Friday, November 30, 2007

The U.S. and Latin America: At a Critical Juncture

A few weeks back, a fairly well-known and well-respected scholar of U.S.-Latin American Relations, Riordan Roett, came to Tulane as part of the inaugural events of the new Center for Interamerican Policy and Research (CIPR) which is affiliated with my office, the Stone Center for Latin American Studies.

Professor Roett participated in a series of meetings, and I attended a luncheon meeting at which the small group discussed informally the nature of contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations. One of the points that came up during this discussion which Professor Roett made was that U.S. policy makers these days, as most clearly reflected by the frontrunner candidates of each major party in the upcoming U.S. Presidential contest, have almost no substantive interest to speak of in Latin America as a world region. Of course, the one exception to this could be Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but even then our interest in Chavez is mostly reactive to his outrageous behavior and is still only sporadically on the radar screen. And when US policymakers are engaged with Latin America, it is almost always in the context of domestic issues: immigration, trade, jobs, etc. As a student of Interamerican relations, I have myself noticed this trend and basically agree with this assessment. What is interesting about this trend is that it is somewhat counterintuitive to the trend of the increasing "Latin Americanization" of the U.S., which generally everyone admits is occurring, for better or for worse, to some degree or another. One would think that as we in the U.S. become more intertwined with Latin America, the greater our interest in the region would be.

This discussion prompted me to explore more fully a hypothesis that has been brewing in my mind as of late which seeks to explain more systematically why this may be. I am now in the process of a more formal investigation of the subject which I will hopefully write up in a paper that I will present to my peers for their reactions at any one of a number of upcoming conferences.

My basic hypothesis is that the disconnect between the growing integration of the U.S. and Latin America and the relative disinterest among our policymakers in the region is nothing more than a reflection of the product of a deep-seated psychological discomfort and anxiety that Anglo-America is experiencing as it feels the waning of its cultural hegemony in the context of this inexorable integration and as it thus relinquishes its position of privilege and dominance, especially in the realm of culture, to what Nestor Garcia-Canclini might call a culture of hybridity.

In essence, what I think is happening is that the people of the United States are sensing that we are at a cultural critical juncture in our history, and that this juncture bodes a change that will radically reorient what it means to be "American" - at least how they have come to understand the meaning of an American identity. Thus, I think what we are witnessing in reaction is a kind of policy and attitudinal schizophrenia. We see policy makers ignoring the region at one level, yet obssessing over the region's impact on the domestic reality of the United States at another level. We witness no coherent foreign policy that seeks to engage the leaders and the people of Latin America all the while we see a kind of psychotic obsession with the dangers of the Latin Americanization of our culture and our society, all of which is manifested in a resurgent isolationism (withdrawal from engaged diplomacy in the region, a resurgent economic protectionism, etc.), a reactionary cultural nativism (English as the official language), and strong traces of an ugly xenophobia in the anti-illegal immigration movement the likes of which I have not witnessed in my lifetime.

In essense, we are disengaging ourselves formally from the region precisely because we are becoming ever more integrated with the region. And the more we realize that we cannot escape this process of cultural hybridization, the more we try to bury our heads in the sand in the face of it.

This is a very preliminary and rough outline of my hypothesis. I think, though, that there is clear evidence in support of it and I'll be developing it more thorougly over the next few months. But I wanted to share it here now, and will welcome your thoughts on the subject.

5 comments:

President Friedman said...

Question: What would a foreign policy that seeks to engage the people and leaders of Latin America look like?

When America was undergoing a cultural shift as the Irish poured into the country in the mid 1800's, (amid much xenophobia and anti-illegal fervor)did that require us to re-examine our relationship with Ireland?

Huck said...

Good questions, P_F. First, a foreign policy that seeks to engage the people and leaders of Latin America is one that would look much more like our foreign policy in the Middle East, for example. It would also look like a foreign policy that recognizes that as the United States becomes more "Latin Americanized" itself, its own self-interest is served by a foreign policy that works more closely with the people and leaders of the region in terms of listening closely to what they are articulating as goals that coalesce with our own and seeing how we ourselves might help them reach those goals. It would certainly not look like one of either benign neglect or suspicious hostility, which is how I would characterize our current relations. For a couple of good historical examples, I could point to FDR's Good Neighbor Policy or JFK's Alliance for Progress Initiative. And those movements took place in the context of a U.S. cultural milieu that was arguably much less directly influenced by the region's peoples and cultures. Latin Americans, now more than ever before, are much, much more disposed to embrace a global culture with the United States as the baseline for this culture. And Latin America, as a region, especially in terms of its urban context and its popular culture trends, is looking much, much more like the United States. Yet are we promoting cultural and economic exchanges with Latin America that embrace and recognize this convergence? Not really. Hence we have the disaffected populations of the region looking more and more to people like Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez for alternative visions of counter-cultures to react against this trend of convergence. The best way to undercut the influence of Hugo Chavez and his nationalist populism is to display to Venezuelans that the United States has truly embraced and is, in fact, becoming culturally more akin to Venezuela. But when we have a movement in the United States that seeks to marginalize and even reject this cultural convergence in our domestic politics, we alienate the region's leaders and its people instead of winning them over, and thus squander a golden opportunity to improve our security and our reputation in the region as a consequence. Don't you think it's a shame that the U.S. has more salsa dance clubs filling up our social nightlife options, more mainstream Latin entertainers in our films and popular music, and more Latin food on our plates these days, and yet have that translate into a hostility with Latin America instead of a ground for true collaboration?

Put it like this, it would take much, much less to win over Latin America than it would to win over any of the Arab Muslim countries in the Middle East; and yet our policy is to either avoid doing even this little bit or actually to poison the well by pointing out how awful the region and its culture is. And it's a shame, because no other region of the world is primed to embrace a warmer and friendlier U.S. than Latin America is. And what does Latin America get? English first movements, anti-illegal immigration movements that seem to disproportionately target illegal Latin migrants over any other kind of illegal migrant, and constant harpings on the poverty, corruption, and crime of the region as opposed to any of its many, many good things.

As to your second question, about the Irish, all I need to say is that those of Latin descent in the U.S. constitute almost 12 percent of the total U.S. population now, the countries of Latin America constitute a whole half of a whole continent that the United States shares with them, and that the economies and populations of Latin America are more important to the United States in orders of magnitude significantly higher than that of the tiny and relatively economically insignificant country of Ireland. Furthermore, the context of globalization today makes for a different kind of comparison than the mid-19th and early 20th century. The Irish who came over in the mid 19th and early 20th century didn't have the internet, cable TV, and multinational corporate conglomerates to keep their cultural connections to the "homeland" fresh and alive. That simply is not the case with Latin Americans and the United States today.

It is a mistake to ignore this; and and even greater mistake to react negatively towards it. It is an inevitability that we can embrace and make peace with to our own benefit; or stick our head in the sand in the face of it to our own detriment, and even peril.

jkim said...

I find this proposal facinating, but I have a couple of questions that I am thinking about as I was reading this.

1. What would the term "Latin America" or "Latin Americanized" mean? Do Americans see this cultural invasion/challenge of what it means to be American based in a Latin American identity or specifically Mexican? On the other hand, do the people of Latin America identify with anything American? If so, to what degree? What parts of their identity (outside of the identity promoted by business) are reflected in American culture?

2. If I remember correctly, the Alliance for Progress, although it seemed benign and friendly, was part of a geopolitical strategy to undercut the potential for the leftist political parties to gain power through the redistribution of land and so on and so forth. Although it may have been seen as something good for the people, I don't believe that the political class of America Latina enjoyed another policy being shoved down their throats. My question is then, given that we have decided to claim America Latina as our backyard since the Monroe Doctrine, how can we be sure that a new foreign policy won't be seen by the political class as using the carrot rather than the stick? (However, I suppose the political class has always been easily duped. Didn't Salinas say to the Mexican people "Nos vamos a volver RICOS!!!!")

For example, "it would take much, much less to win over Latin America than it would to win over any of the Arab Muslim countries in the Middle East" - Doesn't this imply that United States wants to reestablish (or reinforce) its hegemony over Latin America?

3. I agree that part of the appeal of Chavez, Morales, Ortega and the like are their nationalist politics and "for alternative visions of counter-cultures to react against this trend of convergence." However,it seems to me that the appeal of Chavez comes more from the perpetual injustice of the political system felt by the population rather than the idea of convergence with United States. Of course, the two ideas are linked: Economic convergence brings "modernization" and all the artifacts of the West along with it. However,these economic decisions and visions come mainly from an elite political class that negates the participation of the poor parts of the population. Do you see what I mean? Perhaps the nacionalist politics are more linked to the message of equality and justice that the United States is not associated with (for being associated with the dominant political class).

4. Finally, if this really is some sort of attitudinal schizophrenia of the American identity (or at least the white, protestant one), is it realistic to expect a political change before americans understand for themselves what is going on? If this is a reaction based upon an inherent contradiction of identity, it seems to me that it is going to last for awhile yet.

These are just some things that popped in my head as I was reading this. I hope it's relevant.

jkim said...

one more thing:

"Don't you think it's a shame that the U.S. has more salsa dance clubs filling up our social nightlife options, more mainstream Latin entertainers in our films and popular music, and more Latin food on our plates these days, and yet have that translate into a hostility with Latin America instead of a ground for true collaboration?"

Although you answered president friedman's question in part, I think it still stands. Given that countries in America Latina don't really get along well (I mean hell, it seems like the only countries that sort of like each other is venezuela and bolivia), would this policy only be between United States and the individual countries that we manage to win over?

I have the impression that at the end of the day, after all of the hullabaloo, Latin American countries basically collaborate with United States. Chavez still sells us gas (right?), Argentina probably will take any loans it can get, and so on and so forth. What is collaboration in this context?

Also, could it be that new rivalries could emerge between countries over whatever might politically come to pass?

President Friedman said...

"First, a foreign policy that seeks to engage the people and leaders of Latin America is one that would look much more like our foreign policy in the Middle East..."

Funny, I was just thinking that if our foreign policy in the Middle East was more like our foreign policy in Latin America, we wouldn't have nearly as many problems over there! ;-)

I'm kidding... sorta.

"It would also look like a foreign policy that... works more closely with the people and leaders of the region... and seeing how we ourselves might help them reach those goals."

To the extent that we are talking about holding summits, getting leaders together, and encouraging free trade (although I'm not so sure free trade is the goal in some of these places), I'm on board. To the extent we are talking about offering money, resources, and/or military support... I'm out.

I will have to do some reading on the Good Neighbor poicy and the Alliance for Progress, not real familiar with those. This is an interesting conversation, I look forward to seeing you flesh it out in they days and weeks ahead (I'm short on time this week, lunch is about the only free time I will have).

Initially, I'm not very confident in the promise of results from any American foreign policy initiative. It seems that they backfire about as often as they actually help. Rather than a broad outreach to the entire region, I'd like to see us engage specific areas or specific issues (such as our shameful farm subsidies program that keeps Latin American farmers from getting access to US markets).