Anti-americanism is again becoming a force to be reckoned with in Latin America. Throughout the 1990s, anti-Americanism was generally latent in the region, only marginally influential in political life. In those days, Latin America’s capitals indulged in free-market reforms, welcoming a frenzy of privatizations and deregulatory schemes choreographed by Washington and the Washington-dominated international financial institutions.
But two key events in 2001, the attacks of September 11 and Argentina’s economic meltdown in December, stopped the party. Many Latin American governments woke up from a decade-long experiment with neoliberal prescriptions and realized they were not better off than they had been before—many, in fact, were much worse. With the United States suddenly absorbed in its War on Terror, countries like Argentina, Peru, Uruguay and Brazil were left alone to recover from poorly managed reforms that had left them staggering under a huge debt load, growing unemployment and an even more unequal distribution of income.
Since 9/11, U.S. policy toward Latin America has for the most part alternated between indifference and intimidation, a position made clear before the international community when Washington refused to bail out Argentina as the country sank into default, forcing millions of Argentines into poverty. Provoked by these and other examples of perceived U.S. arrogance, many Latin Americans have been steadily turning against the United States.
According to annual Latinobarómetro polls, the United States had improved its image in the region over the course of the 1990s.1 That trend reversed in 2002. By 2004, the survey, which consisted of interviews with nearly 20,000 people in 18 countries, showed that in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico and Uruguay those with a good opinion of the United States were a minority. In Brazil, only half of the people surveyed had positive opinions toward the United States. The decline of goodwill was most precipitous in Mexico, where opinions underwent a complete reversal. In 2001, a solid majority of Mexicans (63%) had a good opinion of the United States; in 2004 only 41% of Mexicans did.
In contrast to the region’s last big wave of anti-Americanism (during the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s), today’s anti-American sentiment is not closely linked to institutionalized politics or traditional ideological divisions. The new anti-Americanism is a more mainstream paradigm, not advocating violence against the United States, but rather a broader political and cultural resistance to U.S. influence and power.
Whereas anti-Americanism in the past was part of the populist political toolkit for leaders on the right and the left—demagogically inveighed to fire up constituents and distract attention from domestic problems—anti-Americanism today is emerging from below as a more grassroots force. Much of this is attributable to the fact that it is occurring in a democratic context, in which public opinion is fueling government policy rather than the other way around.
Latin America’s politicians are at least as addicted to polling as their U.S. counterparts, and with good reason. If public opinion turns against them, elected officials can find themselves prematurely thrown out of office. So, many of the region’s political actors are embracing an oppositional stance toward U.S. policies as they discover that such opposition has become one of the most easily identifiable and consistent characteristics of public opinion. Many of the region’s new crop of center-left leaders owe some gratitude to anti-Americanism as a factor that pushed voters their way.
Public opinion polls, particularly in the Southern Cone and Mexico, reveal a deep well of discontent with the United States’ handling of terrorism. The 2004 Latinobarómetro poll showed less than one-tenth of Argentines, Uruguayans, Mexicans, Brazilians, Bolivians and Chileans approved of U.S. actions in Iraq. When asked more broadly about how Washington was managing conflict in the world, the disapproval levels in these countries were almost as high.
But the handling of terrorism is far from being the only source of anger. Today’s anti-Americanism is fed by other frustrations, all fanned by daily reportage: the callous U.S. response to Argentina’s economic and political meltdown in 2001; the hypocritical U.S. refusal to halt billions in subsidies to its farmers while it peddles free trade; Washington’s tacit support of the 2002 coup against President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela; and (especially in Mexico) the poor treatment of immigrants in the wake of 9/11 and the failure to create an efficient and humane immigration system.
Leading up to the invasion of iraq, in late 2002 and early 2003, Latin America had become a key center of anti-war sentiment and protest. While Germany and France received more attention for their defiance of U.S. pleas to back the war effort, Latin America, to Washington’s surprise, was equally influential in dimming the luster of the U.S. “Coalition of the Willing.”
The fact that it had been recently victimized by what sociologist Manuel Castells calls the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) “monetarist diktat” may help explain why Argentina harbored the world’s highest rate of opposition to the war.2 According to a Gallup poll done in 41 countries in January 2003, a remarkable 83% of Argentines said that “under no circumstances” should there be military action against Iraq.3 That level of opposition was significantly higher than in countries with large Muslim populations such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Nigeria. In the five Latin American nations polled by Gallup (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay were also polled) clear majorities unconditionally rejected war on Iraq.
The region’s leaders, excepting much of Central America, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, refused to back the war. Chile and Mexico, rotating members of the UN Security Council, did significant damage to the invasion’s credibility by refusing to approve a resolution authorizing military action against Iraq.
Public opinion and the anti-Americanism that infused it played an important role in Latin America’s ability to keep its distance from the Coalition of the Willing. It is doubtful that so many of the region’s leaders would have spoken out against the war, or that the governments of Mexico and Chile could have resisted immense White House pressure to back the UN resolution, were it not for what opinion polls showed: an overwhelming majority of Latin Americans rejected the looming war.
Opposition to a U.S.-led war is not necessarily equivalent to anti-Americanism. In Latin America, however, critiques of the U.S. government’s post-9/11 militarism have become inextricable from negative opinions of U.S. foreign policy as a whole, the Bush Administration in particular and the widespread perception that the United States has become an empire.
Particularly after the invasion of Iraq, the perception of the United States as empire has crystallized and migrated from the journals and source books of the Latin American left to the region’s mainstream media, popular discourse and post-dinner conversations. At the height of the financial implosion in Argentina, weekly newsmagazines and cable talk programs spun out scenarios in which the United States had co-conspired to sink Argentina economically, paving the way for U.S. investors to acquire massive landholdings in the Pampas and Patagonia.4 In Brazil more recently, the prestigious newspaper Folha de São Paulo topped its special coverage of the 2004 U.S. presidential election with the headline, “The Empire Votes.”5 In February, in the Mexico City daily El Universal, well-known academic and journalist Pablo Marentes González compared the U.S.-Mexico border with the porous frontiers of ancient Rome, arguing that despite all its efforts the United States would not be able to restrict the flow of hundreds of thousands of Spanish-speakers back and forth across the border each year.6
Political leaders are cashing in on this popular diatribe, creating a cycle in which public sentiment and political strategy feed one another. Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela are not the only ones employing a strong dose of anti-imperialist, anti-American rhetoric in their public remarks. Even if other leaders are not as explicit in their defiance, it is often clear to their constituencies when they challenge U.S. actions or attitudes.
At the 2003 Progressive Governance Conference in London, a meeting billed as the largest-ever gathering of the world’s center-left leaders, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva drew laughter with his criticisms of U.S. unilateralism. “If there is one thing I admire about the United States,” Lula said, just months after the invasion of Iraq, “is that the first thing they think about is themselves; second, of themselves; and thirdly, of themselves. Then, if they have time, they think of themselves some more.”7
Because so many latin american voters agree with Lula’s criticism, their behavior in recent elections can at least partly be attributed to anti-U.S. sentiments. In Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, they have chosen (or in Venezuela’s case, kept in power) left-leaning governments that promise a retreat from policies with a strong U.S. imprint: neoliberal economics, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the militarized War on Terror. In Bolivia, anti-Americanism—fueled by privatization policies pushed by Washington-based multilateral lenders and U.S.-sponsored coca eradication programs—has helped destabilize government after government in recent years. When prior to the 2002 presidential election, the U.S. ambassador counseled Bolivians not to vote for the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party of cocalero leader Evo Morales, the advice backfired. Morales received a huge boost and nearly won the election. Since then, he has had an outsized influence on Bolivian political life and is the projected frontrunner in the presidential elections slated for 2007.
The anti-Americanism of their constituents has encouraged Latin American leaders to openly challenge U.S. (and allied) interests, even if it is only as a negotiating ploy. In Argentina, for example, anti-Americanism is intricately connected with President Néstor Kirchner’s successful politics of defiance. In Argentina’s emergence from debt default, rather than play the role of the sheepish debtor, the Kirchner Administration adopted a hard-line approach in negotiations with the IMF, in which the United States is the principal shareholder.
Kirchner’s government fought for formerly undreamed of concessions from lenders and investors and won over 75% adherence to its debt swap. It was a precedent-setting negotiation that may pave the way for other heavily indebted countries to lighten their debt load. Were it not for Argentines’ extremely poor opinion of the United States (and by extension the IMF) it would have been difficult for Kirchner to assume such a combative stance, and to reap political rewards by doing so.
In Brazil, using the anti-Americanism of a large part of the Brazilian electorate as a kind of ballast, President Lula is daring to stake out a position for his country as the hemisphere’s principal counterweight to U.S. prestige and power. Brazil’s defiance of the U.S. attempt to control the agenda led to the failure of both the 2003 World Trade Organization (WTO) round of talks in Cancún and the 2004 FTAA negotiations in Miami. At the WTO, Brazil, along with China and India, positioned itself as an advocate for the entire developing world, demanding an end to Washington’s domestic farm subsidies that shut poor countries out of global markets. In South America, Brazil has been the engine for advancing regional integration. With Lula’s encouragement, regional leaders or their representatives met in Cuzco, Peru at the end of last year to launch the South American Community of Nations, to be modeled on European-style integration. It is perceived by many as more dream than reality at this point, but it definitely poses a challenge to U.S. ambitions to shape the pace and direction of integration in the Americas.
In analyst fareed zakaria’s view, the absence of a credible critique of capitalism means that anti-Americanism has become the world’s new “ideology of discontent.” As an ideology, it may be fuzzy and not terribly coherent, but Zakaria says anti-Americanism’s strength lies in its emotional charge and the fact that “it is a mindset that extends beyond politics to economic and cultural realities.”8 Rather than being limited to a political posture, anti-Americanism tends to influence many different aspects of an individual’s worldview because U.S. influence so deeply permeates everyday life.
It is often said that U.S. power, though exercised most spectacularly through military interventions in places like Vietnam and Iraq, is most effective in its “soft” forms: business, technology and popular culture. It was certainly the bounty of U.S. consumer culture that served as the most immediate enticement for the millions of Latin Americans who dreamed of a quick leap to prosperity in the 1990s.
Yet even the power of U.S. consumer goods is on the wane in Latin America. A recent survey by consulting firm Research International found that a majority of Latin Americans believe U.S. brands are exploiting people and the environment.9 A third of those surveyed believed U.S. companies were “big, evil empires with lots of money.” The survey, based on 850 interviews of upscale consumers, found that young people were more likely than not to have negative attitudes toward U.S. brands. The study concluded that a generation of Latin Americans is growing up with a far more negative opinion of U.S. products than their parents, and that those attitudes could begin to have an impact on the profit margin of U.S. companies doing business in the region.
Clearly, anti-Americanism in Latin America is having ramifications that go far beyond government. Studies like the one by Research International show that it has begun to penetrate public spaces like shopping malls where the desirability of U.S. products was until recently unquestioned. Whether behaving as consumers or voters, Latin Americans are no longer exhibiting an enthusiastic embrace of leadership by the United States. Inundated throughout the 1990s with media coverage of their countries’ precarious entrance into global markets and the subsequent political and economic fallout in the post-9/11 era, they are becoming more critical in their roles as consumers, voters and participants in a globalized world.
About the Author
Marcelo Ballvé is an associate editor with the San Francisco-based Pacific News Service and a frequent NACLA contributor. He writes from Buenos Aires about Latin America.
1. Data from Latinobarómetro Executive Director Marta Lagos’ presentation, “The Image of the United States in Latin America: Latinobarómetro 1995-2004,” at the Miami Herald’’s Americas conference, http://www.latinobarometro.org/Upload/.Presentaci%f3n%20Miami%20The%20Image%20of%20USA.pd.
2. Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), p. 121. The United States has by far the most voting power of any member (17% of the total votes) at the 184-member fund, according to http://www.imf.org.
3. Full results of Iraq 2003 poll available at ttp://www.gallup-international.com. in “Survey Archive.”
4. “Economic Crisis Spurs Anger,” Washington Post, May 19, 2002, p. A20.
5. See index of November 2, 2004 edition, available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/fsp/indices/inde02112004.htm..
6. “Entendimiento,” El Universal, February 8, 2005.
7. Marcela Sánchez, “Beware of Old Habits Blocking U.S. Brazil Progress,” Washington Post, July 17, 2003.
8. Fareed Zakaria, “Hating America,” Foreign Policy, September/October 2004.
9. “Latin America: Icon Down,” EIU Business Latin America, November 29, 2004. Article cites Research International study, “Being American – The Future of USA Brands,” October 2004.