Why Latin America Scorns Uncle Sam


By Geri Smith "Yankees Go Home!" has long been a rallying cry for Latin Americans who resent the U.S.'s heavy-handed approach to its neighbors in the hemisphere. But anti-American sentiment is worse today than it has been in decades, and that was all too evident at the recent Summit of the Americas in Argentina.

Some 25,000 protesters turned out for a rally where President George W. Bush was excoriated as "fascist" and "genocidal," and U.S. flags were burned to protest the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez vowed to scuttle the Free Trade Area of the Americas, claiming it will crush local farmers and industries.

One can hardly blame Latin Americans for such sentiments. When he took office in 2001, Bush announced the "decade of the Americas," and vowed that Latin America would be his top foreign policy priority. But then came 9/11, and since then, security has trumped all other concerns.

BROKEN PROMISES. Latin Americans are accustomed to being an afterthought for Washington. For the past century, they have struggled to reconcile their admiration for the U.S. -- that land of opportunity, prosperity, and political stability -- with resentment over its big-stick approach to its neighbors to the south. Washington tends to pay attention to Latin America only when drug traffickers or leftist guerrillas are lurking in its jungles, when currencies collapse, or when hurricanes strike.

In the mid-1980s, when communism faded as a threat, Washington urged Latin governments to introduce market reforms, promising that privatizations and free trade would raise millions out of poverty. That hasn't happened, and Latins today, more skeptical of Washington's initiatives, are losing respect for the "colossus of the North."

A recent survey by regional pollster Latinobarometro showed that 61% of Latins have little or no trust in the U.S. government's intentions toward the region. One reason, of course, is that much of Latin America hasn't seen the economic benefits it was promised. But another is that the U.S. isn't seen as the upstanding role model it used to be. Here's a look at how the U.S. has fallen short on some key issues:

Poverty: Hurricane Katrina laid bare the fact that 12.7% of Americans are poor. As Chávez pointed out at the summit, some 37 million U.S. citizens cannot afford to live the American dream. From 1980 to 2003, the wealthiest 20% of Americans saw their share of the economic pie rise from 43.7% to 49.8%, while the poorest fifth saw their share shrink from 4.3% to 3.4%. That's similar to the unequal income distribution in Bolivia.

Democracy: For years, the U.S. urged Latin governments to clean up their electoral systems so that citizens could trust vote counts. Yet in the 2000 Presidential elections, America's own voting system broke down for the world to see.

The Environment: The U.S. Congress demanded that Mexico sign NAFTA "side agreements" to comply with internationally accepted labor and environmental protection standards. Yet the Bush Administration has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to slow global warming.

Human Rights: The Bush Administration has refused to ratify the International Criminal Court, which would bring to justice people accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Worse, it's cutting aid to a dozen Latin American governments that refused to grant a waiver protecting U.S. citizens from prosecution by the court.

Diplomacy: When temporary U.N. Security Council members Chile and Mexico objected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they were cold-shouldered by Washington for months.

Trade: The main thing the U.S. has to offer to Latin America -- access to its market of 298 million consumers -- comes with major strings attached. Washington refuses to eliminate subsidies for agricultural exports and won't remove barriers to the import of Brazilian soybeans and orange juice. At the same time, it demands that Latin countries allow American companies to bid equally for government contracts and insists on expanded intellectual property protection.

BACKYARD BULLY. In a way, Latin America's new assertiveness is a positive change. Yet Washington views it as defiance, as proof that the region is shifting dangerously to the left. If officials looked beyond Cuba and Venezuela, they would note that left-leaning leaders such as Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Chile's Ricardo Lagos are fiscal conservatives who have pursued progressive social policies to become the region's new role models.

So what can the U.S. do to improve its ties with Latin America? Washington can offer institution-building expertise to strengthen fragile legs of Latin American democracies, such as the judiciary. More two-way educational exchanges would be welcomed. But above all, the people of Latin America want to be treated as equals. Delegates to the alternative "People's Summit" in Argentina demanded "that the powerful, who normally ignore us, listen to the voice of all of the people of our America."

More listening and less bullying would help. Given that much of the world seems very unfriendly to Americans, it's absurd not to take more care in cultivating friendship and solidarity in our own backyard.

Smith, BusinessWeek's chief Latin America correspondent, has lived in, and reported from, Latin America for 27 years


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