Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will visit Brown University, where I attend college, Tuesday to give a lecture entitled “Why People Should Give More than a Damn About Latin America”. The colorful posters advertising the event juxtapose a very formal official photo of Santos against the lecture’s provocative and somewhat vulgar title, and they can be seen in every corner of Brown’s campus. If the aim of the poster was to draw attention, it has succeeded: about a week ago, registration for the event was already full.
But, more than a cheap attempt at provocation, the title of Santos’s lecture is also a fittingly direct response to persisting doubts among Americans about the importance of their neighbors to the South.
President Obama visited Latin America a couple of weeks ago, a trip that many observers hoped would finally signal a new beginning in hemispheric diplomacy. Instead, the visit produced few concrete “deliverables”, and its main effect in the U.S. was to raise further questions about the president’s leadership. Many in the media openly wondered why Obama was spending time in a seemingly unimportant region while the crisis in the Middle East continued to escalate and a U.S.-led coalition prepared to launch a campaign of airstrikes in Libya. Jimmy Fallon, a vaguely liberal late-night comedian, suggested that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to be taking over some of Obama’s diplomatic roles while he was “playing soccer with kids in Rio.”
This is obviously unfair. Most people with a basic understanding of international politics agree that improving relations with Latin American countries, especially Brazil, will be extremely beneficial to America’s security and prosperity over the coming decades. Moreover, given that the U.S. has largely neglected the region for the past ten years, postponing or cancelling Obama’s highly anticipated trip would simply have poured salt on a pre-existing wound.
Besides, there is no reason to believe that visiting with Brazilian officials and spending a few minutes kicking a ball around with locals severely hampered Obama’s response to the troubles around the world. Presidents have to multi-task wherever they are, and while in Rio Obama was likely as well informed of events in Libya as he would have been in the Oval Office. Indeed, as we now know, in the days and weeks preceding the airstrikes, he was actively working on behind-the-scenes preparations for a multilateral military intervention in the country and authorized some covert CIA missions on the ground.
Watching Fallon’s show, I was reminded of the media’s mockery of George W. Bush’s initial response to the 9/11 attacks. On the morning of the attacks, Bush was reading a picture book with young children as part of a visit to an elementary school in Florida. When an aide informed him that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, the president did not take any immediate action, but instead stayed put and kept on reading. Latin America may matter more than “My Pet Goat”, but many Americans nonetheless consider it a distraction from more important concerns.
While at Brown, Santos will likely argue that this is a mistake. While it is true that Obama cannot afford to dither in the face of ongoing uncertainty in places like Libya and Japan, it is equally true that continuing to neglect U.S. relations with Latin America carries significant risks and opportunity costs.
This is particularly evident in U.S.-Colombia relations. The departure of presidents Bush and Uribe, who built a strong alliance on their loosely related wars against terrorist groups, uncovered the deep fragility of bilateral collaboration on issues ranging from trade and organized crime. The problem now is not that Washington and Bogota directly disagree on any key issues, but that Colombia is rapidly losing patience with the U.S.’s inability to put forth a clear, coherent and proactive agenda for bilateral relations. The Santos administration, for example, recently said that it would stop pushing for ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement if it remains stalled in the American Congress for much longer.
There are plenty of other signs that Colombia has grown tired of catering to the U.S., only to get relatively little in return. The government now looks likely to extradite Walid Makled, a Venezuelan drug trafficker, back to his native country and not to the U.S., where he is also wanted. To the Americans, Makled is not just your average extraditable South American drug kingpin. He has accused Venezuelan officials of complicity in organized crime, and claims to have enough information to justify U.S. intervention in Venezuela.
Not too long ago, the extradition of such a criminal from Colombia to Venezuela unthinkable, not just because of the frequent bickering between Presidents Uribe and Chavez. In the past, Colombia has also judged that it had much more to gain from pleasing the U.S., by far its main trading partner, than from pleasing Caracas. In this way, the Santos government’s apparent willingness to irritate the Americans in order to continue improving relations with Chavez reflects his view that a divided, distracted American government has less to offer Colombia than it used to.
Washington’s relative neglect and incoherence vis-à-vis Latin America comes at a particularly inopportune time for American influence in the region. Every large Latin American country, even those that maintain close relations with the U.S., knows that it is in its best interest to diversify its diplomatic and commercial partnerships. While Colombia has been improving ties with Venezuela, a much bigger U.S. rival than Chavez has quietly stepped into the scene. Trade between China and virtually every large Latin American country, including Colombia, has grown at double-digit annual rates over the past thirty years. The Middle Kingdom is already the main trading partner of Brazil, by far Latin America’s largest economy, and Chile, a dynamic and prosperous country rich in natural resources.
It would be wrong to say that Washington is entirely at fault for this or that, similarly, the U.S. can simply reverse this trend by more actively reaching out to the region. Even if relations between the U.S. and Latin America were hunky dory, many countries would likely still want to look for strategic partnerships elsewhere. Asia is, in President Santos’s own words, “the new motor of the world economy”, and South America’s decreasing reliance on trade with the U.S. helped the region weather the global downturn relatively easily. Mexico, whose economy is deeply integrated with that of its northern neighbor, suffered a deeper and longer recession than, say, Brazil, Chile or even Colombia.
Of course, in most ways, trade relationships are not a zero-sum game, and Latin America’s ties with Asia do not rule out an improvement in relations with the U.S. But the growing availability of other attractive partners for Latin American countries mean that the U.S. can no longer count on unconditional collaboration from its neighbors to the south. More than ever, Washington will have to work hard to court not only large, independent-minded countries like Brazil, but also smaller countries like Colombia and Peru.
Moreover, while China’s incursion into the region is primarily commercial and aimed at Latin America’s resource wealth, there are clear signs that the Asian giant is also thinking in strategic geopolitical terms. Take, for example, the widely hyped plans for Sino-Colombian collaboration on a railway connecting the Andean countries’ Caribbean and Pacific coasts. According to experts, transporting goods on the railway, which would carry mostly coal, would be much more expensive than going through the decades-old Panama Canal. But the Chinese probably don’t mind losing part of their probable $7.6 billion investment in the project, if it means having their own alternative to a U.S.-built canal in an historically pro-American country.
No matter what the U.S. does, it will likely find it much harder to have its way in Latin America than just ten years ago. Today, the region is remarkably pragmatic and forward-looking, and will need some convincing if it is to remain part of Washington’s sphere of influence while the center of global political and economic power continues to shift to the East.
One should not exaggerate. The U.S. is still by far the chief trading partner of Colombia, Mexico and many other Latin American countries. For the near future, it will also remain the world’s largest economy. Still, if Latin America continues to grow richer, prouder and more independent, and if trade with China continues to expand at double-digit annual rates, Santos’s next lecture at an American university could very well be entitled “Why Latin America should give a damn about the U.S.”