The United States and Latin America

The New Agenda

by | Aug 3, 1999

The United States and Latin America: The New Agenda, edited by Victor Bulmer-Thomas and James Dunkerley, (Published by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard, and the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, distributed by Harvard University Press, 1999).

It would be lovely indeed to think that policy-makers in Washington were committed to the notion of a New Agenda” in hemispheric relations. The concept of a New Agenda, as outlined in this timely volume, remains somewhat amorphous, but at its core it is this: a reconfiguration of what has long been a skewed regional relationship, replete with (from the U.S. side) open condescension, unbridled profiteering, rampant ethnocentrism, and, on many occasions, ill-advised military interventions, not infrequently causing great loss of life.

In their Conclusions” section, Victor Bulmer-Thomas and James Dunkerly, the book’s editors, cite the Spanish-American War of 1898 as “the decisive establishment of the asymmetry in continental power.” (p.311) Previous U.S. regimes, they note, generally refrained from implementing the sabre-rattling rhetoric of the Monroe Doctrine or Manifest Destiny. (The Mexican-American War was the glaring, big-stick exception.) This enduring imbalance in U.S.-Latin American dealings has surely distorted the collective politic and inflicted lasting damage on both sides. Yet it is far from clear that the U.S. political establishment is ready to embrace a more equitable arrangement.

This new collection, published jointly by the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, consists of 15 chapters examining U.S.-Latin American relations in a historical context. Contributors explore many of today’s headline-grabbing issues, including free trade, drug trafficking, migration, and, of course, Cuba. Versions of the papers were presented at a conference at the David Rockefeller Center a year ago (October 1998). The authors are leading academics- from the United States, Europe and Latin America-whose mastery of their fields is evident. Their styles, voices and orientations differ considerably, one of the strengths of this approach. But it seems fair to surmise that all adhere to the view that it is high time to place hemispheric relations on a more even footing. Whether one agrees or disagrees with individual contributors, the positions taken are inevitably thought-provoking.

The end of the millennium, it is argued here, may be a propitious historical juncture in which to begin to set things right in the Americas. A driving force behind this belief, of course, is the demise of the Cold War, which served to cement and harden U.S. hegemony in the name of fighting communism. The Cold War, and its aftermath, looms large in these pages.

Jorge I. Domí­nguez endeavors to apply a kind of logical/illogical scorecard to assorted interventions during the Cold War epoch. His conclusion: U.S. heavy-handedness in Chile, Central America and the Dominican Republic fail the logic test and were ultimately counter-productive: a triumph of ideology over reality. Most U.S. policies towards Cuba, however, are judged “not disproportionate,” though Domí­guez labels “illogical and immoral” Washington-sponsored “terrorism” against Cuba during the 1960s. Whether these questionable U.S. actions throughout Latin America made political points on the homefront -the true target audience- is a different matter altogether.

It has been ten years since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The free market, at least as defined in U.S. global-political terms, now bestrides the world triumphantly, the dollar even traded openly in Castro’s Cuba. The twin mantras of “globalization” and “free trade”‘ are chanted breathlessly from the Sonoran desert to Patagonia. Meantime, military governments, long the suppressors of regional democracy movements (and long key U.S. allies in the region), now seem an unpleasant vision out of some distant past. But civilian governments can also be authoritarian and anti-democratic. A case in point: Alberto Fujimori of Peru, whose flouting of democratic principles has not raised hackles in Washington.

The march towards more democratic governments is generally viewed, and rightfully so, as a potential unifying force in the Americas. Democracy is even breaking out in Mexico, threatening the reign of the world’s longest-ruling political party. The chapter by John H. Coatsworth, including a trenchant review of Mexican history going back more than a century, takes note of the limitations of what, in U.S. discourse, often passes as an all-inclusive definition of democracy — namely, periodic elections judged to be relatively fair. This circumscribed view, Coatsworth writes, ignores the equally vital concept of social democracy,” something that is often not on the radar screens of U.S. diplomats. This refers to the availability of jobs, housing, health services, education and other necessities. Lamentably, closer U.S.-Mexico ties will likely not alleviate simmering social stresses in a nation that, since colonial times, has failed miserably to invest adequately in is population.

In the Americas today, it is not only world political and economic trends that can be viewed, broadly, as a unifying force. As Marcelo Suárez-Orozco notes in his insightful look at contemporary immigration, the large-scale arrival of new settlers from abroad is swiftly reshaping the demographic face of this nation. Its population, and its national culture, are becoming more Latin American. Latinos will soon eclipse African-Americans as the country’s largest minority.” Salsa has supposedly already surpassed ketchup as the number 1 condiment. But immigration has also been a divisive phenomenon, especially in California, where new arrivals, mostly from Latin America and Asia, have radically altered the population makeup. The emerging Latino plurality has helped ignite a fierce backlash and nasty statewide campaigns targeting immigrants, affirmative action and bilingual eduation.

Perhaps the most troublesome issue raised in this book is the wide swath of destruction radiating from the U.S. “War on Drugs.'” This crusade, which in some respect has replaced the battle against communism, has apparently done little to curb the voracious U.S. appetite for forbidden pharmaceuticals. But the collateral damage in front-line sites -and, arguably, to the cause of democracy-has been dramatic. In his provocative report, “Hooked on Drugs: Colombian-U.S. Relations,” Roberto Steiner traces the evolution of the narco-fixation, from the 1970s onward, and the disastrous consequences for Colombia. Poisoned by drugs, bilateral relations devolve from friendly cooperation to outright hostility, even as the drug-related slaughter continues on the streets and townships of Colombia. And, most ominously, Steiner cites a growing, U.S.-backed militarization that, in the author’s view, threatens a noble tradition of democracy. A similar, albeit less dramatic scenario may be unfolding in Mexico. In Bolivia, writes Eduardo A. Gamarra, a “Vietnam-like mentality'” drives a drug-war strategy that also tends to undermine democratic institutions.

For more than a century, the U.S. reflex on many issues in Latin America has been to act unilaterally. To this day, there is little evidence of a U.S. commitment to a multi-lateral approach to regional issues, including drug trafficking and illegal immigration. This does not bode well for advocates of a New Agenda. Compounding matters is the fact that Latin America, with the possible exception of Mexico, is not now a priority for Washington. Nor is a united European Union poised to step into the region and provide a counterweight to U.S. domination, as many Latin Americans would like.

Despite such limiting factors, the editors of this collection do see hope. Indeed, they point to some small advances. The United States did work collaboratively to resolve a nasty border dispute between Bolivia and Peru. Recently, the Organization of American States, long a vehicle for U.S. interests, has put on a more independent face in its election-monitoring activities. In addition, there seems to be an increasing U.S. commitment to multi-national summitry-though such gatherings are often more show than substance. After all the analysis, there remains a fundamental question: Is Washington interested in a true New Agenda that restores some balance to U.S.-Latin American relations? It remains to be seen.

Fall 1999


Patrick J. McDonnell is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard during the 1999-2000 academic year. He is a reporter at the Los Angeles Times who covers immigration issues and has written frequently about Latin America.

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