Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Fundamental Change in U.S.-Latin American Relations? It is About Time

There are many reasons that the United States and its neighbors in Latin America should work closely together. Not least of these is the abundance of national resources in Latin America. But over the course of time, the relationship between the U.S. and many Latin American countries has not been an easy one. There are many reasons for this that go way beyond the scope of this blog.

However, is the sometimes "chilly" relationship set to change? It is hard to say with certainty. But recently U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to Latin American leaders assembled in Ecuador, and her words seemed more aligned with a U.S. commitment to partner with its Latin neighbors rather than hector them with oftentimes unwanted (and not entirely useful) advice.

Secretary Clinton's speech, entitled "Opportunities in the Americas," was short on advice and long on establishing a basis for partnership. In fact at one point Secretary Clinton admitted that "We have had -- the United States and Latin America -- at times a contentious relationship. I would never deny that."

However, from there she pointed to the future:
"[T]his is more than, at any time, a moment of opportunity for the Americas. But it is up to us to decide whether this moment will be seized or allowed to disappear. We have this moment of opportunity to consolidate democracy and economic growth, to play a role in solving regional and even global problems together, to deepen our progress and enhance our values, and to recognize that we are interdependent and to use that interdependence to improve the future for our peoples."
Among the opportunities that the western hemisphere has relates to energy issues and natural resources. Latin America enjoys vast amounts of the type of resources that all areas of the world will need to move global economies forward as well as populations that are anxious and ready to expand their own economies. On the other hand, the U.S. is a center of world finance and infrastructure expertise (although one wonders about this latter one when pondering what is going on right now in the Gulf). Both northerners and southerners in this hemisphere have to recognize the interdepence of each and the fact that a strong and vibrant western hemisphere brings security and prosperity to all. Of course, there are different views of the future of the hemisphere. But mutual respect and a willingness to address differences can set the foundation for a hemispheric partnership that should pay huge future dividends.

A column in the Financial Times ("U.S. Fine Words Replace Lack of Interest in Latin America," June 17, 2010) underscored the potential importance of this seemingly new approach from Washington:
"The change in the U.S. tone, emphasizing co-operation rather than a more traditional 'drugs and thugs,' was potentially significant. It was also realistic: U.S. regional influence is much diminished. Long gone are the years of the 'Washington consensus' when the U.S. exercised much of its power through multilateral proxies such as the International Monetary Fund."
Will things really change? Maybe. Maybe not. But what is for sure is that while the good and the great in Washington and Latin American capitals think about such things, China, India, and other expanding economies are on the move to cement their own relationships with Latin American countries.

Better for the western hemisphere to get its house in order, one would think, than complain 10 years from now when interests outside the hemisphere have locked up their own strategic interests.

--Don Smith

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