Latin America, once thought of as America's "backyard," has been moving further out of the orbit of the United States in the last ten years or so. As the testing ground for Washington-imposed neoliberal policies, Latin America has now become the locus for a series of left wing leaders who are contesting these policies, and as they do so, they have been turning towards allies in Europe, China, and the Middle East as a counter to US hegemony. Europe, in particular, has begun sketching out alternative policies that make the US seem increasingly isolated in its approach to Latin America.
Between the mid 1970s and the mid 1980s, structural adjustment measures of privatization, deregulation, and market-based growth were formulated into a coherent and extensive set of neoliberal principles known as the Washington Consensus, and reforms were urged on Latin American countries. The decade of the 1990s was marked by the relative hegemony of the neoliberal model and its application throughout the region.
The neoliberal model was widely proclaimed by Washington to be a panacea that could resolve the foreign debt crisis and spark economic growth through reviving the private sector. A key component of free trade policies were the proposed trade agreements known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would reduce barriers to trade between the United States and countries in the Americas. The first agreement was signed between Mexico, Canada and the US, known as North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA required the imposition of structural adjustment policies in Mexico, and was met with a dramatic uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) on January 1, 1994, the day it came into effect.
In the last decade, there have been nationwide mobilizations across Central and South America against privatization and free trade agreements. Several leaders challenging the neoliberal orthodoxy to greater and lesser degrees came to power: Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, Lula Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil in 2003, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina in 2003, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay in 2004, Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2005, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2006, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador in 2006. The national mobilizations, the ousting of neoliberal politicians, and the election of left wing leaders, marked a deeper rejection of the neoliberal model than the earlier cycle of protests.
This unique position of Latin America may be due to its status as what Greg Grandin has called "empire's workshop," the place where the United States acquired its conception of itself as an empire, a school where they learned how to execute violence through proxies, and a staging ground for experiments with free-market nation building. Among the first to be hit by the effects of structural adjustment policies, Latin American countries were also the first to react with protest, and there is now a visibly growing gap between the left and center-left governments of the region, and the neo-cons in Washington. Several leftist leaders are rejecting George Bush's War on Terror, the FTAA, and dictates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
With the exception of the coup attempt against Chávez in 2002, the growth of leftist tendencies has so far not yet led to the US-funded armed contras or coups that faced the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile during the 1970s, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Part of the reason has been US involvement in Iraq. But recent incidents in Columbia are indicative of the back-door tactics that the US State Department may be using to intervene into Latin American affairs. Following a raid on a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in March, the Colombian government claimed to have found evidence on laptops linking Chávez to the FARC. The claims, though still unsubstantiated, have been seized by American press and officials as evidence that Chávez is using the FARC to destabilize the region. But contrary to these claims, the French-Colombian politican Ingrid Betancourt, recently freed after being held hostage by the FARC for six years, actually thanked Chávez for his interventions on behalf of the hostages, in a letter she wrote while in captivity back in December 2007.
The US provides military assistance to the conservative government of Alvaro Uribe through its military installations, the largest being the Manta Air Force Base in Ecuador. Correa has recently threatened to close down the base when the lease expires, and offer the space to China. This possibility illustrates the ever-narrowing options open to the US government in conducting pre-emptive interventions.
The one bright spot in the dismal picture of US-Latin America relations is the possible election of Democratic nominee Barack Obama in the November elections. Obama has shown a greater openness to negotiate with leftist leaders in the region if in office, including breaking down long-standing trade and diplomatic barriers with Cuba. However, he also gave a public address to the conservative exile Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, promising to maintain the embargo on Cuba. He has referred to Hugo Chávez as a demagogue. And in the recent conflict with Colombia, Obama defended the right of Colombia to invade Ecuador in search of terrorists. Whether he is simply saying these things to satisfy key constituencies and ensure his election or whether he will actually adhere to these policies when in office remains to be seen.
By contrast, Europe has recently taken a lead in devising alternative policy approaches towards Latin America. The European Union voted on June 19 to end the diplomatic sanctions against Cuba that were imposed in 2003. This move is linked to the packet of reforms that were passed by Cuban president Raúl Castro in recent months, which include the ability for Cubans to travel abroad freely without seeking official permission, the legalization of same sex marriages, the revoking of laws prohibiting internal migration, the permitting of small businesses ventures, and the ability of Cubans to rent out their homes and rooms in their homes. A spokesperson from the US State Department has criticized Europe's lifting of the sanctions, saying that the reforms are cosmetic and the Raúl Castro administration should not be legitimized. But these statements are just further indication of how far out of step the State Department is with public opinion abroad and within the US.
As countries in the Americas form new trading blocs as an alternative to the FTAA, they are also looking toward Europe as a model for internal integration. During the Third Summit of Heads of State, held in Brasilia in May, several Latin American nations signed a treaty to form the Union of South American Nations. The union is modeled on the European Union (EU), and combines two existing trade bodies - Mercosur and the Andean Community. The headquarters of the Union will be in Quito, Ecuador; the South American Parliament in Cochabamba, Bolivia; and the Bank of the South will be located in Caracas, Venezuela. The leaders hope to model their union on the basis of the EU, with a shared currency, passport, and parliament in effect by 2019.
This is not to suggest that Europe is replacing the role of the US in Latin American affairs, or that the US is irrelevant. There are many signs that US military and economic power still holds sway. Leftist leaders may be turning to some of their old Cold War benefactors for support in this period. For instance, after the US suspended sales to Venezuela in 2006, Chávez has turned to Russia for the sale of arms. But in a post-Cold War era, Latin America is carving out a more independent role for itself, and rather than patrons or benefactors it needs allies. The degree to which these leaders successfully manage to build those alliances - with Europe and beyond - may be crucial to the sustainability of new left agendas in the Americas.
Sujatha Fernandes, a member of NACLA's editorial committee, is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY) and the author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, 2006). This article was originally published by ZNet.