Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (Lars Schoultz); The United States and Latin America:

September 25, 2007

A decade ago, transitions from dictatorship to elected civilian government, and from civil war to negotiated peace, changed the political landscape of Central and South America. The end of the Cold War changed the calculus of U.S. foreign policy and spurred hopes throughout Latin America for a loosening of the leash that has bound the behavior of Latin American governments so closely to the whim of successive U.S. administrations. The Clinton Administration's early talk of a new strategy of "Engagement and Enlargement" that would promote democracy and human rights encouraged such hopes, even as it posited a natural affinity between democracy and free markets.

But in Beneath the United States, Lars Schoultz shows that old habits are hard to break. Schoultz provides a vivid and detailed account of how U.S. policy for more than 200 years has been determined by the need to protect U.S. security, the demands of domestic politics, and the drive to promote U.S. economic development. Beneath the United States convincingly demonstrates that although time and circumstance affect the exact mix of reasons explaining U.S. policy, these three interests remain ever present.

During the Cold War, security concerns dominated all other policy considerations and provided ideological justification for the hegemonic character of U.S. relations with the rest of the hemisphere. Today, security interests remain a central focus of U.S. policy toward Latin America, particularly in the Andes and Mexico, where the "war on drugs" is bringing renewed support from Washington for the involvement of Latin American militaries in internal security functions, a role that civilian governments have been trying to eliminate since the transition to democracy.

The increasing use of labels like "narcoterrorist" and "narcoguerrilla" combine domestic stereotypes of evil drug dealers with Cold War imagery in ways that encourage a conflation of counternarcotics policies with counterinsurgency strategy and doctrine. This melding tends to be complete in countries like Colombia and Mexico, where unreconstructed militaries confront armed insurgent groups. The deepening U.S. military involvement in Colombia suggests that Washington policymakers have fallen victim to the same confusion.

But U.S. international drug policy is fundamentally driven by domestic politics, as Elizabeth Joyce describes in a superbly nuanced analysis of the inconsistencies and apparent irrationality of the annual "certification" process by which Washington unilaterally grades countries on their cooperation with the drug war and sanctions those who fail the test. Her essay is one of the better ones in The United States and Latin America: The New Agenda. In the same collection, John Coatsworth, Roberto Steiner and Eduardo Gamarra provide detailed analyses of the ways in which U.S. counternarcotics policies generate resentment and undermine nascent democratic institutions in Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia.

While the drug war and preventing illegal immigration have the greatest salience in U.S. domestic politics and have received the lion's share of economic resources, the principal strategic objective of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the Clinton Administration has been the establishment of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that would bind the economies of the hemisphere ever more tightly, with the United States as the biggest beneficiary. Intense domestic political conflicts over trade policy in the United States, in particular the strong opposition of key constituencies within the Democratic Party, have frustrated this objective by preventing Clinton from obtaining the "fast track" authority he needs to negotiate an agreement. Indeed, Clinton has been unable even to extend the NAFTA framework to Chile, which he promised to do at the 1996 Summit of the Americas.

Many Latin American governments hoped that the post-Cold War period would usher in a new era of trade and economic growth that would help the region recover from "the lost decade" of the 1980s. But while there has been positive economic growth in most countries, absolute poverty and inequality have increased, and none has been able to sustain high growth rates throughout the nineties. As a result, more and more "average" Latin Americans are questioning the mantra that free trade and democratic government will bring progress. Meanwhile, European countries have eagerly taken advantage of Washington's political stalemate to expand trade with Latin America, though there is little reason to think that U.S. hegemony in the region will diminish greatly as a result. In The United States and Latin America, Laurence Whitehead, Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Sheila Page provide a sobering assessment, questioning whether Europe has the capacity or the will to displace the United States as the principal trading partner in any new free trade regime in the Western Hemisphere.

Perhaps the most notable change in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America since the end of the Cold War has been the explicit promotion of human rights and democracy as objectives of that policy. This is more than just rhetoric. The United States invested substantial effort and diplomatic resources to defend democratic institutions against attempted coups in Guatemala and Paraguay, and even used force to remove a military junta in Haiti. Washington has also provided significant financial aid and technical assistance to help establish effective civilian police forces and judiciaries in a number of countries.

But as Thomas Carothers documents in Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve, U.S. democracy aid over the past two decades has been rooted in an idealized model of U.S. democracy that focused on three "central" categories: elections, state institutions and civil society.

Not only does the model present a distorted picture of the real functioning of democratic institutions in the United States (as anyone who has taken a college introduction to government course knows), but, as both Carothers and Schoultz document, it ignores the very different legal and cultural underpinnings of political institutions in Latin America. Strong executive power, autonomous military institutions and subservient judiciaries not only have a long history in Latin America, but trace their legal roots to the Spanish Constitution of the seventeenth century.

Beyond this idealization of "democracy," U.S. democracy aid has been based on a specific model of how democratization takes place. It starts when a non-democratic regime faced with waning legitimacy and rising pressure for liberalization decides it must permit a political opening. The opening occurs, and opposition groups multiply and demand multi-party elections. The elections are held and an elected government takes power. Gradual consolidation follows, with the rationalization and democratization of state institutions, along with the strengthening and diversification of civil society.

This is an extremely idealized model of democratization, and probably more an exception than the norm. It certainly does not accurately describe what happened in Guatemala from 1985 to now, nor is it particularly relevant to the evolution of the Peruvian political system since the transition from military rule at the beginning of the 1980s. Even in Chile, the military-imposed Constitution remains a significant obstacle to full democratization despite the fact that other elements of the model happened as forecast. As Carothers notes, "electoral aid is of little use if a supposedly democratizing regime is holding elections merely to legitimate its power and has taken steps to ensure it cannot lose." One need only look at Peru last May to understand his point.

All three of the books reviewed here underscore the continuing failure of U.S. policy toward Latin America to successfully mold events to the dictates of policy. Given the overwhelming asymmetry of power and resources between the United States and the region, what explains this failure? For all too many in positions of power, the answer lies in the "deficiencies" of Latin American political culture. Schoultz documents, in painful detail, the pervasive belief among U.S. policymakers over more than a century that Latin Americans "constitute an inferior branch of the human species." Many critics, on the other hand, will conclude that rhetoric about promoting democracy and more cooperative relations with other nations in the hemisphere is only a gloss over the continuing hegemonic desire to promote U.S. national interests at the expense of all others.

While there is an element of "grand truth" in this criticism, it does not acknowledge the possibility that U.S. interests might evolve in ways compatible with democracy and cooperation—either by necessity or by choice. The authors of these studies disagree about the likelihood of such an evolution, but they all agree that a fundamental flaw in U.S. policy is its failure to recognize the diversity of Latin America.

If the United States is to develop more realistic and effective policies in Latin America, they argue, it must abandon the belief that there is one model of progress and one strategy for promoting progress. Instead, the United States must begin from a better understanding of the concrete historical reality of each country in the hemisphere. It is encouraging to know there are still some optimists.

George Vickers is the Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in Washington, D.C.


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