Sphere Of Influence

by by Simone Landon

illustration by by Becca Levinson

Last week, 32 Latin American and Caribbean leaders met in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to forge a new regional organization that explicitly excludes the United States and Canada. The conference closed on February 23 with the establishment of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLACS), to hold its first official body meeting in Caracas in 2011.

At the opening ceremony, both Mexican president Felipe Calderón and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez invoked the legacy of Simón Bolívar, the South American independence leader and advocate of Latin American unity.

“If we are together, we are stronger, we are free, more democratic,” Calderón said, quoting Bolívar. Chávez added the organization was a move to “retake the path” of the region.
This implied taking the region’s direction and control away from the US, something Chávez made explicit in an interview with CNN en Español. “The gringo empire has always wanted us to be at odds,” he said, adding, the US has tried “to impede what has started here: true integration from Mexico to Argentina.”

The North American media’s coverage of the Summit was sparse and focused mostly on the fact that Chávez told his rival, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, to “go to hell.” But after the spat, the conference managed to pass several important resolutions, among them a statement in support of Argentina’s claim to the Malvinas (Falkland Islands) against Britain and a call for the OAS to take greater steps to incorporate Cuba. While the “Unity Summit” lived up to its name on paper, it remains to be seen whether the new organization in fact signals both a practical and rhetorical shift in hemispheric relations.

Some are hailing CLACS as a defiant challenge to the Organization of American States (which is largely dominated by US interests), and an example of the decline of the regional power and privilege of the US. Its formation is part of a broader sense that Latin America may be breaking free of Yankee domination.

The king is dead!

Many analysts and journalists insist that US foreign policy in Latin America has moved from Monroe Doctrine (‘Latin America is our sphere of influence’) and Roosevelt Corollary (‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’) diplomacy to more nuanced negotiation. They point to the rise of socialist-inspired governments like those of Chávez in Venezeula and Evo Morales in Bolivia, as well as more moderate leaders like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile, as signs of a new Latin America unafraid to defy the US. A 2008 report from the Washington think tank The Council on Foreign Relations declared the Monroe Doctrine “obsolete,” claiming Latin America is “no longer Washington’s to lose, nor is it Washington’s to save.”

In December’s New Republic, former Mexican Foreign Secretary and current NYU Professor Jorge Castañeda asserts the US is exhibiting a “new passivity” and “indifference” regarding Latin American affairs. Citing US inaction during last summer’s coup in Honduras, Castañeda writes, “For the first time in centuries, the United States doesn’t seem to care much what happens in Latin America.” Bidding adios to Monroe, he calls for a new doctrine that might keep the US out of other countries’ domestic policies, while still maintaining the right to enforce international agreements.

Since President Obama’s inauguration, the US government has worked hard to support this image of a supposedly softer Latin American policy. At last April’s Summit of the Americas, Obama called for “an equal partnership,” adding, “there is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.”

But the State Department has continued to use language that harkens back to Cold War-style diplomacy, bent on preserving North American over local interests. In her first trip to the region as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton objected to Brazilian and Venezuelan openness to Iran, suggesting those nations’ leaders “take a look at what the consequences might well be for them.” In the wake of the Honduran coup, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the experience “would be a good lesson” for ousted president Manuel Zelaya  and that the “current leadership in Venezuela would not be a particular model” if he wanted US support.

Still, in a February 26 press conference, US Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela insisted on a US-Latin American partnership based in common interest. “There really isn’t that much significant difference between the United States and the countries of the Americas. We have very common goals. We’re seeking the same objectives,” he said.

CLACS may appear to refute that assertion, as Latin Americans are explicitly attempting to strike out on their own. Yet US response remains critical; even Castañeda admits that on most matters, anyway, “almost nothing can be done without US cooperation or leadership.” For all the Obama Administration’s emphasis on hemispheric unity, foundational tenets of US policy and their current implementations still prevent any “new era” of diplomacy marked by cooperation rather than coercion.

Long live the king!
In a February 8 article in The Nation, Greg Grandin argues the Monroe Doctrine “has not expired so much as slimmed down,” and that the US continues to “promote a volatile mix of militarism and free-trade orthodoxy” in the region.

“I would never use the word ‘passivity’ to describe US relations with Latin America,” Grandin wrote in an email. He cited the ongoing drug war, Plan Colombia, Southcom, NAFTA, and CAFTA as indicating “a very active engagement.”

Especially significant and belying ‘non-interventionism’ is Plan Colombia. Now eleven years old, Plan Colombia is currently the primary US military operation in Latin America, focused on stopping the drug trade and suppressing the activity of Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerillas. In October, Colombia agreed to allow the US access to seven military bases to conduct counterinsurgency operations. Free military rein is part of why the US calls Colombia its closest ally in the region, despite the fact that the right wing Uribe regime is considered one of the most repressive. The International Trade Union Confederation has reported more than 500 trade unionists killed in Colombia since Uribe took office.

Southcom is the US Department of Defense’s agency for operations in Latin America and, Grandin wrote, “has more staff devoted to Latin American issues than all other US government agencies combined.” This seems a far cry from the “indifference” that Castañeda touted.
So, too, are the primary US-Latin America economic agreements, NAFTA (which includes Canada and Mexico) and CAFTA (NAFTA for the Central American states). Both take a decidedly hands-on approach to promoting neo-liberal, laissez-faire economic policy.

Whatever the facts on the ground, US foreign policy makers are trying to craft a better public image—at least at home, if not abroad. And in many instances, tactics for promoting US interests truly aren’t what they used to be.

“Military interventions in Latin America don’t look intelligent in this moment,” said Ruben Oliven, a visiting professor at Brown’s Center for Latin American Studies. However, he noted, “I don’t think the United States is passive. This idea is misleading, and it’s based on the presumption that you are only active if you show your [military] power.” Nor does he think the US is becoming more progressive in its policy. Instead, he said, “It’s changing the way they’re dealing with their interests.”

The long goodbye
Instead of using outdated or politically unsavory aggression, the State Department may just be biding its time. Rather than confront or negotiate with the “Left Turn” governments of Chávez, Lula, and Bachelet, it can just wait for them to be term-limited out of office. Right-wing president-elect Sebastián Piñera will soon replace Bachelet in Chile. Brazil faces a presidential election in which Lula’s Workers Party holds no guarantees. Venezuela and Argentina have upcoming legislative elections. If centrist or right wing governments come to power in those countries, the current so-called unity of the Latin American leftist bloc will be broken.

And this unity is more an affinity than a path to a coherent political agenda. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States may turn out to be more than a symbolic counter-organization to the OAS, but “it’s not such a united front,” Oliven said. Although he called the formation of the organization “natural,” he said, “it’s an organization [that] obviously is going to have different perspectives.”

Grandin agreed that “ideological divisions will be strong.” But he sees the organization as demonstrating a “willingness to think and act in concert” that “could provide an important stabilizing counterweight to Washington’s increasingly reckless willingness to play one region or country off another.”

So far, the official US response to CLACS has been limited to a statement by Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela downplaying the new organization’s significance. “We do not see the fact that the countries of Latin America are trying to put together some of their own mechanisms for integration as, in any way, deleterious to the objectives that the United States are pursuing” he told reporters. But he cautioned that the Community “should not be an effort that would replace the OAS.”

Secretary of State Clinton will be traveling throughout Latin America this week to offer post-earthquake aid to Chile, and to meet with leaders in Uruguay, Brazil, Costa Rica and Guatemala. The State Department is billing the trip as part of the effort for “greater engagement” with “bilateral issues” in the region. The US continues to talk softly while waiting to see what to do with its big stick.

SIMONE LANDON B'10.5 is a Latin American Studies concentrator.