The United States is strong. Latin America is weak. This is the basic truth that shapes their relationship. There is no irrational animosity toward the U.S. in Latin America. There is a measure of suspicion balanced by enormous admiration for the culture of Herman Melville to Walt Whitman to William Faulkner, of Hollywood and jazz, of Eugene O’Neill to Arthur Miller. Nor is there envy of the United States. Latin America is deeply aware of its cultural values. Our personality is not assailed by gringo fashions. We absorb and adapt to the cultures of the world, including that of the U.S.
The problem lies in foreign policy. Too often, the United States is seen as a benevolent Dr. Jekyll at home and a malevolent Mr. Hyde abroad. The wars against Mexico (1846-1848) and Spain (1898), Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick,” Woodrow Wilson’s well-intentioned but counterproductive intervention in Mexico during its revolution, incessant and arrogant meddling in Central America. Not an easy menu to swallow. One moment shines through, however: Franklin Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy, his decision to win Latin American support during World War II through negotiation rather than confrontation.
And after that war, a limpid admiration for the Roosevelt and Truman policies of international cooperation through organizations based on the rule of law. “We all have to recognize,” Harry Truman said in 1945, “[that] no matter how great our strength – we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please.” The United Nations was a creation of U.S. diplomacy. Its principles were clearly stated and universally accepted. Even when the U.S. violated them in practice during the Cold War, the principles were never renounced.
This brings us to what Latin Americans find so shocking about the Bush administration. Instead of multilateralism, unilateralism. Instead of diplomacy and negotiation and a search for consensus and the use of force only as a last resort, the barbaric principle of preventive war.
U.S. support for brutal dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay in the name of anti-communism caused great suffering. The overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile. The Central American wars in the 1980s and their high body counts. These Latin American grievances were balanced by a perception that the U.S. never formally renounced the principles of international law and the hope that it would reaffirm them again.
What is alarming about the Bush administration is its formal denunciation of the basic rules of international intercourse. With us or against us, President Bush declares starkly and simplistically. The U.S. acts according to its own interests, “not those of an illusory international community,” asserts national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
Is it strange that many Latin Americans should see in these statements an aggressive denial of the only leverage we have in dealing with Washington: the rule of law, the balance obtained through diplomatic negotiation?
Not only out of self-interest, but also as participants in the global society, many Latin Americans worry that U.S. unilateralism is incompatible with the multilateralist nature of globalization. This was the warning issued by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo at last year’s Harvard commencement. Add Chilean President Ricardo Lagos’ perception that the world community is postponing the urgent global agenda of creating an adequate social-program fund, strengthening human rights and overcoming the chasms between haves and have-nots. And top it with former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s plea to the French National Assembly: Fight vigorously against terror but also against the underlying causes of terror: hunger, ignorance, inequality and distorted perceptions of other cultures.
Fortunately, these composite voices of Latin American statesmen found a powerful echo in North America, when former President Clinton warned that you do not defeat terror if you do not figure out how to work with an interdependent world.
These voices, these warnings, these hopes have been disowned by the Bush administration. “With us or against us,” Bush has said. It hardly matters. Offensive as these words are to the international community, I believe that Latin America, in particular, will not forget the outright deceptions of the Bush era: the shifting rationales for an unnecessary war and a disastrous postwar occupation; the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; the targeting of one tyrant (Saddam Hussein) among many (Kim Jong II, Robert Mugabe, Moammar Kadafi); the utter lack of foresight that an occupied Iraq would rise against the foreign occupiers and try to fashion its own political future out of its complex religious, tribal and cultural realities, all of them ignored by the neoconservatives in Washington.
But while not forgetting these mistakes and deceptions, we would put the accent on the restoration of the rule of law, the thrust of cooperation and the attention due to 3 billion human beings living in poverty, ignorance and illness. When Bush and his bellicose minions are gone, these problems will still be around. We in Latin America should try to bring them forward as the real agenda for this troubling century.
Carlos Fuentes is the author, most recently, of “Contra Bush,” which will be translated into seven languages. Originally published in the Los Angeles Times on September 26, 2004.