IT IS TEMPTING to take a look at the sorry state of U.S.-Latin American relations and conclude that we would all be better off if north and south went their separate ways. This month’s singularly unproductive Summit of the Americas in Mar de Plata, Argentina, can be seen as sufficient proof that the impasse on such critical questions as trade is impossible to overcome. Such a view, however, would be a serious misreading of the interests at stake in both the United States and Latin America.
Public opinion polls in the region show that Latin Americans, rich and poor, are deeply critical of U.S. leadership and fervently disapprove of U.S. policies in the hemisphere and worldwide. Overwhelmingly, they dislike President Bush. And they distrust Washington, alternately charging the Bush administration with constant bullying and chronic neglect.
For its part, the U.S. government is disillusioned with Latin America and seems to have lost any interest it once had in the region. It can’t seem to move on what Latin Americans want most -- reduced agricultural subsidies, more liberal immigration laws, greater social investment and bigger development projects. Latin Americans, in turn, are indifferent to what Washington desires most -- reliable partners in the war on terrorism, allies to contain the fiercely anti-American Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, and more open markets for trade and foreign investment. The gap in agendas and priorities has rarely, if ever, been greater.
It’s thus easy to understand why many say that if Washington were even more disengaged than it is today, Latin America would benefit. The region would then be free to pursue its real interests without Washington exerting its heavy-handed influence on what it has long regarded -- dating to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 -- as its strategic preserve. This is the view that the oil-rich Chavez propagates at every opportunity.
Even if U.S. withdrawal were feasible, however, the consequences for the region would not be benign. Latin America would lose some access to the world’s largest market and the most important source of investment capital and technology. It is hard to see how this would help reduce poverty and produce more jobs, the region’s most urgent priority.
A Washington-less Latin America would not contain the region’s spreading criminality. Although the U.S.-led war on drugs has largely failed, eliminating all U.S. assistance programs would not lessen the demand for drugs in the United States, Brazil (the second-largest consumer of cocaine) and Europe that continues to drive the market. Substantial U.S. support to Colombia has shored up its besieged government and helped avert a “failed-state” scenario.
Despite the rift between Washington and Latin American capitals, most governments in the region are interested in working with the United States. At last week’s summit, Mexican President Vicente Fox urged his fellow presidents to remain committed to building a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Central American and most Andean governments embrace this goal. Even Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, which resisted U.S. pressure to set a trade-talk timetable next year, hope Washington will get serious about reducing agricultural subsidies so more of their products can reach U.S. markets.
Washington still may be tempted to marginalize Latin America further. That would be a mistake. The United States and Latin America are more economically interconnected than ever. Their value systems are highly compatible. The vast majority of Latin America’s governments are committed to market economies and liberal democracies. U.S. exports to the region total more than $150 billion a year, comparable to our trade sales in the European Union. And Latinos are the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. The major problems facing us -- drugs, health, the environment and security -- will only worsen if we lack the cooperation of our neighbors.
Unfortunately, repeated misunderstandings and resentments make the U.S.-Latin American relationship unnecessarily -- and tragically -- tortured. The message Bush and senior officials should have taken from the summit is how urgent it is for the administration to devote serious attention to Latin America and seek to rebuild the trust that, over the past decade, has all but evaporated.