Latin America: Washington's Near-Abroad


By Matthew Riemer

Power and Interest News Report
January 19, 2004

Latin America was the first international arena where the upstart United States of America was to practice interventionism: the use of economic or military tools to achieve a political or economic end -- typically for one's own benefit -- in a foreign country, regardless of the interests or desires of that country.

As early as the mid 1800s, U.S. marines had landed on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua and Panama on more than one occasion, in the first instance to support the faltering government there and, in the latter case, to ensure the security of the Atlantic-Pacific railroad. Thirty years before, the Monroe Doctrine had articulated the notion that the entire Western Hemisphere was now open for the United States to influence and off limits to other aspiring powers; interference by such parties was to be considered a threat to the interests of the United States.

In 1903, the Roosevelt administration once again sent forces to Panama, this time in the form of warships that were to assist in a rebellion against the Colombian government that had refused to surrender land to the United States for the building of a trans-isthmian canal. And, now, one hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt assertively acted in accord with the Monroe Doctrine, Washington continues to be deeply involved in a Latin America that is still of vital interest to the U.S.

At the center of Washington's Latin America policy is the continuing development and expansion of free trade zones in the Western Hemisphere. Recently, this was one of the major items on the agenda at the Summit of the Americas gathering in Monterrey, Mexico that saw 34 leaders come together for two days to discuss the Western Hemisphere's future.

In addition to touting its new immigration policy and informing Canada that it would now be allowed a share of economic contracts in Iraq, the Bush administration called for a new Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would create the world's largest free trade zone; however, many countries present took issue with Washington's proposal, including Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina.

Also of great importance to Washington -- really almost inseparable from the trade issue – is its relationship with Venezuela and the path that the oil-rich country is taking. The past two years have seen strained -- and even openly hostile relations -- between the White House and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a series of events, beginning with a failed coup in April 2002, served to sour any goodwill that once may have existed between the two governments.

Chavez was outraged at the time of the coup when Washington was slow to condemn the illegal seizure of power and even briefly endorsed it during the immediate aftermath. This helped convince Chavez that Washington was indeed in favor of his ouster and may now even be embracing that option as policy. This move on Washington's part can certainly be seen as a provocation.

Since then, Washington -- and most frequently the State Department -- has firmly advised Chavez to respect the rule of law and accept the results of any referenda that might be held to determine his legitimacy and continuation as president. Currently, the verification of some three million plus signatures is in the process of being completed with Chavez deeply skeptical of the authenticity of all the signatures; 2.4 million are needed to hold a referendum on his rule. Given the deep distrust with which Washington regards Chavez, any move by the self-declared people's champion could possibly act as a trigger within the U.S. leadership that would result in the implementation of more hard-line policies concerning Venezuela and its recalcitrant and excitable leader.

Venezuela is obviously economically vital to U.S. interests, as the U.S. is the largest market for Venezuelan oil. Chavez, well aware of the leverage he possesses as leader of Venezuela, has sought to resist U.S. and others' advances to establish some kind of hemispheric trade agreement that would further open up Venezuela and its oil industry to foreign investment. Because of this, Washington sees Chavez as an obstacle to its free trade/economic goals for the region.

Chavez also functions as a polarizing figure for other leaders in the region such as Brazilian President Lula Ignacio da Silva, himself cool to Washington's endorsement of further hemispheric trade agreements. The Venezuelan leader is also a great friend of long-time U.S. nemesis Fidel Castro; Washington, however, likely uses this issue more for its rhetorical effect and historical weight than as a legitimate reason why Hugo Chavez is a dangerous individual who should be removed from office. Anti-Castro rhetoric now serves a dual-purpose of not only continuing the U.S. policy of harsh criticism of the Castro regime, but also implicating Hugo Chavez. Recently, to affirm his alignment with the Cuban leader, Chavez visited the island after attending the Summit of the Americas conference.

The dynamics of Latin American politics is such that very few countries really have any weight. Mexico is the country most involved with the U.S., if only because of the thousands of miles of shared border and the prominent immigration issue that follows from that. And though President Bush urged Mexico City to back the war in Iraq and become a member of the "coalition of the willing," Mexican President Vicente Fox's resolve was firm. Throughout Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. has historically had its way and will continue to do so.

South America is where the true resistance to U.S. policy ultimately resides and will be dealt with. It is also the region with the largest economies and populations in Latin America. In fact, globally speaking, Brazil has the 11th largest economy in the world with a GDP of about $1.4 trillion and is the sixth most populous country. Brazil represents a vast, developing market of which the United States is eager to become an integral part of. The recent election of what Washington considers a leftist candidate, Lula Ignacio da Silva, only heightens the U.S.' desire to become intimately involved there so that economic opportunities are not lost or taken advantage of by others.

It seems the future sees the United States continuing to push for a hemispheric free trade agreement in general, while heartily lobbying significant doubters like Brazil and Argentina, encouraging the removal of Hugo Chavez, keeping Cuba as isolated as possible so as to remain an endearing example, and fostering new reformed immigration policies with Mexico that hope to bolster the U.S. economy.

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