A lot is happening in Latin America. The dynamism in business, politics, society, international relations, and even the criminal cartels is obvious. In contrast, U.S. policy toward Latin America is lethargic, unimaginative and surprisingly irrelevant.
Consider what is going on south of the U.S. border. For starters, and to everyone’s surprise, the region known for its legendary economic mismanagement and frequent financial crashes weathered the global financial storm amazingly well. It is now posting economic growth rates exceeded only by Asia. In politics, a new cohort of presidents has been elected through fair and free elections. All of these heads of state come to power with broadly positive attitudes toward the United States. Just a few years ago, Hugo Chávez enjoyed the admiration of the vast majority of Latin Americans who detested George W. Bush. Today, Chávez’ popularity has plummeted. Meanwhile, like everywhere else in the world, the election of Barack Obama was widely cheered in the Western Hemisphere.
Yet, Latin Americans feel disappointed as the new U.S. president, challenged by domestic problems and distracted by international emergencies, has failed to meet their high and clearly unrealistic expectations about a major redefinition of U.S. policies toward its southern neighbors. They are right. President Obama would be hard-pressed to describe in which fundamental ways his government’s policies toward Latin America differ from those of his predecessor.
This all happens while Latin America goes through big changes, and while other international players gain traction in the region. Just to give some examples, China has gained significant economic influence in Latin America, and Iran has forged an unprecedented political presence with several countries there—notably Venezuela and others in the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA). Russia has also made unprecedented strides as a supplier to the armed forces of countries which, in the past, mostly relied on U.S. companies for their arms procurement.
The region is also rife with political and economic change—even in places like Cuba, where politics and economic policies have been stagnant for half a century or more. In today’s Latin America, macroeconomic failure is more the exception than the norm. While the economies of Cuba and Venezuela rank among the worst performers in the world, those of Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and other countries are booming. Even Mexico—which suffers from chronic slow growth and was hit hard by narcoviolence, pandemics and other major shocks—is recovering at an uncharacteristically fast clip.
The favorable external economic environment, good macroeconomic management and more effective anti-poverty policies have had enormously positive social impacts, too. In recent years, tens of millions of Latin Americans were able to leave the ranks of the poor and join a more stable middle class.
Of course, all of this does not mean that the region’s traditional problems have been solved. Bad schools and universities, poor health care, corruption, and inequality are still endemic. Latin America is one of the most high-crime regions in the world in terms of murders and the percentage of its economy related to illicit trafficking. This is not a problem with an easy solution. But Latin America has also given us a good surprise: Colombia proved that progress in the fight against drug cartels and violence is possible. If Colombia could, others can. In short, for better and for worse, Latin America is rapidly changing in almost all respects.
Where nothing is changing is the way in which the U.S. government relates to its southern neighbors. This is not new. For decades, experts have complained that Latin America only attracts the attention of the State Department and others in Washington when there are wars or natural disasters. U.S. leaders are always too distracted by other priorities (which currently include two wars, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East, the global financial crisis, health care reform, and China among many others) to worry about Latin America.
But the fact that Latin America does not figure in the calculations or conversations of top U.S. decision makers does not preclude some of them from giving speeches about U.S. policy towards the region that are as disconnected from reality as those given by Fidel Castro in Cuba. According to the State Department, U.S. policy toward Latin America has four priorities: “promoting social and economic opportunities for all, securing a clean energy future, ensuring the security of all citizens, and building effective democratic institutions.” How can anyone disagree?
But this is an agenda better suited to an economic development agency, not the State Department. The goals the U.S. declares as its top diplomatic priorities in the region are in fact challenges for the government of each country, not for the diplomacy of another nation, regardless of how powerful it is. Washington would never dare say to Asia that one of the main goals of its diplomacy is “promoting opportunities for all Asians.” Moreover, current U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America suffers from another flaw: neither the State Department nor the entire U.S. government has the money, knowledge or human resources to implement it effectively (See: Iraq or Afghanistan).
Talking about these illusory policy priorities toward Latin America allows U.S. diplomats to avoid mentioning other very real and politically explosive issues: the useless fence on the border with Mexico; the paralysis of policy on immigration and free trade agreements; the Castro-boosting embargo on Cuba; the missed opportunities of building a strong alliance with Brazil in its new role as a key global player; or the stagnation of the war against drugs. Regarding the latter, it should be noted that the only thing stagnant is U.S. government drug policy. Stagnation is not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks about the drug cartels or their U.S. customers. According to data released by the White House, last year the consumption of marijuana, ecstasy and methamphetamines increased in the United States.
From this perspective, perhaps one of the top priorities of Latin America’s policy toward the U.S. (if there were one) should in turn be to “help the citizens of the superpower to get high less often.” No one would take it seriously, but it sounds good. It’s much like the current U.S. official policy toward Latin America: well-sounding, well-meaning, but cliché-ridden and, ultimately, irrelevant.