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U.S. Relationship with Latin America Increasingly Marked by Irritation, Distrust - 2003-08-07

Americans tuning into their nightly newscasts are presented with the day's events from home and abroad. The global fight against terror and war stories from Iraq and Afghanistan routinely lead the broadcasts.

Only occasionally does the top story feature Latin America, despite the region's troubles. In Colombia 40 years of fighting between Marxist guerillas and the elected government and its right-wing paramilitary allies have left the economy in tatters and forced some 1.2 million Colombians from their homes. Next door in Venezuela, a nation-wide strike last January failed to oust the increasingly autocratic president Hugo Chavez from power. Instead he appears to have increased his resolve to stay in office and fight the splintered opposition.

Throughout the area, the U.S. economic downturn has hit hard, lending weight to the phrase "when the United States sneezes, Latin America catches a cold." In addition, drug production and trafficking is on the rise throughout the Andean region.

Writing in The New York Times newspaper last month, Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter American Dialogue, says, "Relations between Latin America and the United States are increasingly marked by irritation and distrust. Yet this tension has passed almost unnoticed by the United States press and unaddressed by the United States government."

Mr. Shifter says there are a number of reasons for Washington's limited interest in the region: “I think one is that the situation in Latin America itself has deteriorated. There was great hope in the early 1990's that the region would move toward democratic politics and market economics, and I think there's been a lot of disappointment. If the region is not as attractive, the United States doesn't tend to be as interested. I think combined with that is what happened September 11th was a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy priorities and Latin America was even less important than it was before. And I think Latin America felt that very much because it coincided with the beginning of a Bush Administration that said Latin America would be a high priority.”

Some analysts say it's more than indifference. Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights watchdog group, says the U.S. view of the region is colored by the global fight against terror, a fight that seems far removed from the daily lives of the average Latin American: “I would say that there's an ever expanding disconnect between how the U.S. sees Latin America and problems in Latin America and how they're seen from Latin America. By that I mean that the U.S. is in many concerns applying a counter-terrorism lens or an anti-terrorism lens to the U.S. relationship with Latin America, and within the region the immediate problems are seen more as crime, poverty, food security issues. It's a whole different set of concerns.”

Ms. Olson says U.S. priorities include cracking down on the drug trade and illegal armed groups in the region, while the majority of Latin Americans are more concerned about reliable jobs and economic growth.

Trade is one area where the United States has been quite active. In addition to continued negotiations on the creation of a hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas, the United States has been pursuing several bilateral and regional trade agreements. These include a bilateral free trade agreement with Chile; a U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA; the Andean Countries Trade Preference Act; as well as talks with the four member countries of the Southern Cone Common Market, or Mercosur.

However, Ms. Olson says many Latin Americans worry that opening their economies to U.S. companies and products may threaten livelihoods at home, where inefficient, state-run industries will be forced to compete against aggressive, cost-effective American companies. In addition, farmers who have a competitive advantage in Latin America where wages and production costs are lower often find U.S. markets closed to their goods.

“I think that they would like to see trade and development policies that are more people centered, that take a long-term view of development and poverty alleviation,” says Ms. Olson. “Poverty is still a very central problem within Latin America. Trade is a huge topic for the region. Because poverty is such a problem, job development is also a huge issue.”

Joy Olson says with 43% of Latin Americans living below the poverty line, they are more interested in U.S. assistance for programs like the zero-hunger plan launched by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" Da Silva. The new policy is meant to supply 1.5 million of the poorest families in Brazil with a monthly income of $15 to buy basic food goods. But with the U.S. federal budget already in the red, it's unclear if the Bush Administration will be willing to increase funding to the region to support these types of social programs.

Steve Johnson, senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based research organization, says, “What it argues for in many ways is that Latin American countries begin to implement the kinds of reforms that help them to solve their own problems.”

He adds that in fact many countries are already doing this, but more needs to done: “Typically, many of the countries in the Latin American region have many aspects of governmental life run out of the capital city, and it really needs to be decentralized and ascribed and assigned to the levels which these issues correspond. Another problem is separation of powers. Most countries have not yet gotten it quite right on how to develop truly independent judiciaries and to have independent congresses. And then finally there isn't a strong sense of public participation. They need to participate. They need to take more of an active role and an interest in the things that affect them.”

Mr. Johnson says that newly elected presidents in Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador are doing their best to enact these kinds of reforms. And he notes that Latin American governments and publics don't want to be told what to do by an outside power any more than the U.S. government and public would. But they do look to the United States for leadership. And in America's successful democracy, a large middle class and a quite vibrant economy, they see a model.

Even the most enlightened policy from Washington isn't going to solve all the region's problems, notes Michael Shifter, but much more can be done. The United States is the most important country in the hemisphere and commands resources that can impact on Bolivia, Colombia or Venezuela, countries all facing critical times. Let's act, says Mr. Shifter, before it's too late.