New challenges in Latin America

July 30, 2004|By Riordan Roett

NO MATTER WHO is residing in the White House in January, the next administration will find that it will need to deal with a rapidly changing Latin America.

While the trade agenda - the attempt to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas - is the major item under discussion, its future is uncertain. While trade talks have dominated hemispheric affairs for the last decade or so, a number of development issues have arisen that will require a more sophisticated approach in the future.

First is the growing discontent with democratic institutions. The United States, historically, assumes that democracy is established when countries hold relatively open and free elections. That is no longer the case. Fewer Latin Americans are voting. There are more abstentions and blank ballots. The people of the region are increasingly of the belief that elections produce little for them in terms of jobs, social services or greater equality.

And there is a growing sense that corrupt public officials have no interest in delivering a better life. Many people in the region would prefer a strongman over a democratic leader if he delivered on the economic and social agenda that has been neglected for decades.

An important part of the discontent is driven by the emergence of a new and vital element in the politics of the region - indigenous movements. Across the Andean countries, new organizations and spokesmen have appeared to speak out for the native populations. While they speak different languages and have different historical experiences, the indigenous peoples have one common position - they have suffered wholesale discrimination by the dominant minorities, usually white or mestizo.

They now want justice and inclusion. The next president of Bolivia may well be one of the most outspoken of the new leadership - and he is anti-market and not particularly fond of the United States. Across the Andean region, either indigenous movements are remaking national politics or individual leaders from a populist, anti-elite majority, such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, are challenging the decades-old assumptions of U.S. policy.

In the Cold War, U.S. policy relied on the military to protect the hemisphere from communism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States turned to economic technocrats and the private sector to promote markets and democracy. Neither group was - or is - particularly concerned about social justice and equality, as the income distribution and social equality indicators confirm.

For the poor, neither the armed forces of the 1960s and 1970s nor the U.S.-educated technocrats of the 1990s were successful in promoting social mobility and access to education and public health. And there is a growing feeling among the poor and often disenfranchised that the United States was complicit in supporting both groups for its own narrow foreign and economic policy interests.

The United States cannot tell Latin American elites and leaders to do what they have chosen to ignore. But Washington can begin to think more imaginatively of a set of carrot-and-stick policies such as those practiced some decades ago by the European Union in preparing Greece, Portugal and Spain for membership. Institutional changes at home were linked to financial support from headquarters in Brussels. Meaningful reforms had to be implemented transparently. Public corruption had to be confronted head-on in the public sector. And relatively fair and equitable social policies, with appropriate financing, were needed.

Concentrating on elections alone is no longer sufficient in the hemisphere. The next White House needs to rethink current policy and identify new options. The cost of not doing so may well be indigenous-led regimes that are not particularly concerned about U.S. interests. Greater upheaval may mean greater flows of illegal immigrants and greater opportunities for the export of drugs to the United States.

It may also mean losing the opportunity, if it still exists, to do more than fine-tune the liberal market model of the last decade and to turn to meaningful social and economic reform. There is no reason to believe at this late date that a U.S. effort to change course will work. But not to try would be viewed by all countries as a major blunder by the United States in its own hemisphere.

Riordan Roett is director of Latin American studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

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