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31 May 2013

The U.S. Must Re-evaluate its Foreign Policy in Latin America

President Obama surrounded by Latin American leaders, courtesy of White House/Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain Public Domain

President Obama at the Summit of the Americas, 2009.

Relations between the US and Latin America have always experienced their ups and downs, writes Liza Torres Alvarado. She also believes that a number of shared security concerns – such as transnational crime and drug trafficking – may yet form the basis for an equitable and enduring regional partnership.

By Liza Torres Alvarado for Diplomatic Courier (DC)

Historically, relations between Latin America and the United States have been complex, yet constantly evolving. During the 1960s, political changes and social movements challenged the structural basis of United States’ hegemony in the hemisphere. The election of Salvador Allende in Chile, the arrival of Peronism in Argentina, and the development of relations between nationalist governments of the time such as Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico became an obstacle for the United States.

Washington re-established its power in the 1970s by revoking any policy that interfered with U.S. interests in the region by supporting military figures. The United States needed to suppress every nationalist, socialist democratic and popular movement, over fears of the spread of Communism in its backyard. Dictatorships secured financial support through easy access to loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The economic support from United States for certain loyal groups brought great inequalities, unemployment, and poverty in the region.

During the 1980s social upheavals occurred against Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile and Argentina’s military junta. Citizens demanded free elections and social improvements, such as the transition to civilian rule and direct popular elections. In both cases, amid economic turmoil, the military rulers were willing to cede some power to semi-democratic regimes controlled by elites in exchange for the irreversibility of privatization and respect for the status of the military.

The supremacy of the United States deepened in the 1990s, and neoliberal policies favored corporations at the expense of disadvantaged populations. The collapse of the Soviet Union deepened the economic crisis in Cuba, which reduced its support for leftist movements in Latin America. In Argentina, President Carlos Menem privatized public enterprises, while in Brazil, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso privatized state companies that generated significant revenue for the country. President Carlos Salinas in Mexico privatized 110 enterprises and signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States, whereby the U.S. was allowed access to raw materials and other services at very low prices.

These policies provoked action from social movements aligned with the poor. The financial crisis in Argentina led to the overthrow of Antonio De la Rua. In Bolivia, insurrections demanded the removal of Sanchez de Lozada, a staunch follower of Washington’s policies. In Ecuador, uprisings prevented the privatization of oil and gas industries. In Brazil, the peasant movement led to the election of syndical leader Lula Da Silva as President. In Venezuela, U.S. efforts to destabilize the government of Hugo Chavez were unsuccessful and instead strengthened the morale of leftist movements across the region.

Subsequently, regional leaders either nationalized industries or broke agreements with international oil corporations or others revolving around natural resources, as occurred in Bolivia with the gas companies and in Venezuela with the oil company. As these social movements found solidarity, U.S. influence was weakened. None of the promises of better standards of living from neo-liberal policies had materialized, and free market policies had bankrupted farmers. Deregulation destroyed the banks, and the middle class lost their savings.

At the hemispheric level, the U.S.’s proposal to remove barriers to trade through the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was subsequently rejected by Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil in the mid-2000s. Subsequently, ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas) was born as a counterpart to the FTAA, changing the dynamics in the hemisphere. The Alliance posed as a new model, with the purpose being international cooperation based on the idea of social and economic integration of Latin America and the Caribbean countries. China appeared as an alternative market for the sale of raw materials from Latin America, reducing dependence on U.S. markets.

Failed attempts by the United States to destabilize Chavez’s administration radicalized the Venezuelan government's position, which privileged sub-regional energy agreements and broke contracts with American oil companies as the decade progressed. Venezuela became an important counterweight to the United States, not only for its ability to provide an alternative to U.S. policies in the region, but also because oil revenues had enabled the country take Cuba’s place in financing an anti-imperialist crusade across the continent. Ironically, oil prices rose as a result of increased demand caused by the Iraq war, further helping Venezuela in this mission and weakening the U.S.’s influence in the Western Hemisphere as it was focused its efforts on dual war fronts on the other side of the globe.

Although there has been a decline in U.S. influence in the region, its presence is still there. In Venezuela, for example, U.S. oil companies have seen their actions limited, yet they still operate there. The United States is Venezuela’s top commercial partner, as Venezuela supplies 12 percent of U.S. oil imports.

Relations between the United States and Latin America have experienced cyclical ups and downs. Geographically, the United States and Latin America are linked and have a natural shared market, so there will always be a relationship of one sort or another. The United States will continue to seek to exert its influence over the region, whether through future plans for the placement of military bases or the promotion of bilateral trade agreements.

Leftist governments will have to address challenges such as those caused by social divisions and economic inequality. They will likely continue to focus on implementing their leftist discourse, particularly in the wake of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death. However, it is important to consider that neoliberal philosophies are also still pervasive in many countries of Latin America. This is an advantage for the United States, giving it an opportunity to push for further privatization, but Latin American leftist movements should evaluate themselves and take actions to if they are to avoid a return of neoliberal policies of the 1990s.

All that said, how can the United States improve its foreign policy towards Latin America? There are many problems in the region that should be faced together. Accepting this reality is the beginning to improving relations.

Transnational organized crime, drug trafficking, and immigration problems are worth making joint efforts to resolve. The U.S. should encourage the strengthening of political and economic ties in the Americas as well as promoting compliance of international commitments as a sign of willingness to improve relations. There are many hemispheric conventions that provide the legal framework to begin to work together against negative outcomes. An example is the Declaration on Security in the Americas signed by the countries of the hemisphere in 2003. This document describes the new concept of multidimensional security, and incorporates as new threats issues such as terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, environmental degradation, natural resource and food scarcity, and uncontrolled population growth and migration.

The United States should take active part in establishing institutional networks through which policies can be coordinated, and through these promote the expansion of employment opportunities for the population, stimulate fair trade agreements, and encourage the protection of the hemisphere against drug trafficking and organized crime. These are all proposals that would certainly help to create better relations between the states of the Western Hemisphere. Relations between the United States and Latin America are complex and changing. If they are based on cooperation, with respect to the principles of self-determination and non-intervention, they can become stronger. As such, the U.S. must be willing to re-evaluate its foreign policy and perspectives toward the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

Liza Torres Alvarado is a former diplomat in the Mission of Venezuela to the Organization of American States.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June 2013 print edition.


For additional reading on this topic please see:
Latin America and the Caribbean: Key Issues for the 113th Congress
Continental Regionalism: Brazil's Prominent Role in the Americas
US-Latin American Nuclear Relations


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Liza Torres Alvarado is a former diplomat in the Mission of Venezuela to the Organization of American States.

Editor's note:

This article was originally published by The Diplomatic Courier.

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