The reconquest of America

Sergio Aguayo Quezada
29 August 2007

History chastises arrogance. The United States justified the invasion of Iraq by the defence of democracy as well as of its national interests and its world leadership. Today it is paying the very high costs of the adventure. They include the US's loss of influence in Latin America, a continent that is exploring new partnerships with a range of global actors: among them Iran, China and Spain.

In summer 2007, a documentary film directed by Charles Ferguson - No End in Sight, The American Occupation of Iraq - opened in the United States. The script is constructed on a three-pronged thesis: the American invasion of Iraq was an ethical mistake, an organisational disaster and a humanitarian tragedy committed by Washington neo-conservatives whose ignorance and frivolity the film's images strip bare. In a sense, the film is an update of the "banality of evil", a concept coined by Hannah Arendt in order to characterise the grey personality and the motivations of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

Sergio Aguayo Quezada is professor at Mexico's Colegio de Mexico. Among his books is 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (Grijalbo / Reforma, 1998). His website is here Among Sergio Aguayo Quezada's articles in openDemocracy:

"Mexican democracy in peril" (21 April 2005)

"America's protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS" (25 July 2005)

"Washington vs Latin American democracy" (29 November 2005)

"The Americas' new independence" (27 March 2006)

"Mexico: a banana republic?" (19 April 2006)

"Mexico's turbulent election ride" (16 May 2006)

"Fraud in Mexico?" (7 July 2006)

"Mexico's democratic lifeline" (12 September 2006)

"Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

"Mexico: living with drugs" (16 March 2007)

"Mexico: a war dispatch" (25 June 2007)

A film or a book that similarly examines in detail the impact of Iraq on US-Latin American relations is yet to appear. But an initial diagnosis is possible. Washington has been so focused on Iraq and the "war on terror" that it has become insensitive to the consequences in Latin America of this new stage in its well-known "attention-indifference cycle" in the region. If in the recent past, the periods when the world's main superpower was largely absent from the region occasioned only minor changes (Cuba being the chief exception), the 21st century is already turning out differently.

The rawness of the neo-conservative aggression towards Iraq reminds Latin Americans that a dark side of the United States's foreign policy is still alive. Washington still invokes principles and doctrines to justify the attempt to impose on the world its way of thinking and living - by using, if necessary, unilateral violence implemented by the latest military-technological gadgets. This sinister project has provoked or reinforced intense opposition in Latin America, where the political experiments in Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela - for all their differences - share the desire to reduce the United States presence in the region.

Washington also alienates its foreign counterparts because the ideology of neo-conservatism that has animated its policies since 2000 reflects deeper insensitivity towards the destruction of the global environment; the industrialised country most responsible for climate change is led by an administration reluctant to take serious ameliorative or mitigating measures. At another level, the aggressive and deliberate way in which the conservative right in the US seeks to elevate religious fundamentalism above scientific thought is also unnerving to the country's neighbours. Latin America is beyond the stage when it is prepared to accept the negative consequences of theological intrusion in politics and knowledge.

But the change in the relationship between the United States and Latin America is further owed to the fact that Washington's distancing has coincided with the arrival or the return of other international actors. The most novel is Iran, notwithstanding the historic remoteness of the religion that inspires Tehran - Islam -from Latin American tradition. (The Mexican census of 2000, for example, revealed that of the country's 100 million inhabitants, only 1,421 were Muslim). True, the Shah of Iran sought political asylum in Panama and Mexico after his flight from Iran in 1979, but this had less to do with any deep-rooted affinity with the region than the search for refuge. The connections today are on a more substantive level; the Iranian regime that succeeded the Shah and has now lasted twenty-eight years already has a presence in Venezuela and Nicaragua, two key countries for Caribbean geopolitics.

The golden age in us

The metamorphosis of China's historic role in Latin America makes it a special case. A century ago, tens of thousands of its citizens arrived in the region to construct canals or railways, to occupy the worst paying jobs and to be periodically sacrificed in the pogroms of Latin American xenophobia. Their modern counterparts arrive like lords, ready to conquer the markets and to sign contracts that will guarantee the supply of essential raw materials. They speak proper Spanish, albeit with accents characteristic of two stages of openness to the world. The older Chinese speak "á la Mexican" due to their academic formation at El Colegio de México in the 1970s, when China began a fresh stage in its relationship with this region. The younger arrive with the ceceos (the sound that Spaniards make when pronouncing "c" or "z") and idioms belonging to a Spain determined to globalise and become a reference-point for the world.

Indeed, Spain's own amazing transformation since the death in 1975 of the dictator Franco is an integral part of this story. When I first visited Spain in the early 1970s, it was a country enclosed in itself; now, it is embarked upon an intellectual and commercial re-encounter with the countries of America, the continent of which she was expelled in 1898 by the United States. The relationship grows and is strengthened because Spain is the exponent of a European model that is attractive to Latin Americans.

The United States is a country that abhors defeat, the very experience it will now have to digest in Iraq. The scenario that faces the country is reminiscent of the last stage of the Vietnam war, and poses a similar dilemma: how will it be able to exit Iraq whilst attempting to disguise its failure? That will be the heaviest neo-conservative inheritance for the Democrats who are preparing for an epic effort to return to the White House in 2008. They too will have to face the profound breach between their country and Latin America. However, it is far easier to identify this phenomenon than it will be to rebalance - far less reverse - the historical processes it represents.

Latin America stirs in anticipation of a new era in which the relationship with the superpower is modified and new dynamics are established. It is an auspicious moment for Latin Americans to reformulate the role of the external factor in development. This moment also presents the opportunity for a reconquest of ourselves: to redefine, on new foundations, the role we can play in the world. In this challenge, a potent instrument is created by the arrival of new actors on the Latin American stage; a potent void is left by the withdrawal of a power that will for years be busy paying for the mistakes and excesses of a disastrous adventure.

This article was translated from Spanish by Alfonsina Peñaloza

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