Foreign Policy Blogs

Getting Latin America Wrong Again!

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.

Marcel Proust

Why do American foreign policy decision makers and diplomats continue to misjudge the political character of Latin America and the Caribbean? Our understanding (really our misunderstanding) of the socio-political landscape of this region traps us into supporting outdated policy approaches that continue to estrange Americans both, politically and ideologically from large parts of the Americas.

Getting Latin America Wrong Again!

Latin American and Caribbean leaders doing their own thing

It is clear that we continue to judge Latin American political play through a cold war prism, as if the region was still at risk of falling into the arms of the once powerful “evil empire”. Thankfully, this is far from the case, as post cold war Latin America is a region that enjoys freely elected leaders (with the notable exception of Cuba) and a growing respect for human rights. Even aging Latin America revolutionary, Fidel Castro has awakened to a new reality, admitting recently that the island’s, economic system is not worth exporting because “it doesn’t work for Cubans anymore”.

However, American policy makers, diplomats and journalists can’t seem to quit old habits, choosing to employ popular scare-words like; regime, populist, autocratic, and leftist to characterize much of the leadership of the region. I find it curious that such terms are rarely ever applied to similar politically oriented governments in Europe —- many of which are more left of center. After all, how much more “leftist” is Bolivia than Denmark, and how do we justify preferential treatment for communist China (including a recent state dinner at the White House ) while at the same time chastising Bolivia and Venezuela for nationalistic pro poor policies? This prejudicial treatment of increasingly influential states like Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia et al. is counterproductive to America’s efforts to build trust in a region where many continue to perceive Uncle Sam as paternalistic and meddling.

What is needed in Washington is a change in mind-set, a post cold war paradigm shift that is more accommodating of left of center political systems in the Americas. We do ourselves no favor vilifying fairly elected left leaning Latin American leaders even though they might be politically unsavory to us. If we continue to hold the “with us or against us” course, we come off as paternal, hypocritical, and even anti-poor  making it easier for Latin American leaders to reject our diplomatic and security outreach efforts. Does this mean that we should no longer question leaders’ commitment to democratic ideals? Of course not, however, we must learn to ask a new set of questions when judging these governments to the south. Allow me to suggest a few:

1. Was the government fairly elected?

2. Is the government respectful of market forces (i.e. free trade, foreign investment etc.)?

3. Does it plug and play well with its neighbors and the international community?

4. Does the government respect the rule of law and an independent judiciary?

5. Are the voices and views of opposition parties allowed to be freely expressed?

Lastly, we must appreciate that other countries’ national priorities may be quite different from our own. However, as long as the answers to the aforementioned questions are in the affirmative, we should be more accommodating of other approaches, in the same way we are accommodating of our far left of center European and Asian friends. If  even Fidel has awakened to the post-cold war global reality, maybe we should also.



Oliver Barrett

Oliver Leighton-Barrett is a multi-lingual researcher and a decorated retired military officer specializing in the inter-play between fragile states and national security matters. A former U.S. Marine, and Naval aviator, Oliver is a veteran of several notable U.S. military operations, to include: Operation Restore Hope (Somalia); and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan and Philippines). His functional areas of focus include: U.S. Diplomacy; U.S. Defense; and Climate Change. His geographic areas of focus include: Latin America and the Caribbean and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).