Viewpoints: US-Latin America relations

Left-leaning leaders are in government in six Latin American countries - and more could follow after elections this year. But has this new political map affected relations with Washington

Ambassador Otto J. Reich

March 30, 2006 asked two US experts for their views: the US academic Noam Chomsky and Otto Reich, former assistant secretary of state for the Western hemisphere and adviser to President George Bush.

Do left-wing leaders, such Bolivia's Evo Morales, represent a challenge for the US?


It is an extremely serious challenge. From Venezuela to Argentina the region is falling out of US control, moving toward independent policies and economic integration, beginning to reverse patterns of dependence on foreign powers and isolation from one another that go back to the Spanish conquests.

Morales' election reflects the entry of the indigenous population into the political arena throughout the continent. Along with other popular forces, indigenous people are demanding control over their own resources, a serious threat to Washington's plans to rely on resources from the Western hemisphere, particularly energy.


It depends on the policies that each Latin American leader is implementing. Three years ago, when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected in Brazil, many analysts warned that it would be difficult for the US to work with him because of his leftist background.

However, Washington has a very constructive relationship with President Lula. The difference between Lula and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, is that Lula is more focused on solving the problems of his own people, whereas Chavez is intervening in other country's affairs.

Is the US an almighty empire that dictates the region's political and financial fate, as many Latin Americans believe?


The US was never 'all powerful' and is now less so. Nevertheless, it still dominates the continent, and in fact the world, certainly in military power. However, with the evolution of a tripolar economic order in recent decades (North America, Europe, North-East Asia with growing links to the rest of Asia), and the changes in the South, US economic dominance is nowhere near what it once was, and is in fact rather fragile.

A serious look at this question would, however, require a closer analysis of what we mean by 'United States'. If we mean its population, then dominance is much less. If we mean the effective owners of the country, the corporate system, the picture is different. Thus the famous 'trade deficit' of the US shrinks if we consider imports from US multinationals and their subsidiaries abroad to be US exports.


The US is the most important buyer of Latin American products - it purchases 50% of the region's exports. In general terms, the US is also Latin America's main source of technology and investments, and in some cases of education and scientific development. This doesn't mean the US influences government decisions. Washington has always consulted its partners in Latin America, without dictating anything.

The world has changed. The US has its own national problems - some of them serious - as well as global challenges such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. So what the US wants is a peaceful and prosperous Latin America. This has been the aim of US foreign policy in the last 25 years.

Will Latin America be less of a priority in the future because of Washington's focus on the Middle East?


I suspect that Latin America will be a very high priority. As long as Latin America is quiet and obedient, the US has appeared to ignore it. I say appeared, because in reality its subordination was just taken for granted and policies were designed accordingly. That stance of apparent neglect has always changed rapidly whenever there have been signs of independence.

Defiance is intolerable in itself, but even more so when, as in the case of Cuba, it is feared that successful independent development might be a 'contagious example' that would 'infect' others, to borrow Kissinger's terms referring to Allende's Chile. And as noted, Washington planners have assumed that they will be able to rely on Latin America's rich resources, primarily energy. Control over them is not likely to be relinquished with equanimity, to put it mildly.


There is an impression - more in Latin America than in the US - that Washington does not pay attention to the region anymore. Of course the US government is now focusing on the crisis it is currently facing, on the threats to international security. This doesn't mean that President Bush has forgotten Latin America - he is very interested in the region.

I believe, however, that Latin America should be more helpful. It should stop complaining that the US doesn't do this or that. Latin Americans should focus on their own difficulties. They can't continue ignoring threats to democracy such as Cuba and Venezuela. They should not expect the US to solve all their problems, as some regional leaders would like to see happen.

Is trade the most important tool the US has in its dealings with Latin America?


The mechanisms developed and imposed by the US and its allies are not 'free trade agreements'. They are a mixture of liberalisation and protectionism designed - not surprisingly - in the interests of their designers: multinational corporations and the states that serve as their 'tools and tyrants'. The agreements guarantee expansive monopoly pricing rights. They also deprive developing countries of the mechanisms employed by all the rich industrial societies to reach their present state.

What is called 'trade' is in part an economic fiction, including vast intrafirm transfers within highly-planned economies. In the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, the only accurate words are 'North American'. The efficacy of such mechanisms, however, depends ultimately on public acceptance. And, as recent developments in Latin America clearly reveal, that is far from assured.


The US has realised that the best way for countries to achieve political stability and economic development is through free trade agreements and by giving more freedom, internally, to companies and promoting employment. That's why the US has been supporting trade deals across Latin America. It has already signed accords with most of the countries of the region, and only a few are opposing them now - chiefly Venezuela and Argentina.

At the latest Summit of the Americas, Mexico's President Vicente Fox said that 29 out of 34 countries favoured the creation of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and that they shouldn't allow a minority to ruin the project. President Chavez subsequently insulted President Fox, sparking a bilateral crisis. Aggressions don't come from countries that favour free trade - they come from nations such as Venezuela, whose government is failing.

Story from BBC NEWS:


P: +1. 202.333.1360

E: [email protected]

A: 1101 30th Street NW Suite 500 Washington, DC 20007