November 13, 2015

Independence in the Backyard: Latin America on the World Stage

US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis walk through the Colonnade on their way to a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.
US President Barack Obama and Pope Francis walk through the Colonnade on their way to a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.

In international relations, soft power might often prove a better course of action than guns.

2015 will go down in the history of diplomatic relations for one symbolic breakthrough, which appears to bring to an end (in the traditional sense) the Cold War, which had been dragging on from the 20th century.
In April, the US president, Barack Obama, and the Cuban leader, Raúl Castro, sat down together at a small table in Panama and gave assurances, amid camera flashes, that the old ideological enemies were ready to establish diplomatic relations and begin cooperation. Obama summarised the historic meeting by saying “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new”.
Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world has shifted over 500 years from being centred around Spanish and Portuguese colonialism to a relationship with the US—which some would call neo-colonialism. Throughout the 20th century the US has shamelessly called Latin America—with its incredible cultural and social diversity—its “backyard”. It has not shied away from using crude power politics to ensure its dominance over the Western hemisphere.
Starting in the 1990s, the relationship with its southern neighbours has changed somewhat. First, the end of the Cold War alleviated the US phobia of the ghost of communism wandering too freely in the backyard and soon knocking on the back door. Second, several Latin American countries have become confident enough to stand up straight, make their own demands of the relationship and, for example, prefer more politically aware intraregional cooperation to free trade with the US.
And, third, in an increasingly diverse world, Latin American countries can easily develop relations with third countries, as happened especially during the rule of the former Brazilian president Luiz Lula, focusing on South–South Cooperation.1 The Chinese presence in Latin America will thrive in any case, especially given that the US cannot drive the Chinese out from its “backyard”—the battle against the “axis of evil” elsewhere in the world takes up most of its energy.
What is the status of Latin America in 2015? And, for starters, how did it come to pass that the leaders of Cuba and the US shook hands in public for the first time in 56 years?

Our Man in Havana

One powerful man stands behind the breakthrough in the Cuba–US relationship. It might come as a surprise to Estonians (among the least religious people in the world), but it took a professional from a third party—the Church—to bring together heads of state with radically different world views. The Argentine-born Pope Francis is one of the few true authorities recognised by Castro, Obama and their supporters. His popularity both in Latin America and the US covers the rear of both sides—it gives Castro the justification to “bed down with the Yanks” and assuages the anger of Americans over Obama making deals with communists.
Time magazine reveals how apparently simple it is to make history sometimes.2 On 25 August 2014, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, visited the White House incognito and handed the president a letter from the Pope, identical to one he had passed a few days earlier to Raúl Castro. Francis professed his support for diplomatic talks, encouraged resolving the issue of prisoners, which had thus far hindered negotiations, and offered the Vatican’s support to overcome the distrust between the two countries. The letter was that simple. Within two months, Barack and Raúl met at the Vatican and in a five-hour meeting listed the details for restoring full diplomatic relations. The historic deal was concluded via telephone on 16 December 2014, and hands were shaken for the benefit of the media at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April.
It is therefore no coincidence that the Pope’s recent tour of the Americas started in Cuba and moved on to the US, Francis’s first-ever visit there. Before this his only papal visit to a so-called developed country had been a four-hour stop in Strasbourg to give a speech, but he has spent plenty of time in his “spiritual base”—the global South. His first foreign visit (and his only one in 2013) was a week-long trip to Brazil, where he met president Dilma Rousseff and held a mass for 3,500,000 faithful on Copacabana beach. In 2015 he visited Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. The Pope has also visited Asia and the Middle East; his next trips will be in November to Africa and in July 2016 to South America again.
Visits are just a part of Francis’s clear and bold strategy. He has entered the international diplomatic arena at the highest level, and uses the soft power inherent to his institution as a sort of moral megaphone, declaring not only human but also political messages. In 2014, the Vatican sent a special representative to Venezuela to mediate in negotiations between president Nicolás Maduro and the opposition when unrest had turned violent. The Pope’s work in Cuba is probably not yet complete—Obama has asked for his help in closing the Guantánamo prison camp and dealing with the resettlement of its inmates.3

The US in Retreat?

Three months after his inauguration in 2009, Barack Obama announced to the leaders of Latin America that he wished to start a new chapter in relations, an equal partnership based on mutual respect, common interests and shared values.4
Six years later, at a summit in 2015, he declared that he had completed these tasks. In addition to the Cuban breakthrough, the Obama administration could list such achievements as assistance to Central American governments in fighting drug-related crime, guaranteeing the energy security of the Caribbean and mediating negotiations between the government of Colombia and FARC, which should be concluded by March 2016.5 But immigration reform, which interests the Latinos most, has not yet quite worked out.
At the same time, Obama’s opponents accuse him of doing nothing while China gains influence in the region. China is an important foreign investor and creditor for the whole of Latin America, often granting unconditional loans. It is currently the largest trade partner of Brazil, Chile and Peru. The leaders of Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela have preferred to organise reforms with the help of China, rather than according to the strict requirements of the IMF. The boom in Chinese consumer goods has helped to accelerate economic growth and curb poverty, and has allowed a middle class to emerge. On the other hand, cooperation with China has decreased and economic growth has now decelerated, which might present an opportunity for the US to rise once more.
The largest infrastructure project in Latin America—launched in December 2014 to build a canal through Nicaragua to rival the Panama Canal—is officially in the hands of a private Hong Kong company, but it is hard not to see China’s interests here. The new 175-km long canal should handle 5% of the world’s cargo traffic following its completion in 2019. Nicaragua hopes the project will invigorate its weak economy but, from a bystander’s point of view, it seems like the state sold itself extremely cheaply. The concession agreement gives the Hong Kong-based company the freedom to build an unlimited number of airports, ports, hotels and free-trade zones around the canal for 50 years, with obvious damaging effects for the natural and human environment.

The US Stays in the Game

US anti-narcotics aid to Central America is much more ambivalent than it might seem at first glance, providing a cover for insidious militarisation.
The clearest example is Honduras, following the 2009 coup which was supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and opposed by Brazil. This embarrassing episode reminds us that the illegal coups backed by the US throughout the 20th century are not a thing of the past. For the past five years the US has played a key role in leading Honduras’s new right-wing militia, training units including paramilitary and military police forces in the jungles of Central America. Bringing in the US Navy as part of a hurricane relief effort has also been used as a similar trick to unofficially remilitarise Central America.6
Honduras has become the main centre for US support, but similar developments and bases exist all over Central America and Colombia, the flagship of open drug policy, into which the US has pumped $3 billion over the past five years as part of “Plan Colombia”. Officially this is to combat the drugs trade, but it is really intended to keep the “backyard” in check with the help of the military.
The playing field has undergone noticeable changes over the last few years. US-supported heavy-handed presidents have finally begun to falter and to be accused of corruption or worse.
The most dramatic turn of events took place recently, in early September in Guatemala. President Otto Pérez Molina, who had promised to eliminate crime with the Mano duro (“Firm Hand”) campaign, was finally stripped of immunity and jailed for criminal links and corruption. His tax-revenue plundering scheme was, according to a New Yorker journalist, “So sleazy and blatant in its operations that it smacks of a second-rate New Jersey mafia racket from ‘The Sopranos’.”7 Before his presidency, General Pérez Molina was the Director of Military Intelligence and coordinated the massacre of Guatemala’s indigenous people while on the CIA’s payroll.8
Mass protests and strikes in preceding months and the Twitter campaign Yo no tengo Presidente (“I have no president”) have united the nation to an extent comparable to Estonia’s Singing Revolution. It is hard to say what the future has in store for the jubilant country because on 25 October new presidential elections were won by Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian with little political experience whose campaign promise was to make no one cry and whose slogan was “Neither corrupt nor a thief”.
Similar movements for democracy and against impunity are also afoot in Panama, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil. The former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli (2009–14), fled the country in January, just hours before the Supreme Court issued a notice to begin the administration’s corruption investigation. Martinelli was a popular, enterprise-friendly president during whose rule Panama became a true boom state, but he now lives in Florida and is applying for asylum in the US.
The president of Honduras is still clinging to power, even though he recently confessed that his 2014 campaign was financed with funds from the national health system—which, according to activists, caused the death of at least 3,000 patients. Weekly protests and hunger strikes have not yet caused him to budge. A similarly shaky position is held by the Mexican president, Peña Nieto, whose three years in power have already been marked by countless corruption scandals.

Proud Brazilians

All these questionable presidents have been close allies of the US—only time will tell if their downfall will change US strategy in the region. The status of Brazil, the second most powerful state in the Americas, is, however, completely different. During the rule of the popular president Lula da Silva (2003–11), Brazil’s position in the world rose at lightning speed—strong economic growth, successful social programmes and an ambitious independent foreign policy kept the US on its toes.
Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, pulled back on the “global South” front and attempted to fix relations with the US. Then, in 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations that the Americans had been spying on Rousseff came out of the blue, causing her to cancel a visit to the US in protest. She made another attempt to negotiate an equal partnership with the US in 2015, but now from a much weaker position. Brazil’s economic growth has stalled and Rousseff is also battling corruption allegations, extremely low popularity, mass protests and even the threat of removal from office.

What Happens Now?

The future of Latin America will be in the hands of the two powerful women of the Southern Cone—Cristina Kirchner and Dilma Rousseff—and depends on the development of the large states they lead. In Argentina, it will be revealed in December whether the 12-year rule of the Kirchner family will continue with a similarly state-centric protectionist president, or a candidate from the business community promising a rapid opening-up of the economy will seize victory. Against the odds, in the first round the Wall Street favourite Mauricio Macri got almost as many votes as Daniel Scioli, endorsed by Kirchner. Another important question is whether Dilma Rousseff can once again grab the reins in Brazil, invigorate the economy and manage to turn the 2016 Summer Olympic Games into an opportunity and growth potential for the country. If no sudden changes occur in either country, there is some hope of strengthening regional integration—in any case, the poor economic situation is something that will need to be dealt with.
The fate of radical left-wing states will depend on the December elections in Venezuela. President Maduro is not nearly as charismatic as his predecessor Hugo Chavez, and problems are exacerbated by low oil prices. If the elections are legitimate, the opposition could be victorious this time—which would lead to numerous changes not only in Venezuela but in the entire anti-US bloc, including Nicaragua, which is directly dependent on Venezuelan oil money.
Raúl Castro has promised to relinquish power in 2018. Obama hopes that easing travel and trade restrictions will strengthen Cuba’s private sector and that private investment will start to compensate for the help previously received from Venezuela, which at one point accounted for 15% of Cuba’s GDP.
For now, Americans can once again enjoy the opportunity to travel to Cuba and perhaps even invite Cubans to visit. Obama has already led the way by inviting the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, currently on a farewell tour, to perform at a reception at the White House and admitted to buying their album in the 1990s.9
Perhaps we can conclude from this that soft power, culture and human relations can settle international relations better than guns?
1 In the context of the recently concluded Iran nuclear deal it is worth remembering that Lula was the first to achieve a breakthrough in that field as early as May 2010 together with his strategic ally Turkey. The US did not support the agreement, and reopened the negotiations the very next day. See: Erich Follath, Jens Glüsing, “Iran Nuclear Deal: Brazil’s Lula Vaults into Big League of World Diplomacy”, Der Spiegel, 25 May 2010.
2 Elizabeth Dias, “Pope Francis and the New Roman Empire”, Time, 28 September 2015, p. 28.
3 Ibid., pp. 29–31.
4 Michael Reid, “Obama and Latin America”, Foreign Affairs, September–October 2015, p. 45.
5 Ibid.
7… 8…
9 A short video of the band’s performance at the White House can be viewed at:…


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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