Cuba - a "monstrosity, a true aberration, an unpardonable immorality" in the words of Argentine sociologist Atilio Borón - a post-embargo future, with tourist and remittance dollars swilling across the island, does not exactly bespeak a radical, transformative, independent future.

Nor is it certain that a more acceptable face for the United States, which Obama undoubtedly offers, would serve the domestic interests of certain Latin leaders. A close analysis of the landscape of anti-imperialism shows a surprising dichotomy between the countries impaled by Monroe-style interventions (Chile, Guatemala, Colombia) and the heartlands of resistance (such as Venezuela and, in terms of public opinion, Argentina). The former does rather well through its 14,000 Citgo service-stations across the States, while the latter's 1976-83 dictatorship certainly did not follow US embassy commands.

Many reasons can be given, and there is some traction in the argument that the most affected countries have undergone a complete political brainwash, mediated by neo-liberal technocrats in Chile or evangelical missions in Guatemala. Yet it remains true that the anti-American impulse, even where derived from the experience of collective suffering, as in Nicaragua and Bolivia's coca-growing regions, is manipulated to fit a frantic domestic political agenda. Philip Goldberg, for instance, was expelled from La Paz not merely for alleged meddling in separatism, but also to hasten the decertification of Bolivia for its policy on drugs and the termination of trade concessions - results that Goldberg himself had striven to prevent. In the words of former US ambassador Cris Arcos: "the political left has lost its fear of America, and the right has lost its respect."

The central truth of Latin America over the past decade con be found in its participation in what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the "global political awakening". The climate of consensus that Obama is trying to foster will dull the most incendiary rhetoric, but the need to animate demanding electorates and fragile governing coalitions - alongside the sheer variety of north American presences, via remittances, business, military bases or aid - will entail a complex series of evolving tactical disputes. Chávez may promise an alliance for peace, but days before his leading public opponent, General Raúl Baduel was arrested; this dynamic is well known from Cuban history, exemplified by the Mariel boatlift of 1980, at the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency. In short, the cooperation that is presaged in the draft Port of Spain declaration is sure to be interspersed in practice by the tensing and thawing of daily relationships.

In an exceptional essay published in June 2008, the US historian Greg Grandin compared the Council on Foreign Relations' new recipe for US-Latin American relations - based on laudable US cooperation in poverty reduction, energy, public security and immigration - to a previous effort to repair hemispheric relations, the Commission on United States-Latin American Relations (Linowitz commission) of 1975. Even more radical in its prescription that the US should not "try to define the limits of ideological diversity for other nations", the Commission ended up as a ghostly presence in a Washington that soon after embraced the goals of communist rollback in its Central American backyard (see Greg Grandin, "Losing Latin America: What Will the Obama Doctrine Be Like?", TomDispatch, June 2008)

The precedent is worrying, but in all probability will not be repeated. Two considerations are paramount here. The first is that the sheer density and profusion of intra-regional alliances, and their bewildering circuits to countries outside Latin America, militates against any sort of clear continental polarisation. Colombia, touted most frequently as the US ally in a sea of red, is growing ever closer to Venezuela, its second main trading partner. "We will get to $10 billion (in trade)" exclaimed Chávez at a five-hour meeting with his counterpart Álvaro Uribe in January, just nine months after supposedly mobilising ten battalions on the Colombian frontier.

Colombia's defence minister, furthermore, sped off to Russia in October 2008 for talks on joint security, two weeks after Chávez signed fresh arms deals with Dmitri Medvedev and invited a nuclear warship to the Caribbean. Everyone, it seems, has or wishes to have a hotline to Hu Jintao, though China has cold feet in Cuba. Iran favours the Bolivarians, whose ally Argentina despises the Iranian regime. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina may have been without a joint platform to the G20 in London; but Brazil has plotted the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) and the South American Defence Council, financed the Banco del Sur, and (with the help of France) is seeking to build its pivotal role as security guarantor and defence manufacturer (see Marco Aurelio Garcia, "Brazilian future", 17 March 2003).

If that were not enough, a second impediment to a return of the cold war is probably conclusive. Much has been made of potential transnational spillover of non-state threats, which is indeed the central concern of the geopolitical vision of many close Obama foreign-policy advisers. Were this the case, as it certainly is in other regions, then a scenario could be painted of enhanced US penetration into the continent in the hope of stemming the flow of arms, drugs or radicalism at source, not unlike the attacks of the 1980s.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on the Americas:

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: celebrating democracy" (19 December 2008)

John Crabtree, "Bolivia: after the vote" (2 February 2009)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Julia Buxton, "Hugo Chávez: tides of victory" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Kelly Phenicie & Lisa J Laplante, "Peru: the struggle for memory" (8 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009) But here it is worth raising a number of doubts. The narco-trail certainly acts as a conduit for violence, but its effects in terms of corrupted security forces and territorial control depend on domestic conditions, and on the highly unequal burdens exerted by the existing war on drugs; evidence that it is "spreading" to any more than the US towns that border Mexico is so far flimsy, albeit disturbing (see Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change", 15 April 2009). Likewise, the economic fall-out of the crisis in Latin America, with an estimated 1% fall in GDP for 2009 according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbbean (Eclac), indicates a tentative delinking of the two economic areas, with Mexico (whose predicted fall in GDP is 2%) sufferimg more than most. Any anxiety that the US will probe deep into the continent in search of oil, precious metals or fresh water from Patagonian glaciers is probably little more than sovereign-state paranoia.

A death of the doctrine?

The list of issues that has been posted for a future era of rational inter-American cooperation is - with the possible exception of migration - ambitious. True, progress on poverty-reduction or energy is possible at a technocratic level; but the fundamental architecture of the region's political life - based on democratic responsiveness, survivalist leadership and ad hoc international arrangements - works against substantive elite-let harmony, particularly in the absence of a clearly discernible shared threat. Whereas the Linowitz commission combusted, the current range of proposals runs the risk of becoming (as the Spanish expression has it) papel mojado (wet paper).

In reality, US diplomats will engage, as they have over recent years, in a three-pronged approach. The first involves a delicate work of engaging in the heartlands of discontent, to which the state department under Shannon's guidance has proved adept; the recent recruit in Nicaragua, Robert J Callahan, has proved extremely respectful to Daniel Ortega, while other ambassadors, notably Earl Wayne in Argentina, are learning the value of tact, silence and modesty.

The second would see the US fortify its free-trade partnerships and its links to Brazil and Chile, knowingly sacrificing a sphere of influence in the hope of establishing ring-fences around the most radical governments.

The third, familiar aspect involves the tactical security and counter-narcotic alliances with Mexico, central America and Colombia; these include the stick of the US Southern Command through its relocated Forward Operating Location, probably in Colombia following expulsion from the Manta base in Ecuador.

The broad context of relations will certainly modify under Obama, and become less overtly hostile. A period of "listening and learning", however, will not calm the domestic turbulence of Latin nations, nor eliminate basic US expectations of its southern neighbours. Obama's campaign statement on "A New Partnership for the Americas" treads carefully between a vision of hemispheric partnership and a defensive logic: "The US must restore its traditional leadership in the region - on democracy, trade and development, energy and immigration." As Greg Grandin observes, the president has already defended Colombia's right to "strike terrorists" wherever they may lie, backed the Mérida initiative, and chided Chávez. "Reports of the death of the Monroe Doctrine are greatly exaggerated", Grandin concludes.

Here lies the central issue. Just as the established mesh of interdependence gives ground for anti-American brinkmanship in Latin America, it converts US national- security concerns into the hardware that determines the shape of foreign policy in the region. For too long, the United States has handed down policies to governing elites - anti-communism, privatisation, free capital movement, drug control - without concern over who seized them, what purposes they were used for, or what they resulted in. A thicker set of policies would work on the vital concerns of Latin American societies: inequality, crime, vulnerability, informality, corruption. It would plunge without abrasion into public life. It would, for the first time, test whether the many declarations from Washington about social justice in the Americas are any more than, to adapt AE Housman's expression, the weakest of passions. Maybe Fidel Castro is thinking the same.

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