Events

Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations: Cooperation or Conflict in the 21st Century?

June 28, 2010 // 4:00pm5:30pm

On June 28, 2010, the Latin American Program hosted a discussion of the recently published Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations: Cooperation or Conflict in the 21st Century?, edited by Jorge Domínguez and Rafael Fernández de Castro.

Jorge Domínguez, Antonio Madero Professor of Mexican and Latin American Politics and Economics at Harvard University, highlighted the broad, geopolitical events which changed the dynamics of the relationship between the United States and Latin American countries. The region's shift towards democratization and free elections, the adoption of market-oriented economies, and fall of the Soviet Union were cited by Domínguez as three principal changes since the late 1980s. By the beginning of the 21st century, China began its rise as a significant trade partner in the region, increasing trade with Latin America fourteen-fold between 2000 and 2008. The region's overall greater economic prosperity at the dawn of this century has led to greater national autonomy, a decrease in U.S. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) influence on national domestic policy, and a noticeable distancing of Latin American governments from the United States overall. The breakdown of liberal, democratic constitutionalism in several countries of the region during the 1990s, coupled with widespread rejection of the global policies of the George W. Bush administration, caused further disaffection between the United States and the region. Domínguez also underscored the degree to which the United States acted to change the tone of the relationship, shifting its focus towards the security issues affecting Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, while continuing the security relationship with Colombia.

Addressing U.S.-Mexico relations, Domínguez emphasized how broad changes in the global and hemispheric realm have affected bilateral relations. In the past few years, transnational violence on the U.S.-Mexico border has become a principal issue, and the recent entrance of Chinese imports into U.S. and Mexican markets has created stiff competition for Mexican producers of consumer goods. The chapter on Mexico, co-authored by Domínguez and Rafael Fernández de Castro of Mexico's Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) and a foreign policy advisor to President Felipe Calderón, approachs the evolution of this relationship through a different lens; they argue that greater emphasis should be placed on the role and successes of transnational institutions as effective mediators for transnational problems. The ability of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to mitigate trade disputes was highlighted as one of those successes, both for trade and political purposes. "Where institutions either do not exist or were once created and then weakened…the relationship is much more difficult to handle and much more contentious," Domínguez said. Surprisingly, however, the domestic political context does not significantly affect or set this bilateral relationship to the extent previously imagined. Rather, the impact of geopolitical shocks and trends, the presence or absence of effective institutions, and a transnational agenda set by both the United States and Mexico all proved greater inputs into molding the bilateral relationship between these two neighbors.

Co-author of the chapter on U.S.-Venezuelan relations, Javier Corrales of Amherst College, characterized Venezuela's foreign policy as a balance of hard and soft power. During President Hugo Chávez's second full term (2006-present), the United States has generally ignored the tough rhetoric coming from the Miraflores Palace. However, Corrales argued that Venezuela's connection to non-democratic states, its role as a platform for the international drug trade, and its support for terrorist and armed groups presents a much more complicated picture for the United States. Furthermore, Venezuela's domestic and foreign aid policies have won temporary alliances with smaller nations and created a widespread illusion that President Chavez's foreign policy is aimed at poverty alleviation. Corrales argued that this foreign assistance, a use of "soft power," has lacked transparency and acts to erode checks and balances in recipient nations, as the receiving country's president enjoys complete discretionary spending power. In some cases, Venezuela's aid policies have created a backlash within recipient nations, whose citizens view Chávez as meddling in their domestic politics. Corrales predicted that Venezuela's focus on providing more non-transparent aid, funding illicit activities, maintaining alliances with non-democratic nations, and adopting more coercive policies at home will cause conservative U.S. policymakers to exert pressure on President Obama to implement a tougher approach toward Venezuela.

Addressing U.S. relations with Peru, George Washington University political science professor Cynthia McClintock explained that, while there have been policy successes for the United States and Peru in trade and investment, democratic governance, and counter-narcotics, the relative influence of the United States in this Andean nation has been declining. Cooperation between these two nations reached a high point in April 2006, when Peru approved a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. Peru's exemplary trial of former president Alberto Fujimori was praised by the Obama administration; the 2001 capture of his longtime intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, had been accomplished with the assistance of U.S. officials. Notwithstanding these advances in cooperation, U.S. influence in Peru is increasingly rivaled by China. Peru and China signed an FTA in record time, Chinese exports to Peru have nearly quadrupled since 2000, and China is reportedly poised to invest some $4.5 billion in Peru, an amount that would catapult China into a position as the top foreign direct investor in Peru. These factors, coupled with higher levels of Peruvian public support for China than for the United States and lengthy state visits by Peruvian presidents to China, indicate that the robust U.S.-Peru relationship could be eclipsed. Speculating about the future of U.S.-Peruvian relations, McClintock viewed the possibility of greater cooperation as "still on the table," yet the United States should proactively seek new opportunities and joint initiatives.

Latin American Program director Cynthia Arnson, co-author of the chapter on the United States and Colombia, traced the complex evolution of the bilateral relationship over the past two decades. Colombia became important to the United States in the 1990s when coca cultivation doubled between 1995 and 1999; by 2000, Colombia alone was producing 80-90 percent of the world's supply of cocaine. But narcotics tell only part of the story. The chronic weakness of the Colombian state, manifest in its absence from vast parts of the countryside and in surging guerrilla activity, raised the specter of state collapse. The intersection of narcotics trafficking and guerrilla insurgency served as the backdrop for the unveiling in 1999 of Plan Colombia; over the next decade, U.S. aid soared to over $6 billion. While U.S. aid was initially justified in counter-narcotics terms, the collapse of the peace process in February 2002 led the U.S. Congress to shift the explicit aims of assistance to include the counter-guerilla war. The sheer magnitude of the aid provided by the United States provided a certain degree of leverage, but did not preclude areas of Colombian independence and agency. For example, while the George W. Bush administration sought to further the isolation of Cuba, the Colombian government was enlisting Cuban officials to mediate peace talks between the Uribe government and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The Uribe and Bush administration's emphasis on counter-terrorism as the strategic driver of foreign policy served to isolate Colombia from the rest of Latin America. At the same time, the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve a U.S.-Colombia FTA reflected negative perceptions in the United States regarding human rights and labor rights violations in Colombia as well as domestic scandals involving the Uribe administration. Uribe's broad popular support was rooted in dramatic improvements in the security situation over his two terms, a product of the demobilization of paramilitary forces and major successes against the insurgents. This paved the way for the June 2010 election of Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe's defense minister, as president. Arnson predicted that Santos will de-emphasize the relationship with the United States and seek to increase cooperation with Latin American and other global partners.

  
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