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DISPUTATIONS: Misunderstanding the Problem

How should Hugo Chavez influence Obama’s policies in South America?

Jorge Castañeda’s lament ("Adios, Monroe Doctrine," December 28, 2009) about U.S. indifference towards Latin America sounds a familiar theme. His claim that “the United States doesn’t seem to care much what happens in Latin America” has been a constant refrain that has dominated analyses of U.S. regional policy since the mid-1970s. The “new passivity” is not, after all, terribly new.  

Though often framed in general terms of advancing national interests and values, almost everyone expressing such a lament has been motivated by some particular agenda. Some want the U.S. to confront Cuba, while others want Washington to patch things up with Venezuela. Human rights advocates and free trade proponents have, for their own distinct reasons, urged the U.S. to become more committed to the region.

Castañeda is no different. He barely disguises what is driving him in trying to spur Washington to act more energetically in Latin America: the threat posed by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He is deeply worried about Chavez’s “foreign activities,” not only the alliance with Iran (Castañeda is largely speculative here), but also his “penchant for mischief, especially in Latin America.”  

Though there are indeed grounds for concern, Castañeda seems to have an exaggerated view of Chavez’s capacities that may be leading him to misguided policy responses.  He refers to Colombia and Peru as “two tempting targets for Venezuelan adventurism.” But the chances that Chavez can bring these countries “into his orbit” are nil. Even leftist Colombians find Chavez’s belligerent provocations intolerable and are united in their fierce opposition to him.  And in Peru, Castaneda incorrectly argues that there is “no viable centrist alternative to the Chavista, Ollanta Humala” for the 2011 elections.  Humala has in fact been dropping in the polls, and centrist candidates have been gaining ground.

Castañeda should give these countries a bit more credit and should at least recognize Chavez’s mounting vulnerabilities and the unmistakable signs of decay in his government. He is right that the U.S. needs to take an active part in hemispheric deliberations on a range of issues. But he is too dismissive of the value of regional efforts that do not involve the U.S., and he overstates the consequences of the void left by U.S. retrenchment. Castañeda attributes too much strength to Caracas and Havana and not enough to Brasilia and other Latin American capitals.

Indeed, the bipolar categories Castañeda uses in his overdrawn description of Latin America and the policy prescriptions he suggests are not too helpful. It is usually Chavez (and his allies) moving with a clear agenda, and the rest of the region left confused. But a more measured understanding of the region’s complicated political landscape would yield centrist policies that stake out the middle ground. Modest steps towards serious immigration reform, enhanced cooperation in dealing with the shared drug problem, and U.S. Congressional approval of pending free trade deals with Colombia and Panama are, for example, worth pursuing. They are politically feasible and constructive paths to break away from Washington’s current passivity towards the region.

In the end, Castañeda gives few clues as to what he has in mind for the U.S. role in Latin America. He says the “Latin hard left” (read: Chavez) must be “confronted in a new fashion” and that Obama will need “an actual doctrine” to guide his decisions. What is this doctrine? The Monroe Doctrine is long dead, as are FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, JFK’s Alliance for Progress, and Bill Clinton’s Free Trade Area of the Americas. George W. Bush tried to confront Chavez “in a new fashion,” but that was counterproductive and only bolstered him. So what is next?

Castañeda might consider that Obama is in fact consciously moving away from the U.S.’s traditional, paternalistic posture towards Latin America and is seeking to combine a multilateral approach with selective engagement.  Granted, over the past year unexpected circumstances (such as the Honduras crisis) and delays in getting a team in place have sidetracked the Obama administration’s regional agenda. But Obama’s speeches at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last April, and his recent address in Oslo, set out a sensible framework for moving forward.  

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy and director of the Andean program at the Inter-American Dialogue. He is also an adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

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