Today's date:
Spring 2006

Latin America on Its Own

Raul Alfonsin was Argentina’s first democratically elected president after the fall of its military dictatorship.

Buenos Aires — Last year witnessed a decisive turn in Latin America. A growing number of countries in the region now seem determined to pursue their interests regardless of what the United States desires.

José Miguel Insulza’s election as Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), and the consequent defeat of the candidate supported by the Bush administration, emphatically demonstrated the decline of America’s continental leadership. The US not only lost control of the OAS, an organization that generally serves US interests, but also failed to get the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, last November to unanimously endorse a declaration supporting America’s trade and political positions for the region. This rejection came about despite the summit being structured in such a way as to promote and defend those interests.

Attempts throughout 2005 by the Bush administration to discipline Venezuela’s government also failed. President Bush has simply been unable to get other governments to back the policy of isolation he sought to impose on President Hugo Chávez’s government. America has also been frustrated in its desire to obtain regional support for its policy of direct involvement in Colombia’s internal strife.

Of course, not everything went against America. The election of the Colombian Luis Alberto Moreno as president of the Inter-American Development Bank had clear US backing. This means that the bank is likely to continue its orthodox, neo-liberal policies. But a clear line in the sand has been drawn between Latin American countries that want to pursue regional integration on their own terms, and those that see hemispheric integration as directed by the US.

Some countries— Mexico, Colombia and Peru—appear to want a privileged direct relationship with America. Other countries— Bolivia, Chile and some of the countries of Central America—prefer regional solutions in which they have a clear and equal say. The latter group, for example, are generally supportive of the plan to build a Community of South American Nations, a scheme backed primarily by Argentina and Venezuela. The Mercosur countries don’t want a confrontation with anyone, including the US, but do seek a more just and democratic international system.

But it is the ideological picture that presents the starkest contrasts. Indeed, there could be political consequences that could affect the entire region if the confrontation between Venezuela and the US worsens beyond today’s tense relations, or if there were an electoral victory for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional in Nicaragua as there was for Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia. The eventual formation of a triangle that links Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua is likely to be considered a direct threat to regional stability by the US, which would have the dangerous consequence of putting Latin America atop the security agenda of the Bush administration.

Yet you cannot see Latin America in 2005 only in terms of the region’s relations with the US. Deep concerns about the internal situation in many countries that suffer almost permanent political and institutional crises, such as Haiti, Ecuador and Bolivia, abound. As the structural causes that have pushed these countries into near permanent states of crisis seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, their problems may well become linked to Latin America’s tense relations with the US.

Indeed, local problems are likely to exacerbate regional tensions. Last year saw the return of seemingly buried territorial disputes, such as defining the maritime limits between Chile and Peru, as well as the revanchist pressures that are mounting in Bolivia for recovering access to the sea that was lost in the 19th century, an urge strengthened by Bolivia’s growing willingness to perhaps use its gas exports as a pressure point. The dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over navigation on the San Juan River and the heated jurisdictional arguments between Colombia and Venezuela also help raise regional tempers.

The result of all this tension is that Latin America is seeing its biggest arms race for decades, a sad trend when the region’s worst problems are poverty, inequality and the marginalization of indigenous people. If these problems go unattended, destabilization will undoubtedly grow.

One last problem is contributing to the region’s anxieties: massive migration. The problem is not just about illegal migration to the US, though those Americans who seek to play the anti-immigrant card do antagonize regional sensibilities unnecessarily. For migration—triggered by dire economic conditions—is also happening between Latin American countries. Keeping this peaceful will be a vexing problem for the region’s leaders in the months and years ahead.

Across Latin America, if poverty and violence are not ameliorated, tensions are bound to grow. Latin America is truly at a crossroads: 2006 may well determine whether the continent lapses back into the sad days of the chaotic past or finds a new maturity to strike out on its own path to growth and stability.

©Project Syndicate, 2006