By Larry Birns and Eloy Fisher
Within days, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) will be leaving the Senate for the last time after decades of distinguished service on the Hill. His departure will leave a vacancy of immense proportions that will be difficult to fill. This was because he was the most bona fide Latin American expert to have frequented Congress this century. Senators Edward Kennedy and Claiborne Pell were also worthy contestants for this title, while Senators Patrick Leahy and Richard Lugar also remain genuinely credible as Latin Americanists. A few weeks ago, Senator Dodd delivered a compelling lecture regarding the future of the region to a college audience in his home state of Connecticut.
In his talk, which also was featured in The Huffington Post, Dodd focused on the brilliant Latin American future, listing its positive growth rate, its democratic advancement in recent months, and its solid economic development. Especially exhilarating were his optimistic comments on the region’s remarkable resiliency in the face of foreboding challenges brought on by the global economic downturn, the specters of political instability, and the multitude of natural disasters, like Haiti’s earthquake last January, its current cholera epidemic, and the hydra-headed presence of drugs and crime.
Despite a sincere attempt at even-handedness, Dodd was, however, on that occasion unable to address out the contradictions afflicting the core of the Democratic Party’s insufficiency when it comes to Latin America. This is a viewpoint which inspires the Washington theorem that what is good for the U.S should also be welcomed by the rest of the region.
In his speech, in which Dodd praised current U.S.-Latin American policy, there is, in reality, very little evidence to support such laudatory remarks. Dodd takes an in-depth reading of the region’s vital signs in his rapid tour of the hemisphere. Moreover, even Dodd’s assertion that Latin America is demonstrating particular vitality is debatable.
Regrettably, Dodd offers the same orthodox view on Cuba and Venezuela that so consistently can be obtained from such biased sources as the Washington Post. Unfortunately, Dodd’s lite analysis does a disservice to the often complex reality in these countries.
In the beginning of his lecture, Dodd was overly optimistic about Latin American prospects, emphasizing global trade, the growth in influence of the U.S.’ already burgeoning Latino population and international forums around the world which are filled with Latino delegates and representatives. The Senator’s failure to address major issues of lasting concern for the Latino population, such as drug-related issues and the enormous menace posed by out of control political corruption, was deeply disappointing.
Dodd also fails to properly address the role of Brazil in the region. For example, while Brazil’s regional leverage is deservedly welcomed in democratic circles, within the newly minted Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Brasilia’s leadership in that body is not as glossy as Dodd somewhat naively assumes. Up to now Brazil has demonstrated has played a guiding role in UNASUR that distinguishes itself from the role played by the United States in the Organization of American States (OAS). Dodd fails to address the fact that UNASUR is poised to render the OAS increasingly irrelevant.
Although there are still many elements that will need to fall into place for it to be realized. the Latin American dream of full and complete economic integration will most likely best be handled by UNASUR, not the OAS.
In spite of Dodd’s optimism, not all recent developments in Latin America have been positive. The region still boasts the least equitable distribution of wealth in the world; poverty and poor education resources still impede progress; corruption is stygian and unyielding; and crime and the lack of adequate jobs is tectonic. While theoretically Latin Americans may claim to value democracy, a United Nations Development Program-sponsored poll several years ago showed that local populations were ready to accept military rule instead, if it provided an acceptable standard of living and provided law and order. This demonstrates how Latin America’s continued devastating social problems represent a direct threat to democracy in the region. What the region was discovering was that democracy’s curative strengths were continuing to be diluted by Latin America’s gross income inequality. Therefore, the countervailing forces needed by society to bring about the sought after political stabilization were not able to effectively reign in these movements own their own due to a lack of political clout.
Newly institutionalized social movements now being witnessed throughout the hemisphere underline the great gulf between rich and poor and have led to stunning victories for the antipathetic cause of Washington’s new regional pariah nations, led by Venezuela and its ALBA-led group of left-leaning states. Even though Senator Dodd scarcely addressed the subject in his speech, ALBA has been intent on glorifying the Cuban revolution as well as Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. This revival of an old Latin American trend is at times described by its critics as undemocratic, but is a direct product of the social problems that have continued to plague the region.
Yet, for all of Chávez’ centralized power, the equally ill-reputed Venezuelan opposition has been able to, at times, split parliament with a surprising show strength. If this division sharpens, the political rift between a feral opposition and a rabid chavista could prove a lethal threat to Venezuela’s basic institutions. Furthermore, when it comes to democratic discourse, Latin America would do well to learn to live with day-to-day ideological frictions and strive for toleration and reconciliation by moving to temper its weapons and repair its confrontational political system.
Had Senator Dodd chosen to wield his rhetorical sword against such worthy fouled targets as Honduras, Haiti, Colombia, and Mexico, he could have delivered a far more effective message. Instead, he cowardly refused to take political risks by regurgitating the party line. In Honduras, even after supposedly fair elections were held to wipe the slate clean from that country’s patently illegal military coup that installed Micheletti’s de facto government, ongoing harassment against crusading investigative journalists, including a number of recent murders, has continued unabated. In Venezuela, violence still presents a threat to that country’s political institutions, with both the government and political opposition contributing to the widening crisis. Meanwhile, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has consistently attempted to circumvent constitutional term limits in order to ensure the viability of his questionable re-election bid. Mexico and Colombia still witness unspeakable acts of daily brutality due to the internecine battling between heavily armed drug cartels and public security forces.
In his speech, Senator Dodd blithely attacked the Cuban regime, in a way that did little to advance the debate the island’s political and economic future Disappointingly he failed to address the transformative changes now affecting the island and nor emphasized the necessity of creating new attitudes and more creative policy in U.S. policy toward La Havana. Indeed, it seems that the reforms now being pursued by Raúl Castro on the island are specifically meant to pave the way to revolutionize Cuba’s daily political and economic daily realities. The U.S. needs to reciprocate by moving towards greater engagement with Cuba, which will ultimately bring on for true reforms. Ideological sabre-rattling by both sides will never produce a serious solution to the U.S.-Cuba stand-off. Although the current Cuban leadership has demonstrated a surprising predilection for pragmatism when it comes to the new round of harsh economic challenges Cuba faces.
After decades of stagnation, civil strife, and deplorable violence, the rest of the hemisphere is now the right path. Without a doubt, Latin America has not seen an end to all of its social, political and economic challenges. While regional demagogues’ ideologies and fads will come and go, Latin America’s natural resiliency is its enduring and most important quality.
Dodd deserves to be praised for being among the first to recognize and fête this fact. With Dodd in command, U.S. Latin Americanists do have some reason to be optimistic for the region’s future. Moreover, while electoral democracy it is, at the very least, an important starting point. Once regional demagogues are viewed as fallible by their local constituencies, the creation of democratic space and meaningful participation become possible. It is through these transformations, that the struggle for social justice and economic progress can be fought and won if the commitment to achieve such victories is firm. Senator Dodd saw the U.S-Latin America relationship as being a dynamic one, subject to change. Dodd’s contribution to the evolution of the inter-American relationship was important not only for the U.S., but the hemisphere as a whole, and, because of this, he will be sorely missed.
Eloy Fisher is a COHA Research Fellow and a PhD student at The New School for Social Research in New York City. Prior to his involvement with the New School, he was a diplomatic attaché to the United Nations and a contributing journalist to El Panamá América newspaper.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Fellow Eloy Fisher