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The US and Latin America
Through the Lens of Empire

Michael Shifter (*)

For many Latin Americans, President George W. Bush’s November 6, 2003, speech before the National Endowment for Democracy touched on an all-too-familiar theme. Bush boldly called for a democratic revolution, led by the United States, in Iraq and the Middle East. Two decades earlier, President Ronald Reagan had delivered a similarly audacious address to the British Parliament, one that laid the groundwork for the creation of the endowment itself. Just as Bush has now targeted the "axis of evil," Reagan had assailed the Soviet Union’s "evil empire." Then, however, the principal theater the US president had in mind for his democracy mission was not thousands of miles away, in the Middle East, but much closer to home, in Central America.

Not surprisingly, Latin Americans are perhaps peculiarly sensitive to the stunning projection of US power in Iraq in 2003. The terms that are increasingly fashionable in describing international affairs"unilateralism," "hegemony," "empire"have long been used in analyses of inter-American relations. The vast asymmetry of power between the United States and the countries to its south has been a fundamental feature of the region’s historical landscape. The Manichaean "you’re either with us or against us" formulation has been implicit, and long assimilated.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the use of terms such as empire and hegemony, tailored over
decades to cold war realities, was substantially attenuated. Starting with the administration of George H. W. Bush (19881992), a window of opportunity opened for referring, without irony, to
the prospect of constructing political partnerships and striving to become "enterprises of the Americas." Fresh and original ideas for defending democracy and extending commerce in the Americas offered considerable promise for more productive hemispheric cooperation.

Today that promise has largely faded. Relations between the United States and Latin America have acquired a rawness and a level of indecorum that recall previous eras of inter-American strain and discord. In the past, the rough edges had occasionally been blunted and softened, not only during the postcold war interlude of the 1990s, but also at various other moments, such as the 1930s and early 1960s. Although Latin Americans have always resisted and opposed US power, from time to time their demands have been at least partially addressed.

Yet, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the quality of American "exceptionalism" that sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset called a "double-edged sword"characterized, on the one hand, by generosity and democratic openness and, on the other, by unbridled moralism, bordering on intolerancehas tilted decidedly toward the latter. An unvarnished sense of superiority, displayed proudly on the regional and global stage, has revived the resentment and distrust of Latin Americans toward the United States that had recently shown signs of receding. It is an attitude captured in a November 2003 survey by Zogby International among key opinion makers in six Latin American countries, which showed that a startling 87 percent of respondents had a negative opinion of President Bush.

The United States has rarely exhibited the characteristics of an empire or imperial power in a classical sense. Unlike Britain, France, or Spain in previous eras, the United States has shown little propensity to completely take over another territory and control its institutions. Instead, since the elaboration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, there has been a tendency to keep other great powers out of the Western Hemisphere and permit national, independent developmentprovided that it posed little threat to the region’s stability and assured the primacy of US interests.

In the early part of the twentieth century especially, the US role in Central America and the
Caribbean was marked by various occupations carried out by the US armed forces when it was deemed necessary to protect American economic and strategic interests and to spread American values. Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republicall at one time were occupied, often for considerable stretches. The occupations, which generally came to an end by the 1930s, proved difficult, and had mixed results at best. These experiences account, in part, for the enormous skepticism in much of Latin America about the current US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The cold war saw the United States return to Latin America in an attempt to assert its ideological
hegemony and maintain the hemisphere as its sphere of influence, if not control. Whatever Washington perceived as an extension of Soviet influence in the hemisphere was typically met with a swift and severe response. This was the case even before the 1959 Cuban revolution (for example, in Guatemala in 1954), but became especially pronounced after the installation of a Communist government just off the US mainland. It would be hard to overstate the effect of Fidel Castro’s regime in shaping US Latin America policy through the cold warand even since the cold war’s end. The US intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and the US pressure that helped result in the 1973 military coup against Chile’s elected president, Salvador Allende, can best be understood against this cold war backdrop.

In the 1980s, the cold war’s intense ideological battle became concentrated in Central America,
where the Reagan administration backed an authoritarian government in El Salvador to prevent
a powerful leftist insurgency from taking over. The United States also waged a proxy war through the "contras" in Nicaragua, then controlled by a Sandinista government with close ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The US obsession with security questions in the 1980s rendered a productive relationship with Latin America virtually impossible. Sharp differences in priorities had always existed, but occasional US initiatives in response to Latin American concerns attempted to bridge them. Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s, a serious effort to engage constructively with the region, was one example. Another was John Kennedy’s lofty Alliance for Progress. No doubt calculated to counter the appeal of Castro’s regime, it nonetheless projected a commitment to Latin America’s social reform agenda. Although these initiatives did not transform the hemisphere’s power relations, they did display a concern for Latin America’s acute social conditions and reflect an effort to identify common interests, thereby cushioning the negative effects of US hegemony.

In fundamental respects, the first Bush administration reflected continuity with the US policies toward Latin America whose antecedents were Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Transformations on the world stagemost notably the fall of the Berlin Wallcoupled with important changes in Latin America’s political landscape toward more democratic rule, created fertile and favorable conditions for a more serious engagement with the region.

This period saw new precedents set in the critical areas of democracy and trade. Roughly coinciding with the end of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s extended military rule, member governments of the Organization of American States, meeting in Santiago, Chile, in June 1991, approved a resolution that marked a sharp departure in inter-American norms. For the first time, any interruption in democratic, constitutional rule would become a matter of regional concern and would trigger a hemispheric response. That resolution, which has been invoked four times since its adoption, formed the cornerstone of the widely touted Inter-American Democratic Charter that was approved a decade later at an OAS General Assembly in Lima, Peru. The charter codified or systematized all the democracy-related declarations and resolutions that had been adopted over the previous decade, essentially giving these declarations and resolutions greater force.

The notion of creating a hemisphere-wide free trade area can also be traced to the first Bush administration. The Enterprise of the Americas initiative, launched in 1990, recognized the concerns of Latin American leaders who had expressed keen interest in securing greater access to US markets for their countries’ products. Such responsiveness and engagement were welcomed south of the Rio Grande, and especially in Mexico. It was during the first Bush administration that the final terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), involving the United States, Canada, and Mexico, were negotiated and signed. The US Congress approved the treaty in 1993, under the Clinton administration. The first Bush administration was responsive to Latin American concerns about foreign debt as well, devising the Brady Planafter Treasury Secretary Nicholas Bradyto reduce the region’s $450 billion in foreign debt.

Other nods to Latin America did not go unnoticed in the region. With the end of the cold war, Washington became more committed to achieving a peaceful resolution to longstanding conflicts in Central Americain Nicaragua in 1990 and El Salvador in early 1992 under the first Bush administration, and then in Guatemala under Clinton in 1996. The US role helped overcome doubts about whether the United States was prepared to apply its power constructively in former cold war battlegrounds. The first Bush administration also participated in two anti-drug summitsin Cartagena, Colombia, and San Antonio, Texasduring which the US president met with his Andean counterparts in a multilateral framework.

The momentum toward greater cooperation continued into the two terms that Bill Clinton served between 1992 and 2000. This era saw not only the passage of NAFTA, but also the convening of the Summit of the Americas, featuring all the hemisphere’s elected leaders, in December 1994 in Miami. The summit was the first meeting of its kind in a quarter of a century. It set the goal of negotiating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by January 2005.

Two months before the summit, the Clinton administration used the threat of force to return to office the democratically elected leader of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. This was in striking contrast to historical images of the United States propping up authoritarian regimes. It offered further evidence that the US government could use its power to advance legitimate democratic rule in the hemisphere.

The momentum stalled, however, in the latter part of the 1990s. Economic and political conditions in many Latin American countries deteriorated. In Venezuela, which endured two successive lost decades, strongman Hugo Chávez was elected president in December 1998, while in Peru, President Alberto Fujimori further entrenched his authoritarian rule. In short, a malaise gripped much of the region, making it less attractive to Washington. In addition, the US Congress continually denied Clinton the "fast track" authority he sought to negotiate trade agreements without congressional amendment, reflecting a more inward-looking society and the growing salience of domestic politicsin this case, pressure from labor unions identified with the Democratic partyin shaping US hemispheric policy.

Latin Americans were deeply suspicious of what they regarded as unilateral moves in Colombia that culminated in the July 2000 approval of some $1.3 billion in US security aid to fight the drug war in that country. To be sure, Washington was responding to a deeply troubling situation: a democracy under siege. But the elements of the final assistance package nonetheless centered chiefly on combating drugs, a narrow piece of the wider problem, and mostly through law enforcement efforts. A more comprehensive strategy, embracing key dimensions of social development and institutional reform, was lacking.


The election in November 2000 of George W. Bush generated varied expectations about how the United States would approach hemispheric relations. Two separate tendencies within the executive branch could be discerned. That Bush appeared comfortable with Latin Americahe had served as governor of Texas and had initially evinced great enthusiasm for a tightly knit inter-American community, seemed to bode well for hemispheric relations. At the same time, senior officials such as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice showed little sympathy for the kind of "nation-building" mission the Clinton administration had carried out in Haiti and instead signaled that the new administration would pursue hardheaded policies, emphasizing the defense of vital national interests.

The first nine months of the Bush administration provided evidence of both of these tendencies. Bush met with many of the region’s leaders, attended the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec, and cultivated a particularly close relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox. At the White House on September 5, 2001, Bush famously referred to Mexico as "our most important relationship." Unlike its predecessor, however, Bush’s team at the Treasury Department eschewed anything resembling a bailout in dire financial situations like the rescue the Clinton administration had provided to Mexico during the 1995 peso crisis. Thus, the deepening Argentine predicament in 2001marked by unsustainable deficits, which resulted in widespread social unrest and the forced resignation of the country’s presidentwas treated as merely a fiscal problem and initially elicited indifference from Washington. Eventually, however, the United States voted in favor of an IMF loan of nearly $3 billion to Argentina in January 2003, and also participated in an IMF aid package to Brazil.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, dramatically eclipsed the incipient Bush administration approach to Latin America. The traumatic events engendered a sense of vulnerability and fear in American society, and transformed Bush into a wartime president. The moralist side of American exceptionalism described by Lipset was activated with unprecedented force. Crystallizing the emerging foreign policy concept was a new doctrine of "preemption," developed in the Bush administration’s September 2002 National Security Strategy. The strategy made it clear that America would not hesitate to use power preemptively to protect itself. For the United States, this marked a departure. As historian Arthur Schlesinger noted in the October 23, 2003, New York Review of Books, "Mr. Bush has replaced a policy aimed at peace through the prevention of war by a policy aimed at peace through preventive war."

Much of the rest of the world overwhelmingly rejected this formulation. The response in Latin America was similar, but it had a distinctive twist. For Latin Americans, the practice of preventive military action by the United States had a long history, especially in Central America and Caribbean countries. It can be plausibly argued that the use of US force in 1983 in Grenada, or in 1989 in Panama, were early examples of preventive military action. But making the practice a matter of doctrine touched a raw nerve in Latin America, since it showed a blatant disregard for the precepts of international law. It also raised the specter of future US military adventures in the region, employing the war on terror as a justification.

The region has been sensitive as well to the treatment of prisoners of America’s "war on terror" that are being held at the detention center in Guantánamo, Cuba. In this US-controlled territory, secured as a result of what many Latin Americans see as an imperialist war, basic standards of due process have not been respected and followed. Although, at the end of 2003, US courts had begun to raise serious objections to such treatment, the reports from Guantánamo have not helped enhance US credibility as a guardian of human rights and constitutional protections. Some comments in the Latin American press have been unsparing (one Colombian columnist referred to Guantánamo as the US "gulag"). Guantánamo, and the specter of military tribunals for suspected terrorists, raised the perennial question of double standards, and supplied ammunition for Latin Americans subjected to US sermons on the importance of adhering to the rule of law.

As the war on terror became the overriding priority of US foreign policy, claims of interest in and concern for Latin America within the Bush administration rang increasingly hollow. Senior officials became more and more distracted from a region that was supposed to be high on Washington’s agenda. It is true that in September 2003 the US Congress, for the first time in five years, confirmed an assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Roger Noriega. But, given that US prestige and credibility were on the line in Iraq and the war on terror, it would take a superman to successfully engage interest in Latin America among the most senior-level decision makers in Congress and the administration. Latin Americans hoped not so much for increased attentionthe demand, after all, has a paternalistic ring to itbut rather a strategy that sought to take better advantage of the many mutual interests shared by the United States and Latin America.

Washington’s distraction, indifference, and failure to seriously consider Latin America’s own concerns have exacted considerable costs. The Bush administration’s initially mishandled response to the April 2002 military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez failing to show any concern and instead expressing undisguised glee eroded the administration’s credibility on the democracy question. That blunder effectively sidelined any potential US leadership role in trying to assure a peaceful, constitutional resolution to Venezuela’s political crisis.

From Latin America’s perspective, Washington also bore some responsibility for the democratic setback that Bolivia suffered in October 2003. The government of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, which had faithfully implemented the various economic and drug policy recipes advocated by Washington, could not withstand the enormous social pressure brought by a variety of angry and frustrated sectors, particularly the well-organized indigenous groups and coca growers. As was widely reported after the collapse of his government, President Sánchez de Lozada had in 2002 requested some $150 million in development assistance from Washington to deal with growing strain and unrest. He was rebuffed by the Bush administration, which offered merely $10 million. The Bolivian president was prescient in anticipating that, without the requested aid, he would have trouble surviving in office.

The Bolivia case underscores the myopia of a longstanding US drug policy excessively focused on law enforcement objectivesa policy that gives scant attention to social development issues and fails to take into adequate account its effects on democratic governance. More important, what happened in Bolivia illustrates a deeper malaise throughout the troubled Andean region that also extends to other pockets of concern in Latin America. Bolivia conveys a sense of an already fragile region breaking further apart, devoid of a coherent framework for political and economic development.

In this regard, the Latinobarómetro’s comparative surveys offer little to cheer about. As the October 30, 2003, Economist summed it up, "A bare majority of Latin Americans are convinced democrats, but they are deeply frustrated by the way their democratic institutions work in practice." In 10 of the 17 Latin American countries polled, support for democracy has dropped significantly, and steadily, since 1996. Notably, 52 percent of the sample agreed with the statement: "I wouldn’t mind if a non-democratic government came to power if it could solve economic problems." Levels of confidence and trust in the region’s political leaders and institutionspolitical parties are particularly discredited remain alarmingly low.

Such worrying results are impossible to separate from Latin America’s stubbornly stagnant economies. Many of the region’s citizens are profoundly disenchanted with market-oriented prescriptions that they see as having yielded only greater corruption, few tangible benefits, and deepening social inequalities. Whether one refers to the precepts of "neoliberalism" or, as shorthand, the "Washington consensus," there is clearly a major backlash in much of Latin America. Bolivia highlights the spreading angst about lack of national control in the context of globalization as indictments of privatization gain growing support.

Increasing social dislocations and rising tensions are understandably of primary concern for most Latin Americans. Yet, in Washington, the war on terror, perhaps also understandably, is of overriding concern. The result is a disturbing disconnect that, as Latin America’s social disintegration and the US-led war continue, could become even wider. The common language of open democracies and free markets used in the past decade by reform-minded opinion leaders throughout the hemisphere has less and less resonance. And, as the Latinobarómetro poll reports, at least among Mexicans and South Americans, regard for the United States in the past two years has fallen sharply. True, the unilateral US military adventure in Iraq in large measure accounts for the drop. But the sense that the United States has mainly been unresponsive to and disengaged from Latin America’s deepening concerns while expecting unquestioning support and loyalty for its own specific agenda also helps to explain the growing anti-American sentiment in the region.


Although the Bush administration has not strayed from Washington’s traditional indifference to Latin America’s social distress and political turmoil, it has been far more engaged and energetic in seeking to advance the trade agenda. President Bush managed to secure the "fast track" trade authority that President Clinton failed to obtain, and achieved a long-awaited bilateral trade agreement with Chile. In late 2003, the United States announced a free trade agreement with four Central American countries, and prospects for reaching deals with Colombia and Peru looked promising. US trade representative Robert Zoellick has, more than any other senior Bush administration official, engaged Latin Americaresponding to the region’s interest in obtaining access for its products to US markets.

Although there has been undeniable progress in this area, trade issues also pose significant challenges to inter-American relations and represent a fundamental test of the relationship between the United States and Brazil. Agreement between these two large countries is essential if there is to be any possibility of moving toward the goal of a Free Trade Area of the Americas, which has been generally supported by the hemisphere’s elected governments since 1994. And on a wide array of other critical issues affecting the hemisphere, it is difficult to imagine important advances without close cooperation between the United States and Brazil.

The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as Brazil’s president in October 2002 left Washington palpably nervous; it did not know what to expect from the leftist leader of the Workers Party. Yet 2003 proved to be the year of Lula (as he is commonly known) in Latin America. Impressively, he has so far sustained what might ultimately prove an impossible balancing act: straddling the worlds of the financial establishment and its critics. No other leader, for example, participated in both the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and its counterpoint, the Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Lula appears to be the quintessential pragmatist, displaying a penchant for fiscal discipline and other economic policies associated with the Washington consensus. At the same time, unless he can make progress in tackling Brazil’s immense social agenda and particularly its glaring inequalities, Lula risks disappointing many of his supporters, in Brazil and throughout Latin America, who have high hopes and expectations for another "way" in a frustrated region searching for alternatives.

Lula has surprised many observers not only with his pragmatism in national policies, but also because of his assertive role in regional affairs. Building on Brazil’s self-image as a regional power, with disproportionate significance in South America, Lula has taken initiative in dealing with difficult situations in Venezuela, where he launched a Group of Friends mechanism to deal with the clash between President Chávez and his opponents, and in Colombia, where he offered support to President Álvaro Uribe in his pursuit of democratic security. Lula has also sought to strengthen his relationship with Argentina, particularly the government of Néstor Kirchner, to further consolidate MERCOSUR, the Southern Cone trade group. Indeed, Lula has staked out a position on reaching an FTAA pact, consistent with his predecessors, that emphasizes the importance of US concessions in lifting agricultural subsidies as a precondition for corresponding concessions on the Brazilian side.

Questions related to a trade agreement aside, what is crucial in the coming period will be the capacity of both the United States and Brazil to reach an accommodation and tolerate what are bound to be inevitable differences on policy issues. From all indications, the US government is split on how to deal with Brazil’s attempt to establish itself as a regional power. (The Brazilian government appears similarly divided regarding the United States.) Growing strains between the two countries were apparent during the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in September 2003, and the gathering of trade ministers in Miami in November 2003. But the question is: will the United States exercise its hegemonic presumption in this context and show little tolerance for Brazil’s heightened activism, or will it pursue an understanding with another regional power in this hemisphere? Will accommodation or an adversarial posture prevail? Can the United States accept real policy differences for the sake of building a broader relationship? There is no better opportunity for Washington to forge a strategic partnership and restore the declining goodwill among many Latin Americans toward the United States.


How the United States deals with Brazil’s evolving role in the hemisphere in the coming years will largely determine America’s ability to adjust its thinking to the region’s new realities. Analysts have long used the image of the "backyard" to depict US conceptions of Latin America, especially Central America. But in the context of globalizationwhere national problems have worldwide ramificationssuch conceptions are woefully inadequate.

The regional test for the United States also includes its relationship with Mexico, which is fundamental to constructing a vital hemispheric community. After the September 11 attacks, no country has experienced more friction with the United States at the highest political levels than Mexico. Perhaps expectations were unrealistically high, but President Bush, based on his previous foreign policy experience and friendship, initially looked south, toward President Fox. The strain that developed after the attacksWashington felt that Mexico did not show sufficient solidaritywas exacerbated once the Iraq enterprise started, and Mexico, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, had to take a public stand on the US decision to go to war. Mexico’s opposition to the US position did not sit well with Congress and, especially, the Bush administration.

Not surprisingly, toward the end of 2003 signs appeared that the bilateral relationship was on the road to repair. Summits held in Mexico in October 2003 and January 2004 should help re-engage Washington with the bilateral agenda. Electoral politics in advance of the US presidential election of 2004Mexican-Americans make up a growing share of the voting population in key stateshave also prompted another glance south.

President Fox, for his part, dismissed Mexico’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, in November 2003 for suggesting in a speech that the United States treats Mexico like its "backyard." While one can question Aguilar Zinser’s discretion and diplomacy for such a remark, a shrinking number of Mexicansand Latin Americans generallywould probably take issue with his characterization. It is a measure of how sour feelings have become since NAFTA was signed a decade ago.

Relations between the United States and Latin Americalike those between the United States and Mexicohave often suffered from unrealistic expectations. Unless vital national security interests have been perceived to be at stake, as was the case in Central America in the 1980s, Latin America has not been a top priority for Washington, and that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Still, the unmitigated projection of US power in the world, combined with the assumption that Latin America will automatically go along with any policy put forward by Washington, creates an unnecessary rift and strain in the Western Hemisphere.

The United States has instruments and resources at its disposaland there are ample historical precedentsto mollify the virulent anti-Americanism that has returned to Latin America. Higher levels of engagement and greater responsiveness from Washington to the region’s agendato create jobs, stimulate growth, and reduce crimecould once again put the first Bush administration’s vision of a productive partnership in the Americas within reach.

(*)MICHAEL SHIFTER, a Current History contributing editor, is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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