President George W. Bush’s free-falling popularity, his loss of control over Congress, the nagging doubts about the economy, and most of all his discredited reputation as a result of the debacle in Iraq all magnify the characteristic weakness of lame-duck American presidents. But, while Latin American governments are all watching the same news about Bush’s growing trials and tribulations, their responses to the looming transfer of power in the United States are of three kinds.
The first response can be described as realist: no matter who governs in America, concrete results need to be achieved. Simply put, whoever is US president, his or her program will have priority. But, at the same time, these leaders count on a great degree of continuity in US policy.
This type of thinking underpinned Brazil’s agreement to include the issue of bio-fuels in a joint declaration and subsequent meeting of Bush and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at Camp David. The same can be said of Uruguay’s interest in a Free Trade Treaty with the US, as it is seeking alternatives outside of the region’s Mercosur group, and Bush remains keen on bilateral trade deals. Colombia, whose alliance with the US precedes President Álvaro Uribe, wants to maintain US support at its current levels, and Mexico now must make combating drug trafficking and illegal immigration priorities, in accordance with US policy. Chile and Peru, too, have fallen in line with US priorities by emphasizing their openness to American investment.
The second Latin American position towards the US is embodied in “Chavism.” This stance characterizes populist governments, often sustained mainly by gas and oil, that practice autocratic democracy, ignoring any formal constitutional division of powers and running roughshod over independent institutions and the press. Indeed, these governments promote constitutional reforms that seek to authorize perpetual re-election and supposedly new forms of participation that, in fact, hollow out representative democracy from within.
As a political model, Chavism is strongly based on nationalism, so that, Bush or no Bush, its legitimacy requires a growing anti-Americanism. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua have opted for this pattern of international assertion, which also includes statist economic policies that demonize foreign investment.
At the same time, these governments practice a diplomacy inspired by one idea: America’s post-Iraq hegemony is fragile, thus making profitable a policy of confrontation aimed at weakening the enemy. This explains the bizarre de facto alliance between Venezuela, Iran and Belarus, and Venezuela’s failed candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Indeed, this vision of international relations clearly rests on building influence through military power.
Finally, Argentina stands in a category by itself. Far from being realistic, and in keeping with its ideological interpretation of international relations and growing approximation to the positions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the attitude taken by President Néstor Kirchner’s government links anti-Americanism with the Bush Administration. It seems to take for granted a Democratic victory in the US presidential election next year.
But nothing guarantees that, even if the Democrats win, they will change America’s foreign policies. After all, this did not occur in the transition from Bill Clinton to Bush. Moreover, some notable candidates, such as Senator Hillary Clinton, supported the invasion of Iraq, while the Democrats are more protectionist than the Republicans and are financially unpredictable.
In fact, Kirchner should be especially worried by a Democratic victory. Roberto Shapiro, a former number two in the Clinton-era Department of Commerce and a man close to the Democratic Party, is now co-chairman of the United States Taskforce for Argentina, an alliance of investment funds and institutional creditors who were hit hard by Argentina’s default on its international debts. In contrast to the Clinton era, under Bush the US Treasury Secretary was closer to industry than to banks, and so America’s response to Argentina’s default was notably more tolerant than probably would have been true had it occurred during the Clinton administration.
Latin America, frankly, will not occupy an eminent position in any future US foreign policy. Terrorism, proliferation, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and China are higher priorities. But that is not to say America has no interest in the region. What the US lacks is a coherent regional policy toward Latin America comparable to what exists for Asia and Europe. Whoever governs America next should formulate one, lest Latin America’s ideologues and dreamers gain the upper hand.