Issues We Should Debate: Latin America

In politics, as in life, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. So our discussion of foreign affairs tends to focus on the trouble spots: the on-going war in Iraq, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the paranoid regime in Myanmar, the genocide in Darfur. But, our political leaders should not look simply at the need to solve difficulties but at the potential for enhancing relationships with countries that are not a mess, and they should start by looking south. Latin America has come a long way in the past 25 years. In the 1980s, the continent was divided between authoritarian military regimes that were oppressive and vicious and left-leaning, sometimes communist insurgencies or regimes that sought to curry favor with Moscow in their bid to revolutionize their societies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, virtually all of Latin America, save Cuba and Guyana, abandoned doctrinaire communism and the military juntas in Brazil, Argentina, and eventually Chile, collapsed or ceded power to democratic regimes. In the past few years, leftist, populist leaders have risen to power in some countries but, except in Venezuela, the regimes have not been repressive. Economic relations between the United States and our southern neighbors have received only intermittent attention from the political class. Back in 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed the Alliance for Progress, a ten-year plan to promote economic cooperation and growth. In the 1990s, NAFTA and similar free trade accords dominated the discussion and criticism of those accords has become a staple of Democratic Party politics in recent years. It is true that neither Kennedy’s initiative nor the free trade pacts delivered what they promised. Much of Latin America remains mired in acute poverty and civil strife still afflicts some nations. But, there are also signs of hope. Brazil’s economy has been growing robustly, driven not by free trade reforms but by state-led investment and improved government management of macroeconomic conditions. The nation has become a net creditor and last month the nation’s debt was upgraded by credit agencies to investment grade status. The civil war in Colombia is not over, but the government’s 2005 peace and justice law, permitting former rebels and rightwing paramilitaries to get reduced jail terms if they provide evidence of their complicity in crimes, has helped reduce the violence. In Mexico, the anti-Catholic PRI which ruled the country through most of the 20th century has lost consecutive presidential elections: the country’s politics remain fractious but one-party rule is a thing of the past. There is room for improvement and a new U.S. administration would be well advised to look to improved relations with Latin America. It would seem to be especially obvious for the Democrats to embrace a pro-active policy towards our southern neighbors. Raising living standards in Latin America will help level economic competition and, what is more, the influx of Latino immigrants should be seen as a resource towards expanded economic relations with the countries of their origin. The next president will have to revisit education reform as No Child Left Behind expires. Both parties should suggest that mandating a foreign language requirement for high schoolers would make America’s workforce more competitive. (We desperately need Arabic speakers as well, but that has more to do with security issues.) If America’s workforce were functionally bi-lingual, social, economic and cultural relations with Latin America would benefit hugely. Myopia is not a sound basis for conducting foreign policy, and only trouble seems to shake us from our mental isolationism. "War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography," wrote 19th century satirist Ambrose Bierce. But, McCain could soften his bellicose image and Obama could demonstrate how he intends to lead a hope-filled transformation of our politics if either would bring forth a progressive Latin America policy. Michael Sean Winters
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9 years 4 months ago
You say ''leftist, populist leaders have risen to power in some countries but, except in Venezuela, the regimes have not been repressive''. Well, if spreading the wealth of a nation (so people can have education, health and food on the table)in a humanitarian way (instead of serving crumbs that fall off the table like Uribe's Colombia or Venezuela before Chavez) is ''repression'', then let it be! 70% of the people approve Hugo Chavez's work right now. One of the highest approval ratings in the Hemisphere.

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