Posted by: bmeverett | April 19, 2009

What just happened in Trinidad?

President Obama spent much of this week talking about “new beginnings” in Latin America. All of us in the western hemisphere got a new beginning when we overthrew European colonial rule around 200 years ago. Since that time, the United States has become the freest, most prosperous and most powerful country in history. Latin America is more or less where it started: oligarchical, corrupt, impoverished and unstable. How did this happen?

As always, there are a couple of different narratives. The Latin American Left has a clear historical vision, and we’ve been hearing it over and over again the last week from Hugo Chavez and others. In this view, the United States is entirely to blame for Latin America’s problems. From the Mexican War, the Spanish American War and Pancho Villa to US incursions into Central America and the Caribbean, the US simply replaced Spain as the colonial power, denying Latin Americans the ability to government themselves. In the view of the left, US economic relations with Latin America have been only a subtle variant of direct colonialism. Foreign direct investment is exploitation. Free markets are tools of the rich. Sales of Latin American oil, coal, minerals and food are a loss of the national patrimony.

There is a competing and much more realistic narrative. We have learned one major historical lesson in the last 100 years: free market economics generates wealth, while state control produces poverty and oppression. Most Latin Americans seem incapable of learning this lesson. Every major Latin American country continues to swing through cycles of minimal market liberalization and political reform, quickly choked off by corrupt oligarchs who send their countries back into economic stagnation while diverting the public’s attention to their historical grievances against the US. Our neighbors to the south will never prosper until they can break this cycle. Historical anger over 19th century military adventures is certainly understandable, but it’s no more constructive than Irish anger over the potato famines or Armenian anger over World War I Turkish genocide. Get over it.

President Obama’s recent performance at the Summit of the Americas has to be seen in the context of these narratives. Which narrative does he favor? Although his words were hedged with the obligatory nods to democratic institutions and open markets, the overall impression he gave was a large measure of support to the utterly destructive narrative of the left. His opening remarks included, for example, the statement “I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.” What exactly does this rather vague and exquisitely balanced comment mean? I don’t know what the President intended, but it will be widely interpreted in Latin America as an admission of our historical guilt.

With regard to the Mexican drug cartels, the President said, “And let me add that I recognize that the problem will not simply be solved by law enforcement if we’re not also dealing with our responsibilities in the United States. And that’s why we will take aggressive action to reduce our demand for drugs, and to stop the flow of guns and bulk cash south across our borders.” This view, also recently articulated by Secretary of State Clinton, argues that drugs flowing north from Mexico are our fault because we buy them, while guns flowing south into Mexico are our fault because we sell them. This is hardly a balanced view.

With regard to Cuba, President Obama said, “I think it’s important to recognize, given historic suspicions, that the United States’ policy should not be interference in other countries, but that also means that we can’t blame the United States for every problem that arises in the hemisphere. That’s part of the bargain.” Offering to trade “non-interference” for toning down the anti-US rhetoric isn’t much of a bargain. Hugo Chavez is a powerful supporter of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who pledges to “wipe Israel off the map.” It seems to me that wiping another country off the map is a form of political interference. Why no mention of this issue in the President’s remarks?

The President needs to make clear his own narrative on Latin America. Personally, I found his remarks nearly incoherent, but with a strong tenor of sympathy for the left’s view. The President said, “And we’ve heard all these arguments before, these debates that would have us make a false choice between rigid, state-run economies or unbridled and unregulated capitalism…” Huh? Nobody that I know has ever advocated for “unbridled and unregulated capitalism.” The US has advocated essentially for some capitalism in Latin America, a plea which continues to fall on deaf ears. President Obama is a serial user of the fallacy of the excluded middle. It’s easy to say that US policy should avoid the extremes of conquest and surrender. It’s much harder to say what policy should be.

US relations with Latin America are now at a critical stage. The Administration has put on the back burner the free trade agreement with Colombia, one of our staunchest and most democratic allies, and hidden a prohibition on Mexican trucks in the new Omnibus Appropriations Bill. All this, of course, after a frontal attack on NAFTA during his campaign. At the same time, the Administration wants to be better friends with Cuba and Venezuela, the two countries doing their utmost to undermine economic and political reform, as well as US interests in the region. The President’s trip was no example of balance and nuance. It will give the left’s historical narrative a huge shot in the arm and further demoralize the forces of reform and progress in the region, who are already on the run.

The front-page photo in the New York Times, showing President Obama beaming at Venezuelan tyrant Hugo Chavez says it all.


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