Comparing Post–Cold War Strategies

March 6, 2008

U.S. Relations with Latin America During the Clinton Years,
by David Scott Palmer, University Press of Florida, 2006, 144 pp., $24.95 paperback

The Bush Doctrine in Latin America, edited by Gary Prevost and Carlos Oliva Campos, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 272 pp., $22.95 paperback

In a 1998 commencement speech at Texas A&M University, Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga, an alumnus of the school and then the vice president of Bolivia under the former dictator General Hugo Banzer, told the graduates, “I can tell you that [George H.W. Bush] was the best U.S. president Bolivia has ever had.” Looking forward to another Bush presidency, he added: “As Bolivian vice president, I cannot make predictions on the U.S. 2000 presidential race. As an Aggie I am truly concerned. I don’t think we can accommodate two George Bush Presidential Libraries on campus, but I sure think we can try.”

Tuto’s enthusiasm for Bush was no accident. In 1991, Bolivia became one of the first countries to accept the conditional aid and debt relief of George H.W. Bush’s Enterprise of the Americas Initiative (EAI), a set of policies designed to encourage trade, private investment and structural adjustment in Latin America. The EAI’s conditionality, which included massive privatizations, consolidated the neoliberal reforms in Bolivia that were first promoted in the early1980s by Northern economists like Jeffrey Sachs and implemented in 1985 by the government’s planning minister, Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada. The history is now
familiar—the privatizations that led to the Water War in Cochabamba were negotiated and announced almost exactly one year after Tuto’s speech in Texas—and the consequences of these policies are now clear. The “best U.S. President Bolivia ever had” was instrumental in promoting and consolidating the policies that led to the massive mobilizations that have changed the course of Bolivian, and perhaps Latin American, history.

The Bolivian case is emblematic of the early post–Cold War U.S. policy toward Latin America, but Bolivia was far from the only nation to experiment with Washington Consensus neoliberalism in the 1990s, or the only target of Bush’s EAI. As a precursor to the FTAA, the EAI had as its ultimate objective, in Bush’s words, the promotion of a free-trade zone “stretching from the port of Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego.” Bill Clinton inherited this free-trade mission, and as David Scott Palmer notes in his short book on Clinton’s policies toward the region, he “had no basic partisan or policy disagreements with his predecessor.”

Clinton, Palmer argues, took office during a “felicitous convergence of forces” in the region, with “Latin American governments . . . on the same page as their U.S. counterparts” when it came to the pillars of U.S. policy toward the region: strengthening democracy and instituting market reforms. Using a “bureaucratic politics” approach, which attempts to identify the constraints that the government bureaucracy places on policy making, Palmer sets out to determine why Clinton was unable to take full advantage of this convergence and bring the elder Bush’s plans to fruition. For Palmer, there are a few ”successes,” most notably the ratification of NAFTA, which was mostly negotiated during the first Bush administration, and the initiation of the Summit of the Americas, which was to finally establish the FTAA. The Clinton administration also responded effectively, Palmer argues, to events that occurred in the region during his tenure, particularly the Mexican peso crisis of 1994 and the Ecuador-Peru border dispute in 1995.

But Palmer concentrates on what he sees as failures, including the administration’s foot-dragging during the restoration of democracy to Haiti and its attendant refugee crisis; the passage of the Helms-Burton Act, further escalating tensions with Cuba; and the War on Drugs’ detriment to democracy in the region. Most important in Palmer’s assessment, however, was the administration’s inability to make tangible progress on the four policy objectives of the Summit of the Americas process: promoting democracy, liberalizing economies, reducing poverty, and protecting the environment. Palmer points out that during the Clinton years, the overall quality of democracy in the region declined, while the number of people living in poverty in Latin America increased (despite a decline in the proportion of people living below the poverty line), as did the unemployment rate, the overall level of inequality, and the rate of deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions.

These outcomes are attributable, Palmer says, to a failure of U.S. assistance in improving Latin Americans’ well-being, even as U.S. economic aid and social spending increased. In addition, he concedes that “the major increases in U.S. trade with Latin America and direct investment the region were also insufficient to have any material effect on the number in poverty or income distribution.” A logical conclusion might be, therefore, that the policies of economic liberalization and trade promotion advanced under the Washington Consensus don’t work—the tools are wrong for the job at hand. Instead, Palmer concludes that bureaucratic constraints placed on Clinton, particularly by domestic political considerations, kept him from sufficiently following through on his predecessor’s policy goals and taking advantage of the “opportunity” presented by the Cold War’s end.

Although economic policy and promoting free markets were of great importance to U.S.–Latin American relations after the fall of the Soviet Union, they were far from the only considerations. Early in the first Bush’s presidency, he set out to create, as he said in a September 11, 1990, speech to a joint session of Congress, a “new world order.” U.S. concerns in this new world would include “access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles; threats to U.S. citizens from terrorism or regional or local conflict; and threats to U.S. society from narcotics trafficking.”

In the 18 years since Bush I took office, these concerns have grown markedly stronger—particularly during his son’s presidency, with the implementation of many of the recommendations made in the classified 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance, a document produced by the Defense Department under Dick Cheney and written by, among others, I. Lewis Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, and Zalmay Khalilzad. When the DPG was leaked to the media in 1992, it caused such an outcry that the White House immediately distanced itself and insisted that it be rewritten. But the unilateralist thrust of the document—which, according to excerpts published in The New York Times, sought to “retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations”—remained prized by the neoconservatives who would go on to dominate the Bush II administration. It would find its ultimate expression after September 11, 2001, in what has come to be known as the Bush doctrine.

This is the subject of Gary Prevost and Carlos Oliva Campos’s new volume, The Bush Doctrine in Latin America. Whereas Palmer sets out to identify constraints on the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region without questioning those interests, this collection sets an anti-imperialist tone at the outset. The application of the Bush doctrine in Latin America, the authors argue, has prioritized security, so-called economic freedom, and access to natural resources, including not only oil but water. As noted above, in many ways these policies can be seen as a continuation—and an escalation—of U.S. policies as defined at the end of the Cold War, what Raúl Moreno characterizes in his chapter on free trade as a turn from “corporate neoliberal globalization” to “war neoliberalism.” By prioritizing security, the Bush administration has been able to couch old struggles, particularly against narco-trafficking and insurgencies, armed and otherwise, in terms of the terrorist threat to U.S. national security and to that of U.S. “allies.”

Plan Colombia, for example, which was conceived and implemented under the Clinton administration, and is discussed in a chapter by German Rodas Chavez, has given way under Bush to the Andean Regional Initiative, in which “security assistance” and creating an Andean free-trade pact are priorities. Meanwhile, elites mobilized fear in El Salvador to ensure the passage of CAFTA in that country; U.S. military installations in Paraguay have been quietly strengthened and increasingly used as bases for private security corporations; and “democracy promotion” is used to justify the political and economic undermining of democratically elected leaders who are no longer friendly to U.S. interests. As the 2006 National Security Strategy, as cited in a chapter by Patrice Elizabeth Olsen, states: “Countries in the Western Hemisphere must be helped to the path of sustained political and economic development. The deceptive appeal of anti-free market populism must not be allowed to erode political freedoms and trap the Hemisphere’s poorest in cycles of poverty.” Of course, this statement demonstrates a staggering ignorance of the ways in which pro-free market forces have trapped the peoples of the Americas in poverty and inequality.

So it is perhaps the continuities—the sustained insistence on economic liberalizations and structural adjustments, the militarization of the Drug War, and the treatment of nations unwilling to conform to U.S. policies in the region—that are the most striking in a comparison of post–Cold War strategies toward Latin America. We can hope that the massive political changes that have taken place in Latin America in recent years will give our next president pause in pursuing the same agenda, but the legacy of the “best U.S. president Bolivia ever had” lives on throughout the region.

Christy Thornton is NACLA’s director and publisher.

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