Latin America policy is stuck in the 1980s
Fidel Castro of Cuba addressing addressing the United Nations in New York in 1979. (Getty Images)
March 13th, 2012
12:52 PM ET

Latin America policy is stuck in the 1980s

Editor's Note: Christopher Sabatini is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

By Christopher Sabatini - Special to CNN

After listening to the debate in Washington DC on Latin America, no one could blame you for believing you had taken a time capsule back to the 1980s. With Republican candidates focusing on the subversive threats of an outside power, U.S. senators railing against a populist government that lost its regional appeal years ago and holding up presidential nominations over Cuba, and leftist advocacy groups still blaming human rights abuses on U.S. policy, it sounds like little has changed in 30 years.

But a lot has changed, both in the region and in the commentary about it. That message simply hasn’t trickled up to U.S. policymakers. The fault isn’t just the politicians in DC; the blame lies in part with the U.S. academic community and advocacy groups.

Take a look at the Latin America course offerings at most U.S. universities and you’ll find a host of classes on comparative politics, social movements, electoral trends, and democracy. The same is true for U.S. scholarship: Apart from the occasional book on U.S. foreign policy - almost inevitably focused on the hemispheric hegemony of the “great colossus to the north” - what you won’t find is much on inter-state relations in the hemisphere. More than an oversight, in an era of rising powers inside and outside the region, this intellectual shortcoming has become a serious constraint in how we understand and respond to the modern Western Hemisphere.

Limited academic training combined with the vestiges of the Cold War (both in terms of paradigms and people) are holding U.S. debate and policy back. For one, much of U.S public attention and debate on the region remains focused on small countries, like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Cuba– many of them victims of the ideological battles of the 1980s - missing the positive developments that have occurred over the last 20 years and how they affect U.S. national interests.

Take Brazil. In the wake of its average 4.4 percent growth over the last 5 years, the South American giant has been chomping at the bit to become a regional and even global power. The “B” in the BRIC bloc of advanced emerging economies, Brazil’s sense of its own economic arrival, combined with a perception of declining U.S. influence, have reinforced the country’s historical dream of becoming a spokesperson for the developing world.

Brazil’s first agenda item in this leadership role has been the country’s traditional non-interventionist stance. In 2010, bucking international consensus, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, together withTurkey, entered into last-minute negotiations to head off United Nations sanctions against Iran. The effort failed to produce a breakthrough, but demonstrated the country’s independent streak even in the face of the developed world’s consensus. While its current President, Dilma Rousseff, backed away from her predecessor’s Persian adventure, the government did oppose the U.N. resolution that endorsed NATO actions against the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime, and publicly, even stubbornly, refused to discuss human rights in her trip to Cuba in early February.

Neither Brazil’s rise nor its regional and global initiatives should be understood as a threat. Quite the contrary: They open up opportunities for collaboration and dialogue.

The region has also shown other new fault lines of economic and political change. China, for example, has become the major trade partner of countries like Brazil and Chile and is set to displace the European Union as the region’s second-largest trade partner.

And of course there is Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez. The country’s neighbors appear content to remain silent in the lead-up to what will be a hotly - if unfairly - contested October presidential election. Whatever the outcome,Caracas’ neighbors have a stake in the integrity of the elections and their outcome in a country in which the U.S. and European countries have long alleged connections with narco-traffickers.

In the meantime, though, Washington is focused on other issues. The only time Latin America has come up in the Republican debates has been over the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the region. While no minor matter, the issue hardly represents the sort of positive agenda that has characterized the 20-plus years of bipartisan engagement in the region.

Statements like Rick Santorum’s in the January 23 Republican debate alleging that Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans form “...a growing network of folks now working with the jihadists, the Iranians, who are very, very excited about the opportunity to have platforms ninety miles off our coast” resurrect outdated Cold War rhetoric and touch historic nerves south of the border.

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney warns on his website that “the Bolivarian movement threatens U.S. allies…has encouraged regional terrorist organizations, and has even invited Iran and foreign terrorist organizations like Hezbollah into the region.” The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee last week passed the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012, which mandates the State Department to update Congress on the activity of Iranian forces and their proxies Hezbollah and Hamas across the hemisphere.

If you were to listen to the other side, though, one would think the most important issue was U.S. policy in countries like Cuba. Since the Cuban government’s December 2010 arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross who had been in Cuba distributing laptops and cell phones to the local Jewish community, a number of groups have done little but heap scorn, not on the Cuban government, but on the United States - most not even daring to mention the Cuban regime’s abysmal human rights record.

To be sure, there’s much to criticize about a program that is tied by law to the U.S. embargo and under the administration of George W. Bush was lavishly funded and cloaked under the rhetoric of regime change. But the dagger - beyond the overheated, politically charged rhetoric of the program - was nothing more than a set of electronic equipment that was deemed subversive by Cuban law.

Unfortunately, though, this is the state of Latin America-policy debate in the United States: lamely stuck in a past where the U.S. is either the long-awaited savior or a scourge of all that is sacred.

It’s time to move on.

U.S. policymakers need to shift their attention away from the domestic concerns of particular Latin America countries (over which the United States has shrinking influence anyway) and toward a more international and, yes, even realist understanding of the region. Such an approach would address how to grapple with, and embrace, rising economic and diplomatic regional players like Brazil. It’s an intellectual shift that academia and the advocacy community need to embrace as well, and one they can help shape.

This draws from an article in the March/April Foreign Affairs titled “Rethinking Latin America”. The views in this article are solely those of Christopher Sabatini.


soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. yucutan surfer

    realism in U.S. policy would be a welcome advance, starting with the brazil and china relationships. i hope we are listening.

    March 13, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
    • reality bites

      Good luck with this crowd!

      March 13, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
      • latam65

        obama meeting with hemispheric leaders in april at the summit of the americas. what's he gonna say? the cupboard is bare

        March 13, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
      • Just like the Mets

        Weakest team Ever!!!!

        March 13, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      What a paradox! While the U.S. foreign-policy in Latin America is still stuck in the 1980's, South America is looking increasingly over the oceans: to Africa and Asia. Perhaps they have felt alienated by the North.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
    • Joe smith

      People, wake up and take the initiative !!! And I am speaking to our government !! Don't wait to be told, grab the bull and go with it. Educate and be aware of your surroundings...

      March 16, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  2. George Patton

    We sorely need to nomalize relations with Cuba and cut off foreign aid to countries like Colombia which uses that money to kill people! I myself would very much like to travel to Cuba but barred from doing so since I'm not Cuban American. I deeply resent the right-wing thugs in Washington telling me where and where I cannot take my vacations!!! Anyone who advocates continuing our current policy toward Cuba needs to have their head examined!

    March 13, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Well said, George. I couldn't agree more!

      March 13, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • Atlas Freedman

      Seems revealing in a bad way that your outrage is generated from obstacles to your vacations. You don't even mention human rights violations. Why should our economy prop up a corrupt and oppressive regime?

      And while you advocate vacations in Cuba which would prop up the Castro's with your dollars spent on cigars, real Cubans are either trying to leave, or staying away until things change.

      March 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
      • Francisco Antonio

        Have you ever vacationed or traveled for work to China, or no someone that has? Did you scold them or yourself for visiting a country that oppresses and violates the human rights of their citizen? Hmmmm.....

        March 14, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
      • Bill Rivers

        In SEA/Vietnam ALONE the United States slaughtered over 3 MILLION Human Sentient Beings mainly for the PROFIT of the Military Industrial Complex.. But Castro is 'EVIL'.

        March 19, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Capitan Justicia

      George Patton, the only people Colombia is killing with that money is narcoterrorists! Colombia is by far the staunchest US ally in all Latin America but you're just too prejudiced and ignorant to know that!

      March 16, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • gerard morel cruz

      since you are not cuban american, perhaps you should read the facts before proclaiming a normalization with a nation that does not allow freedom of speech, movement, due process, religion, political belief.
      so hilarious how ignorant people are about cuba. the castro brothers, like batista before them, were never elected and have been in power for 53 years. they need to let the cuban people choose their own direction, but since you are not cuban american you will never understand

      March 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Reply
      • Not Cuban

        and keeping cuba under isolation has done a great job, i guess you are cuban, a floradian from Cuba right? the policy has failed to bring any change in Cuba, in fact it has done the opposite. but i guess since you are Floradian from Cuba, you would know better, you have inherited a right to know everything.. good job

        March 18, 2012 at 12:26 am |
  3. Atlas Freedman

    This article may as well be a memo from the DNC. While it decries our refusal to trade with a communist country that denies its own citizens basic rights (Cuba), it makes no mention of recent efforts by Republicans to push through a trade agreement with Colombia to support their rapid progress in becoming economically sound.

    Finally, the crux of the article is bogus. The threat from Iran is real.

    http://insightsur.com/2012/03/12/us-government-awakening-to-iranian-threat-in-south-america/

    March 13, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Talk about human rights abuses, Colombia's record is even worse that that of Cuba with that brutal Alvaro Uribe as President. Besides, what did the Colombian government do for it's own people lately? Talk about Iran, noboby in Washington has even one shred of evidence that the Iranians have any intention of building nuclear weapons. It's just that the right-wing politicians are trying to scare us again in order to get votes since fear is a motivating factor for them.

      March 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
      • Atlas Freedman

        Colombia is, and was, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Venezuela and Ecuador are less than friendly, and it appears that Chavez has even insigated and supported the FARC.

        Despite pressures from violent narco trafficers, the country seems to have turned the corner through market reforms and social programs helping the poorest of the country.

        Since your hated Uribe took office in 2002, Per Capita Income (PPP) for Colombians has gone up %130.

        "Talk about human rights abuses, Colombia's record is even worse that that of Cuba with that brutal Alvaro Uribe as President."

        Facts? I do know, for example, that as a Cuban, you can't even leave your own country, so I'm not sure what abuses you're citing that would make Colombia worse.

        "...noboby in Washington has even one shred of evidence that the Iranians have any intention of building nuclear weapons."

        They don't have to use nuclear weapons to cause problems do they? Currently, they are helping VE build a drone, and it is suspected that the recent embassy bombings were instigated by Iranian operatives. Also, the tie that seems to bind Iran with the region is mutual hatred rather than any cooperative benefits.

        March 14, 2012 at 10:07 am |
      • Capitan Justicia

        Colombia under Uribe:

        90% decrease in kidnappings
        45% decrease in homicides
        Over 1,200 criminals extradited to the US (more than all previous Colombian governments combined)
        Rescued the three kidnapped American contractors in the greatest rescue in modern military history
        Took out top FARC commander Raul Reyes in a bold raid on a terrorist camp in Ecuador
        Demobilized over 30,000 paramilitaries and extradited 14 of their top leaders to the US
        More foreign investment than ever before
        Constant growth in GDP

        In a few words, Colombia is a much better country today than it was before Uribe. The only people who don't like what Uribe did for Colombia are ingrates and people who are anti-Colombian.

        March 16, 2012 at 12:20 am |
      • gerard morel cruz

        wrong, george patton, way wrong

        March 17, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Francisco Antonio

      http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/8238-berkeley-law-school-to-present-report-on-paras-to-us-congressmen.html – If you need more evidence of Colombia's human right abuses there's plenty more where that came from. I would say though that I would rather be "forced" to stay in Cuba by their oppressive government than have myself or my family killed for being part of union/living on speculative land/etc. by paramilitaries in Colombia.

      March 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Reply
      • hiya

        bogus claims, but typical

        March 15, 2012 at 11:47 am |
      • Francisco Antonio

        Would you like to elaborate on your comment hiya?

        March 15, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
      • Capitan Justicia

        Francisco, the Colombia Reports site is notorious for being anti-Uribe but very lenient on the FARC. Uribe saved Colombia and battered the terrorists and that's what ticks off a lot of people! Viva Uribe!

        March 16, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  4. washington wonk

    can you believe the bachelor chose that one? amazing.

    March 13, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  5. Pedro González Munné

    Check your facts please, Allan Gross wasn't 'distributing laptops and cell phones to the local Jewish community', that's a lie and you know it. This is the can of bias mask as 'academic declarations' that confuses and support stupidities like the 50 year embargo. Way to go CNN!

    March 13, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  6. Luke Weyland

    When will the politicians in DC realise that USA is not the same thing as America?

    March 13, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
  7. what is americas quarterly?

    is that like a cooking show? americas cutlery?

    March 15, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
  8. Gordon Robinson

    I have visited Cuba 73 times on research since 1993 and can state the Cuban economy is being restructured with the help of China. The USA missed the boat again – Si !!! When the new Panama Canal is completed Cuba will be in a mega boom.
    Gordon " Cubaking " Robinson – Port Alberni B.C. Canada

    March 15, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Reply
  9. rightospeak

    The Latin American policy was dictated by Wall Street to maximize their profits. The Wall Street support for Communist movements and debt creation of nations ( both enslave ) resulted in destruction of Latin American economies , misery till people rebelled. Now a new policy is needed : abolish all sanctions on Cuba , establish free trade and travel there. In essence, stop supporting Communism and Castro ! Stop creating national debts in South America so that people can get better lives. Globalism does not work ,it only enslaves.

    March 16, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  10. Paganguy

    The right wing retard imperialists are still angry at the Cuban people because Castro kicked out the CIA puppet Batista.
    The same thing is going on in Iran. Shaw the agent was kicked out, impose an embargo. Embargos only hurt the people.
    Seems like our leaders have this engraved into their minds: If you are not our puppet you are our enemy. I am happy at least the Chinese are helping the Cuban people. Obama had a chance, he could have done more. For now we embargo the Cuban people but pay big bucks to the Castro brothers to rent Guantanamo Bay.

    March 16, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  11. Chris

    After living in Latin America for 20 years and recently returning to the US, I have noticed that the dependance on US aid has reduced significantly and the US no longer has a say on Latin American Policy. I see manny emerging socialist democratic governments opposing US policy and finding alternatives across the sea to the east. Countries like Bolivia had the audacity to reject all US aid and kick out the DEA, and other US agencies. Latin america seems to be uniting, slowly, like a sort of European Union, but a bit more chaotic, that could potentially become a significant economic and political power. I think our Government needs to see the potential Latin America has as an economic and political ally and not as an eminent terrors threat. The whole evil doers discourse is getting old. We need a Latin American Policy that unites the whole continent into prosperity.

    March 16, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  12. john smiith

    1980's hell-1960's. But Florida is always a crucial state in a presidential election, and Florida has s significant population with ties to Cuba. Ain't gonna change soon

    March 17, 2012 at 11:33 am | Reply
  13. 15 usa soldiers ra pe 2 afgani women before killing them

    the afgani investigation and the international lab proved now that 15 usa soldiers was involved of killing more than 16 children and women, and that 15 soldiers ra pe 2 afgani ladies young ladies ra pe them repeatdley and then shot them dead and burned there bodies , exactley as it happened in iraq when usa soldiers ra ped 14 years old girl then shot her and shot her parents and brothers and burned there bodies ...usa did that in vitnam ,korea and many other places they are murderous thugs ra piest killers and OBAMA say soyy all the time!!?/while leaving evil iranians and evil syrian bashar al asad killing more civilians obama is a cowered president if obama want to fix this problem he must attack syria now and remove bashar al asad to show to the muslim world that he mean it, remove the evil in syria now and prove your point OBAMA.......why you are silent...SILENCE IS A CRIME.

    March 17, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  14. iraqi shiia are thugs

    iraqi shiia are thugs

    moqtada al sadder and mahdi militia the terrorists iraqi shiia let go one usa soldeir that they captured since 2011 and they say we let him go as free well juster !!!!!!why you captured him in the first place you peace of sh it shiia thugs , he was defending you ..why shiia killed many usa people in iraq and iran, becuase they are terrorists thugs...usa should start attacking bashar al asad in syria hizboallah , and iraqi shiia change those thugs and terrorists before we deal with iran, the time is for the shiia to be hit hard so they can give up arm and terrorizim...
    التيار الصدري يفرج عن جندي أميركي

    مقتدى الصدر أمر الجناح العسكري للتيار بالإفراج عن الرقيب هيلز (وكالة الأنباء الأوروبية) أفرج التيار الصدري السبت في بغداد عن أميركي قال إنه جندي محتجز منذ صيف عام 2011، وأوضح أن الافراج جاء "لأسباب إنسانية".
    وقالت النائبة العراقية بالتيار الصدري مهى الدوري إن مقتدى الصدرأمر الجناح العسكري للتيار بالإفراج عن المواطن الأميركي، مضيفة أنه جندي يدعى راندي مايكل هيلز وهو رقيب متقاعد يبلغ من العمر 59 عاما.
    كما ذكر مصدر بالتيار في النجف أن الافراج تم لأسباب إنسانية، لافتا إلى عدم حصول أي مفاوضات مباشرة أو غير مباشرة مع الأميركيين أو أي جانب آخر.
    وأضاف المصدر نفسه أن الإفراج عن المواطن الأميركي يمثل بادرة حسن نية من زعيم التيار مقتدى الصدر للدلالة على "القيم الأخلاقية والإنسانية والعقائدية للمقاومة الإسلامية العراقية".

    وسلم الجندي المفرج عنه إلى بعثة الأمم المتحدة في بغداد التي نقلته إلى السفارة الأميركية، وأكد المتحدث باسم السفارة أن هيلز مواطن أميركي دون تقديم مزيد من التفاصيل.
    وفي تصريحات مقتضبة للصحفيين، قال هيلز إنه أرسل للعراق عام 2003، وعمل بادئ الأمر جنديا لمدة 15 شهرا.

    وأضاف أنه ظل في العراق بصفة مدنية منذ ذلك الحين وحتى يونيو 2011 عندما أخدته عناصر من "اليوم الموعود" رهينة، في إشارة إلى مليشيا لواء اليوم الموعود التابعة لجيش المهدي.

    يُذكر أن وزارة الدفاع الأميركية (بنتاغون) تقول إنه لم يتم إدراج أي فرد من جنودها رهينة بالعراق منذ استعادة رفات آخر جندي مفقود الشهر الماضي.

    March 18, 2012 at 5:26 am | Reply

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