Losing Latin America
Following up on my earlier post on brewing problems in Latin America, Bolivia’s ex-coca farmer President-elect has sought China’s assistance in developing Bolivia’s gas reserves. The Bolivians emphasize that China is not the only country they are interested in for energy development partnerships, France and Spain are also possibilities. President-elect Morales has also said that companies currently invested in Bolivia—largely U.S. companies—will have to renegotiate their contracts.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, the front runner for the presidency is a leftist who had made his name in part by vocal opposition to the U.S., although he is now moderating his view, at least for the campaign. (See also here.)
All of this has caused some area experts to ask if Washington is “losing Latin America.” An echo of the Congressional query of “who lost China” when the Communists took over, the term “losing” Latin America may be hyperbolic but it does point out some important shifts.
The reason the term is an overstatement is because Latin America was never “ours” to begin with. Sure, we had some governments—good and bad—closely aligned to our policies in the Cold War but there was a love/hate relationship between the Latin American street and the U.S., and for good reason. But the ups and downs of our relationships with Latin America in the 20th century has largely been in the form of a series of North-South bilateral relations. At worst, we had the added headache of Soviet assistance (and of course those pesky Cuban nukes in the 1960’s). Now, though, we are seeing a shift towards deeper South-South relations. As the Free Trade Area of the Americas has sputtered, the South American Mercosur grouping has focused on deepening its ties, with possibly radical results. See also this piece from the Global Policy Forum and this article from the Miami Herald.
This South-South coordination is occurring alongside a general swing to the left after the market-reform initiatives of the 1990’s. This is exacerbated by increased anti-Americanism in reaction to U.S. military policy and, particularly, the perceived imperialism of the War in Iraq.
We tend not to focus on Latin America or the Caribbean until something blows up but now is the time to rebuild our diplomatic ties with the rest of Central and South America. The irony is that when the Bush Administration was first elected, the concern of the Europeans was that this Spanish-speaking Texan who’s buddies with the President of Mexico would focus on building regional relations, to the detriment of the Atlantic Alliance. But, in the wake of September 11th, we have actually been focused on the Middle East to the detriment of the Atlantic Alliance and Latin American relations.
Venezuela is using its oil resources to radicalize Latin American politics. Brazil is organizing economic regionalism to counter-balance the U.S. Bolivia is moving to decriminalize coca production. Mexico may take a sharp turn towards the left.
Latin America was never ours to lose. But if these situations remain unaddressed, then we all have a lot to lose.