MARCH 27, 2013
The funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez earlier this month was a massive celebration of a vitriolic foe of the United States. This tribute should make Washington take a fresh look not only at its relations with Venezuela but also with all of Latin America.
Virtually every Latin American country sent a high-level delegation to show its esteem for Chavez, who, during his 14 years in office, regularly vilified the United States, disparaged its leaders and campaigned tirelessly to end the U.S. role in the region. The presidents of Latin America’s six largest nations — including the closest U.S. regional allies, Mexico, Colombia and Chile — traveled to Caracas for the burial ceremonies. Never in Latin America, as many commentators noted, has a deceased leader been given a grander memorial — not even Argentina’s adored Juan Domingo Peron back in 1974.
This extraordinary acclaim for Washington’s most virulent adversary in the Americas was probably not intended as a deliberate snub. There were other reasons that so many of Washington’s friends ended up applauding a committed antagonist of the United States.
Some leaders, concerned with politics back home, were seeking to appeal to constituencies on the left, who idolized Chavez. Some who have benefited from the financial largesse distributed by the president of oil rich-Venezuela are eager for his successor to continue that support. Still others were reluctant to stand apart or isolate themselves from their neighbors — so they became part of the crowd.
Yet the fanfare accompanying Chavez’s funeral suggests a troubling degree of indifference to the United States in Latin America — as if Washington no longer counted.
Aside from his ability to hold onto power and sustain the devotion of so many Venezuelans, Chavez’s accomplishments hardly warranted this level of attention. His autocratic rule and reckless spending merit no praise from Latin America’s democratic and fiscally responsible leaders. Make no mistake, however, the foreign leaders came mostly to praise Chavez, not just to bury him.
To be sure, after his presidency, Venezuelans are considerably less poor and unequal than when he came to power in 1999 — though many other Latin American nations did the same, or better, than Venezuela in this period. They achieved this without a huge oil windfall and without pushing the economy toward shambles and undoing the country’s democratic and civil institutions.
Chavez does, though, deserve credit for Petrocaribe, a program that supplied discounted oil (and low-interest loans to buy oil) to poor and energy-deficient countries in Central America and the Caribbean. Cuba got the largest subsidy — some $4 billion to $6 billion a year — without which the island might today be facing a humanitarian crisis. But 13 other nations, some in great need, were also assisted — and are grateful.
This is the kind of aid program that Washington should consider emulating for the region’s low-income countries.
The Chavez funeral is not the only reason for unease about Washington’s relations with Latin America. Two months ago, Cuban ruler Raul Castro, another determined U.S. adversary, was elected to head the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), a new organization that includes every nation in the Western Hemisphere — except the United States and Canada. Next year’s meeting is scheduled to be in Havana, though CELAC’s charter requires that members be governed democratically.
At the 2012 meeting of the Summit of the Americas (every country of the hemisphere except Cuba), the discussion, despite Washington’s objections, focused on two topics: drug policy andCuba. Both are sources of long-standing tension between the United States and Latin America. The assembled Latin American heads of state closed the meeting by warning Washington that, unless Cuba is included in future summits, they would no longer participate.
The problem is not that Latin America has retreated from democratic rule. Though democratic governance has deteriorated in some countries, it is still the overwhelming regional norm ‑ and getting stronger in many places. The commitment of Latin Americans to democracy. however, now largely applies to their own countries. What they have given up on is the idea of collectively defending democratic practice in countries other than their own. Regional solidarity is now a higher priority than democracy, a reflection of the many ideological and political differences among Latin American nations.
On economic matters, developments have been more encouraging for Washington. It is true that China and Europe have made considerable inroads, diminishing U.S. economic preeminence in Latin America. But U.S. exports have more than doubled in the past 12 years, and U.S. investments have grown apace — along with considerable Latin American investments in the United States. Washington now has free-trade agreements in force with 11 of 19 Latin American countries — three in South America, six in Central America and the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
Yet all is not well here, either. Latin America is now effectively (and unfortunately) divided into two economic zones. One includes all the countries that trade freely with the United States. Another seven are members or soon-to-be members of the Brazilian-led South American Market (Mercosur).
Political differences, not economic interests, are what keep the two groups apart. Prospects for an economically integrated hemisphere, once a key aspiration of most countries, have faded and seem unlikely to be revived anytime soon.
Whether Washington can remake its relationship with Latin America is in question. A sensible and humane reform of U.S. immigration legislation would remove one critical obstacle to more productive relations with many countries, as would a more flexible approach to drug-control policy.
Recent developments suggest, however, that for Washington to regain clout in regional affairs, it must it end its standoff with Cuba. U.S. policy toward Cuba sets Washington against the views of every Latin American and Caribbean government. Long-standing U.S. efforts to isolate and sanction Cuba, have, counterproductively, brought every country in Latin America to Cuba’s defense with a general admiration of Havana’s resistance to U.S. pressures.
Because this U.S. policy is viewed as so extreme, no Latin America country is willing to criticize Cuba — almost regardless of its words or actions. Chavez, with his close association with Cuba, possessed some of that immunity — with his neighbors leaving him unaccountable for his violations of democracy, human rights and decency.
His funeral made it clear that the United States has a lot of work to do to prevent that immunity from spreading.
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