A Snapshot Of Latin America Today


By Susan Kaufman Purcell

James Reston once said, “Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it.” This quote has been cited often. Yet, I reject the idea that the United States does not pay enough attention to Latin America. It may appear that way because many of what have traditionally been considered as domestic policy issues in Latin America—such as trade and immigration—are also foreign policy issues. And so, depending on how you classify several issues, it could look like the United States is not paying enough attention to Latin America.

For example, President George W. Bush was often criticized for not paying enough attention to Latin America. This was despite the fact that he made numerous visits to Latin America. On his watch, he concluded more free-trade agreements with the region than any other U.S. president. He also tried hard to get an immigration reform through Congress—something desired not only by U.S. Hispanics, but also by Latin Americans. In other words, both the trade pacts with Latin America and the immigration reform effort were both domestic policy issues and foreign policy issues.

Trying to evaluate whether the United States pays attention to a country or region by looking exclusively at what the State Department is doing will also lead to an incorrect conclusion. This is partly because the line between what is a foreign policy or a domestic policy issue is often blurred, as just noted. But it is also the result of structural changes in the U.S. government. The Office of the United States Trade Representative and the Commerce Department, for example, both deal with trade. Other issues, such as security, are the responsibility of both the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. In view of the difficulty of separating domestic from foreign policy issues in many cases, and the overlapping jurisdictions of many U.S. government agencies and departments, I think we have to change the ways in which we assess whether or not a particular U.S. administration is paying attention to Latin America.

How to View Latin America’s Governments

Let me paint, in a couple of broad strokes, how I see Latin American developments and President Barack Obama’s policies toward Latin America going forward.

First, how I see the region now. There is a tendency to think of Latin America as split between leftist and rightist governments—or left-of-center and right-of-center governments. I do not think that this is a useful distinction. There is also an assumption that the United States— particularly under President George W. Bush—was hostile toward left-of-center governments and friendly toward right-of-center governments. This characterization of President Bush’s approach to Latin America is wrong. I also do not think that the left-right divide is a good way to understand what is happening in Latin America.

The more useful way is to focus on how democratically-elected governments in Latin America behave. Most Latin American governments, with the notable exception of the Cuban government, are democratically elected. And at the national level, the elections are relatively free and honest. Given that situation, the important difference, especially in terms of U.S. interests, is whether or not democratically-elected presidents, whether of the right, left or center, behave like democrats or like authoritarians who use the democratic rules of the game to destroy democracy.

If you look at the region through this kind of lens, you discover that the presidents who behave democratically include left-of-center presidents such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, as well as right-of-center presidents such as Alvaro Uribe of Colombia and Felipe Calderón of Mexico. They may have some different policy priorities, but they use democratic institutions to implement their policies. The elected authoritarians are Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Others, such as Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, seem to straddle the democratic-authoritarian divide. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa is more ambiguous in his authoritarianism than Morales or Chávez. What the authoritarians have in common, however, is their efforts to centralize both political and economic power in their own hands, to the detriment of their countries’ democratic institutions.

In Chávez’s case, he clearly has been helped by the fact that Venezuela is an oil economy. And I really do mean an oil economy. Petroleum is everything. And Chavez has been very lucky, because his presidency coincides almost perfectly with the global commodities boom, during which oil prices have escalated. This has enabled him to pursue a very activist and anti-American foreign policy. He has very experienced Cubans advising him on what to do. They also serve as his body guards. And although Chavez often acts like a clown, or seems quite irrational, he is not stupid. He knows what he wants to do, and that is to undermine the United States, or, in his words, “the Empire.” He also keeps escalating his anti-American rhetoric and behavior in order to provoke the U.S. government. Former President George W. Bush initially decided to ignore him, assuming that if Chavez got no response from Washington, he would ultimately change his behavior for the better. Instead, Chavez upped the ante. He invited Russia to participate in naval exercises in the Caribbean, for example.

In addition to Chavez’s anti-Americanism, there is Venezuela’s relationship with Iran, which is potentially a serious threat to U.S., and to hemispheric, security. There already are multiple weekly flights from Teheran to Caracas. Iranians on these flights do not need a visa to get into Venezuela, which means that there is no way to keep track of them. Of particular concern is Venezuela’s cooperation with Iran’s nuclear program.

Chavez is also supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the Colombian guerilla group. In addition, he allegedly gave significant financial aid to the aspiring left-of-center populist leader Ollanta Humala in Peru.

Basically, Chavez loathes both the United States and U.S. capitalism and seems intent on damaging his neighbor to the north, if he can. The resources at his disposal to carry out this mission will coincide with the price of oil. When oil prices are low, Chavez will have a harder time. When they are high, he will have more options. It seems unlikely however, that the price of oil will become low enough to significantly undermine both Chavez and his anti-American efforts.

This does not mean that most Venezuelans are happy with Chavez. Inflation is the highest in the region. Corruption has escalated under Chavez and the country now ranks as one of the most corrupt in the world. At the same time, the Venezuela democratic opposition remains fragmented and relatively weak. This is a common problem in Latin America’s more undemocratic regimes. In Argentina, for example, where popular support for President Cristina Kirschner is very low, the opposition also is weak and divided.

In contrast, Latin America’s democratic regimes, whether those headed by left-of-center presidents or right-of-center presidents, are following market principles in managing their economies. Despite occasional criticism of market economies, or of the so-called neo-liberal economic strategies, these presidents have been opening their economies, promoting trade and exports and following fiscally-responsible economic policies. Their behavior helps account for the greater success of their countries’ economies in comparison with the economies presided over by their more authoritarian counterparts.

In some cases, the relative economic success of the democratic presidents is reinforced by social programs implemented by their presidents. This is particularly true of Brazil and Mexico, where President Lula and President Calderon have implemented social development programs targeted at helping the poor. Brazil also has benefited from high commodity prices, as have the other South American democracies, as well as from the discovery of billions of barrels of petroleum in the deep waters off Brazil’s coast. In comparison, Mexico has not done as well. Its once plentiful oil resources have become depleted, due to inadequate investment and constitutional prohibitions against foreign investment in the exploration and production sectors of the petroleum business.

U.S. Policy toward Latin America

Turning now to President Obama’s policy toward Latin America, I think that in his quest to be the “anti-Bush,” he unfortunately has moved away from many of the good policies that President Bush implemented in Latin America. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush also followed these policies, which involved the promotion of free trade, foreign investment and strong support for democracy. President Obama has moved away from those policies for a variety of reasons. On trade, the Obama administration has shown itself to be somewhat protectionist. This is due, in part, to its organized labor-union base. An early example of such protectionism is the “buy-America” provision of the stimulus package, which could affect Mexico and Canada—our North America Free Trade Agreement partners, as well as other Latin American and Caribbean countries. There is also some uncertainty as to whether President Obama will sign the already-negotiated free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and pursue other free trade agreements in the hemisphere.

With regard to democracy, I think that President Obama has decided to adopt a more “realist” foreign policy, or, stated differently, a policy that basically emphasizes interests in contrast with the more ideological kinds of policies like the pro-democracy policies pursued by Presidents Clinton and Bush. In addition, President Obama’s decision to “engage” dictators often gives the impression that the administration is so focused on the dictators that there is little policy space left to do positive things in support of Latin America’s democracies.

In striving to be the “anti-Bush,” President Obama hopes to reduce anti-Americanism in Latin America, which is always lurking just below the surface. We could debate endlessly why this is so, especially in South America, where the United States has not intervened militarily. Such intervention has been limited to Mexico and the Caribbean Basin. I think that part of the explanation for anti-Americanism in Latin America is similar to the reason that it exists all over the world. In part, it is a reaction to U.S. behavior, but also, it stems from feelings of humiliation and failure of underdeveloped countries that resent U.S. successes, both political and economic, in comparison to their own situations.

I also want to say a few words on the Honduras policy of the Obama administration. I believe that it is a mistaken policy. What happened in Honduras was not a traditional military coup. The military acted at the request of Honduras’ democratic institutions. The State Department did not give the matter sufficient thought and responded to the removal of President Zelaya in a knee-jerk manner. And President Obama decided to follow the lead of the Latin American governments which, for a variety of reasons—such as their fear that Venezuela would interfere in the internal affairs of their countries and cause trouble. He condemned the “traditional military coup” in Honduras and pressed for the reinstatement of the deposed president who had provoked the crisis by his unconstitutional efforts to prolong his presidency. By focusing only on the behavior of the Honduran military, without considering all that led up to its decision to remove President Zelaya, the Obama administration missed an opportunity to mobilize democratic Latin America against the threat posed by President Chavez’s behavior in the region.

Electoral trends

After 20 years of rule by a left-of-center coalition known as the Concertacion, Chile elected a right-of-center president, Sebastian Pinera, on January 17, 2010. In contrast to Chile, however, Uruguay elected Jose Mujica, a former Marxist guerrilla, to the presidency on November 29, 2009. Mujica has said that he will model his government after that of Brazil’s president, Inacio “Lula” da Silva, rather than that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. At this writing, it is still unclear whether Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s right-of-center president, will be a candidate in the country’s upcoming presidential election, but if he is, he will probably win a third term. In Brazil, in contrast, President Lula is campaigning hard for his hand-chosen successor, Dilma Rousseff, who is also a former Marxist guerrilla. If she wins the election, she, too, plans to continue Lula’s policies rather than emulate Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Chile’s movement from a left-of-center government to a right-of-center government is, therefore, more the exception to the rule in Latin America, where more democratic leftist presidents have been, or probably will be, succeeded by candidates who represent more continuity than change. Nevertheless, whether rightist or leftist, Latin America’s newly elected presidents in the above countries will govern as democrats rather than as elected authoritarians.


There are both favorable and unfavorable developments in Latin America today, in terms of U.S. interests in the region. Nevertheless the main threat to hemispheric and U.S. security is the growing influence and involvement of Iran in the region. I have not said anything about Cuba in this talk, mainly because I believe it is no longer the main threat. Its place has been taken by Venezuela, whose relationship with Iran is the number-one threat.

Susan Kaufman Purcell is Director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. This essay is an updated version of Dr. Purcell’s remarks at FPRI’s Symposium on the U.S. and Latin America, held on October 28, 2009. This article first appeared at FPRI, http://www.fpri.org, and is reprinted with permission.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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