March 1, 2007  

Strategic invisibility

The folly of ignoring our Latin American neighbors

No strategic arena is so readily ignored or, arguably, as little understood by the U.S. government as Latin America. Yet, no state is more vital to our security, economy and contemporary society than Mexico, while the combined populations of only two Latin American countries, Brazil and Mexico, exceed by 10 million the number of U.S. citizens and residents. Geographically, Brazil is nearly the size of the United States, Mexico is three times larger than Texas, and Argentina, with its 40 million citizens, is one-third the size of the lower 48. With growing markets, rising per capita incomes and ever-sturdier democracies, such states are natural partners for Washington. Yet, even Africa (certainly deserving of attention) enjoys richer coverage in our media and more enthusiastic government engagement.

Of course, much of Latin America — a vast and various region stretching from the Rio Grande south to Tierra del Fuego — suffers from grotesque social and economic distortions, cultural impediments to development and a fickle taste in guiding philosophies. Rising per capita income figures mask the enormous gulf between rich and poor, while corruption blights all. From the Andean Ridge northward through Mexico, crime competes with government, whether one speaks of narcotics cartels or gangs — entities that run their own foreign policies vis-a-vis the United States, frequently doing so with greater acuity than the states that produced them.

Latin America’s problems can easily be ridiculed, yet they fade in comparison with abysmal conditions elsewhere — not least, in the Middle East, a region the U.S. embraces with passionate blindness. Latin America stumbles now and then, but continues to move forward. That claim could not be made for any Muslim state on the Eurasian land mass or for a single country in the great triangle of misery bounded by Egypt, Nigeria and Congo. If any stretch of the globe offers still-untapped potential for a mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S., it’s Latin America.

All parties would have to want such a relationship and plenty of tired myths would need to be discarded. The old stew of resentment, neglect, animosity, condescension and jealousy simmering at the back of the geopolitical stove may provide convenient helpings for demagogic politicians, but poorly serves the people of Latin America — or the U.S.

Strategically speaking, it’s time for us all to grow up.

Mexico Contradictorio

After the U.S. itself, the saddest victim of Sept. 11 was Mexico. Prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, forging a closer, healthier relationship with Mexico (and, by extension, the rest of Latin America) was a top priority for the new administration of President Bush. A “my ranch or yours?” friend of Mexico’s then-President Vicente Fox, Bush spoke passable Spanish and, as governor of Texas, had faced the issues impeding bilateral relations. A long-overdue confluence of interests seemed to be near. Then the hijackers struck, border animosities soared and Fox became just another distraction to be shoved aside as Washington stripped for action and went to war. Relations with Mexico fell back into the hands of hysterics north of the border. To the south, collapsed expectations destroyed the Fox presidency.

But if Washington’s attention wandered, Mexico and the issues it posed didn’t go away. By 2006, our neighbor appeared to be in its deepest crisis — a series of crises — in eight decades. The interminable comic-opera rebellion in Chiapas spread to Oaxaca next door, as a mob occupied the state capital. Elsewhere, drug-cartel violence soared, with turf wars between syndicates claiming more than 2,000 lives in less than a year. A bitter presidential election gave Felipe Calderon, the conservative candidate, a microscopic lead over a charismatic leftist, Manuel Lopez Obrador — but Lopez Obrador refused to accept the vote count, summoning his followers to Mexico City. Hundreds of thousands camped out in the Zocalo — the city’s ancient heart — crippling the municipality for months. Meanwhile, cities along the U.S. border had turned into killing fields.

Then events kicked over the projections of linear thinkers who saw Mexico bound for chaos. It was as if the Virgin of Guadalupe — Mexico’s patroness — had decided a miracle was in order. The protests withered. Despite an entertaining display of bad manners by opposition legislators, Calderon took his oath of office. And he immediately took actions his predecessors had deemed impossible.

Instead of blaming Mexico’s ills entirely on the United States (the traditional stance of Mexican politicians from all parties), Calderon broke with tradition and began extraditing drug kingpins — a controversial move in a country obsessively sensitive to perceived infringements of its sovereignty. Even more boldly, Calderon sent the army and federal police reinforcements into the cartel-plagued state of Michoacan, as well as to cities such as Acapulco and Tijuana, which had been haunted by drug-related violence. At present, 27,000 soldiers and special police officers have been deployed. While the Mexican military is far from corruption-free (as our border agents can attest), it remains the most-dependable major institution in the country and its no-nonsense employment by the new president signals a level of determination in confronting Mexico’s home-grown problems that raises hopes for a rejuvenation of Mexican politics and society — and makes Calderon the likeliest candidate for assassination of any Mexican president in living memory.

Corruption has become so endemic in Mexico (and throughout Latin America) that Calderon faces daunting odds. The encouraging aspect is that someone has finally begun to accept the gravity of Mexico’s internal problems. Meanwhile, opposition politicians continue to do all they can to undermine the president, orchestrating new demonstrations in the capital in January to protest rising tortilla prices — an issue that, once again, demonstrates the inseparability of all three North American economies: The soaring demand for corn-based ethanol in the U.S. drove up the price of the Mexican dietary staple, since Mexico purchases nearly a third of its corn from U.S. farmers.

It cannot be stressed sufficiently that Mexico is strategically positioned on our southern border (and no one’s going to tow it away), with a population of 110 million that remains our No. 1 source of legal and illegal immigration — providing indispensable additions to the lower echelons of our work force, if we would only be honest about the matter. Our neighbor is a huge land of internal contradictions, with booming export industries and infuriating poverty, plush vacation spots and urban killing fields. A major source of oil for the U.S., its impoverished south belongs to Central America, while Mexico’s comparatively well-to-do north is ever-more-closely integrated with the rest of North America. Famous for its anti-American traditions, Mexico is the top retirement destination for U.S. expatriates — who live safely and happily as valued residents.

With a trillion-dollar economy, troubled borders (north and south) and ever-expanding ties of blood and culture to the U.S., it should be obvious to Washington that Mexico deserves first-rank priority in our diplomatic strategy. Instead, this vital country is treated as a banana republic. If Mexico’s behavior has not always been satisfying to us, our own comportment has been callous, dishonest and generally counter-productive.

While serving in our Army, I routinely attempted to persuade officers to study the Mexican Revolution, that complex and bloody prototype of so many rebellions that followed around the globe. I might as well have asked my peers to study tribal spats in New Guinea. Its richness, flamboyance and, above all, pertinence make Mexico’s history a subject as inexhaustible as it is instructive — yet we ignore the striking human pageant next door, preferring to watch yet another mini-series about long-dead English royalty. (Try dissecting the Civil War-era French installation of a puppet regime and the furious Mexican response as a case study for our mishandling of Iraq.)

The bad blood and mutual ignorance on both sides must be overcome. The U.S. and Mexico are bound together inextricably. Our present attitude, that Mexico is nothing more than a source of problems, neglects the country’s enormous strategic and economic potential, as well as inextinguishable cultural affinities. Certainly, we need to control our southern border and have every right to do so — but we also need to be honest about our labor-market needs and reasonably humane in our approach. For all the name-calling over the decades, when it comes to Mexico, we’re our own worst enemies.

With a new and promising president in Mexico City, we have a fresh chance to move our relationship forward. President Calderon has made the first, difficult steps. Can the flagging Bush administration recall the bright hopes with which it assumed office?

The Country Of The Future

An old joke (also told about Argentina) runs that “Brazil is the country of the future — and always will be.” Well, the future’s here. A state with even greater internal contradictions than Mexico, Brazil may host the most complex society in Latin America. White at the top, brown in the middle and black at the bottom, the economic racism in play can obscure more-nuanced gradations. With contrasts between primitive tribes at the back of beyond and the “Blade Runner” city of Sao Paulo, fantastic wealth and one-third of its 190 million citizens struggling below the poverty line and barracked in slums the police enter only in well-armed force, Brazil presents “conclusive” evidence to optimists and pessimists alike.

Essentially a nuclear power, Brazil exports advanced aircraft to the U.S. but has yet to fully map its Amazonian interior. While recent growth rates have disappointed, its economy continues to dwarf all others in South America. A continent-sized country, it includes pristine rain forests and jungles from prehistory, as well as vast tracts of ecological devastation. And, beyond the inertia leaving both sides on their lumpy strategic couches, there is no reason why Brazil should not be one of the closest and best allies of the U.S. in the 21st century.

Singling out Mexico and Brazil for scrutiny in this article is not meant to slight the other states of this sprawling region — they simply offer the most-striking examples of enormous potential largely ignored by Washington. Their political courses also provide a useful counterpoint to the “common knowledge” that “Latin America is turning left.” In fact, Latin America is becoming ever more democratic, leading to leftist electoral victories that garner headlines and obscure the fact that most recent ballots have returned centrists or conservatives to power from the Sonoran Desert to the Andean glaciers.

Brazil’s recently re-elected president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, serves as the region’s best advertisement for the importance of not overreacting when Latin American populations vote in ways that disappoint us. With a working-class, trade-union background, Lula alarmed the Washington establishment: He was classed as a socialist and radical who was bound to drag Brazil on a fatal leftward course, erasing economic gains and polarizing society. Instead, Lula turned out to be a reformer (corruption scandals notwithstanding) with a balanced foreign policy and a wariness of leftist extremism. Anxious to reassure the domestic business community and international investors, he also kept Venezuela’s histrionic president, Hugo Chavez, at arm’s length, refusing to subscribe to Chavez’s neo-Fidelista agenda or oppose Washington on principle.

The obvious lesson is that, if we truly believe in democracy, we need to allow people to make their own choices at the ballot box — even if we sometimes deplore those choices. In love and politics, human beings have to make their own mistakes and learn from them (with the learning process more streamlined in politics than in love). It takes time and frustrates the impatient North American temperament, but attempts to steer election results (or a rush to support ill-judged coups) only radicalize voters and turn us into hypocrites. Just as our clumsiness “made” Fidel Castro, we fumbled our Venezuela policy so awfully that we ended up amplifying Chavez’s appeal and making a hero out of an erratic clown.

Time is on our side. Socialism, to say nothing of outright Marxism or Maoism, doesn’t work, can’t work and won’t work. The recent elections that returned hardcore leftists — notably in Bolivia and Ecuador, with Nicaragua a mere sideshow featuring an aging accused child-molester — will only provide a direct lesson to the people of those countries that rhetoric is no substitute for sound economic policy. Fortunately, Washington’s handling of the new heads of state in Ecuador and Bolivia has been intelligently low-key, letting them fail on their own. It’s consistently the wisest policy: Democracy works, if not always with full and immediate efficiency. The only trigger for confrontation should be when elected leaders use democracy to destroy democracy — as Chavez appears to be doing. Yet, even in such instances, confrontation has to be executed artfully so that the U.S. can’t be portrayed in yesteryear’s imperialist-bully terms.

Two further examples that should encourage us are Chile and Argentina. In the former, a market economy and increasingly robust democracy allowed the recent election of a socialist-lite candidate, Michelle Bachelet, to the nation’s highest office — without leading to a radical change of course. The election results resembled a party transition in Washington, not the “mood swing” pattern that so long prevailed in Latin America.

Argentina, a state whose frontier history bears a remarkable resemblance to our own, presented a more-difficult case. Officially espousing market economics in the 1990s, then-President Carlos Menem in fact presided over an orgy of corruption stunning even by regional standards. The result, paradoxically, was to give the marketplace — which never had a fair chance to develop — a bad name, while corruption met with a business-as-usual shrug. The inevitable economic collapse led to a series of brief, weak governments prior to the election of the current president, Nestor Kirchner. Kirchner came to office with an anti-American chip on his shoulder and a socialist agenda. Yet, his priority was paying off foreign debt and nursing the economy back to a semblance of health. Confronted with the realities of his office, Kirchner evolved from a noisy pal of leftist demagogues to a responsible leader who recently has played down his relationship — briefly warm — with Venezuela’s Chavez. Shunning leftwing jamborees, such as the recent opportunity to meet for a photo op with Chavez and Iran’s President Ahmedinejad, Kirchner’s priorities today are creating jobs and a favorable investment climate — while toning down his blame-the-Americans rhetoric.

Yet, a fundamental question remains. All of the major (and most minor) Latin American states gained their independence two centuries ago, having fought under banners proclaiming the goals of freedom and democracy. With so many countries only beginning to reach political maturity and others still lagging, why on earth has it taken so long?

Culture Is Fate — But Fate Evolves

A story told to me years ago in Bolivia runs as follows: A well-born and well-educated South American matriarch, glancing northward with irony and envy, shrugged delicately and remarked, “If the English had settled South America and the Spaniards had settled North America, South America would be the superpower today.”

At a time when it’s politically incorrect to explore cultural differences, anyone possessing even a superficial acquaintance with both regions recognizes that different values, social models and priorities prevail. While the old caricatures of the lazy Latin or the unscrupulous gringo are as misleading as they are convenient to bigots in both cultures, there nonetheless are profoundly different historical inheritances at work — and the differences continue to restrict progress in Latin America today, although change for the better has been accelerating at last.

First, it must be noted that there is no single Latin American culture; on the contrary, the region offers more variety than Europe does. Cultures vary wildly even within states: The German-seasoned tone of lowland Santa Cruz de la Sierra seems a world away from the indigenous culture of the Bolivian Altiplano, and highlanders from Bogota bear as little resemblance to Colombia’s coastal population as Lombards do to Sicilians. Italianate Argentina’s neurotic artistic brilliance hardly resembles the raucous popular culture of Brazil, where Portugal and Africa collided. Second, cultural analysis demands book-length investigations, not the simplifications of magazine articles. Yet, allowing for those caveats, there are some commonalities that retarded development in Latin America as the hemisphere’s two northernmost states marched relentlessly forward.

Choosing founding archetypes for Latin America and Anglo-America is so easy — the conquistador in his armor and the pilgrim armed with his Bible — that it’s tempting to dismiss them from serious consideration. Yet, those two figures embody the deepest values that shaped the Western Hemisphere’s often-discordant cultures. The religious refugee who plodded ashore in New England expected to build a new world; the Spanish knight set sail to conquer someone else’s world. While both dealt harshly with indigenous populations, the former expected to work himself, while the latter intended that conquered men should work for him. The English-speaking colonist in Massachusetts expected hard and lifelong labor as part of God’s design, while the Spaniard (and the Portuguese) expected to fight hard then rule luxuriously with God’s blessing. In Protestant civilization — especially in the Calvinist strains that shaped Britain’s northern colonies — work was pleasing to God, a form of worship. In Latin culture, God was bribed with gifts and the requirement to sweat for a living marked a man as socially inferior. The results were the contrasting ideals of the workaholic and the gentleman of leisure, the yeoman farmer versus the haciendado.

It’s striking how persistent those inherited behavioral patterns and values remain. Jokes about playing golf every day aside, most of us cannot imagine lives without work and insist on volunteering for community service even after age forces us from our professions. In Latin cultures, there’s certainly a willingness to work hard to get ahead — as anyone who has firsthand familiarity with Hispanic immigrants knows — but the desired end-state is different. Machismo isn’t simply about strutting around and seducing women; even more profoundly, it reflects an attitude to labor. In Latin America, the purpose of work is, first, to survive, but, at the next stage of achievement, to accumulate sufficient wealth never to need to break a sweat again. Of course, there are countless exceptions to this pattern and attitudes toward business have changed mightily in Latin America in recent decades — yet the model of the caudillo, the man of power who, capable of inflicting violence when necessary, dispenses largesse to his inferiors and “never saddles his own horse,” remains a seductive ideal, from Paraguayan generals to the Latino gangbangers of Los Angeles.

That model traces back to conquerors such as Cortez and Pizarro. But the conquistadors’ values reflected, in turn, those of the Moorish lords Spaniards fought for 800 years — and, inevitably, emulated. The disdain for weakness, studied indolence and eruptive violence of the Hispanic gang leader in El Salvador or San Diego is an inheritance from the Islamic warriors who swept out of the Middle East to conquer an empire in Europe hardly a century after Mohammed’s death. Even Spanish Catholicism was influenced by the behavioral strictures of Islam, from the sequestration of women and the obsession with their purity, to the association of learning with a religious vocation. The Latin American strongman always bore a closer resemblance to an Arab emir than to a feudal nobleman in Europe beyond the Pyrenees.

Globalization isn’t new.

Different attitudes toward work, women, violence, learning, pride, financial integrity and faith (in New England, religious freedom won through; in Latin America, the Inquisition followed closely behind the conquistadors) unquestionably shaped the contrasting developmental patterns of Anglo-America and Latin America. Unpopular though such views may be today, the evidence is so pervasive that only an academic could reject it.

Boom and Bust

Another pattern — this time, macroeconomic — that hindered Latin American development and continues to hamper economic diversification has been the boom-bust cycle, which has haunted Latin America since the earliest days of the Conquest. Initially, colonists in North America were disappointed by the apparent paucity of mineral deposits that might lead to instant wealth and had to rely — for the first few hundred years — on the wealth of the soil. In contrast, Latin America was cursed with “found” wealth (much as the oil-rich states of the Middle East are today). The Spanish knights went in search of fortunes to be looted, and they found them. Since then, successive booms, some long and others brief, have distorted Latin America’s economic development: The colonial-era silver boom, the Andean tin boom, the Argentine and Uruguayan beef boom, the Brazilian rubber boom, successive oil booms and, more-recently, the cocaine boom.

The decisive characteristic of booms is that they end. Consistently, Latin Americans have squandered their profits on displays of wealth (the Montevideo mansion or the drug-gang leader’s “bling”). As a result, colonial cities gained magnificent civic architecture, but never developed healthy economies. Spanish trade policies also crippled development, but even after independence the loot-and-display pattern remained in force: Beef-boom-era Buenos Aires erected some of the world’s finest art nouveau architecture, while the cocaine boom built the “off-shore” high-rises of Panama City in the 1990s. The thread that sews the centuries together is that no one believed his boom would end and wealth was spent on inert monuments to vanity, instead of being invested in economic diversification.

North of the Rio Grande, the discovery of tremendous mineral wealth occurred only after the industrial revolution had created a complex economy — the exception being the cotton monoculture of the American South, which, resembling parts of Latin America, relied on slave labor and failed to pursue balanced development. Yankee ingenuity wasn’t a matter of luck, but a necessity for survival. The paradox is that one of the reasons Latin America has lagged developmentally is that riches came too easily and too soon.

Of the immediate inhibitors of development, the worst is corruption — but this is a near-global phenomenon. The worst affliction diseasing the developing world, corruption is the cancer that aggravates all other social ills. As attitudes toward work, education, gender issues and even religion accelerate their evolution in Latin America, the best indicator of which states and societies are apt to move ahead most swiftly is the willingness of their governments to fight corruption and the consistency with which the struggle is waged.

Cultures and civilizations, like individuals, make their own fates.

The Cowboy And The Gaucho

Despite the cultural divergences highlighted above, more factors bind English-speaking North America and Latin America together than keep us apart. Even our histories have as much in common as they do in conflict. From the Argentine and Chilean Indian wars on their 19th-century frontiers back to the obvious fact that we all spring from colonial cultures erected on a pre-Columbian past, we share a sense that the future need not repeat yesteryear’s failures (even if it persistently does so) and that new forms of greatness remain possible. If the pragmatic Yankee does continue to contrast with the fatalistic Latin (the tango is a soundtrack for suicides), the differences are not nearly so pronounced as they were a generation ago. Increasingly, the elites throughout the Americas attend the same schools, share corporate identities — and political values. At the lower social levels, cultural cross-fertilization continues to intensify, and the influence of North American social and political values more than counterbalances our new preference for salsa over ketchup.

In that vein, perhaps the most-ludicrous claim made by any U.S. citizen in recent history is the insistence that “Latino immigrants want to take back the Southwest for Mexico.” The silly posturing of a goofball minority aside, the message immigrants, legal and illegal, take back home is that they’d rather turn Mexico into the U.S. Southwest. We chronically underestimate our country’s seductive and exemplary powers: No one who has been able to send his children to decent schools, cope with officials without paying bribes and get ahead through hard work decides that bad schools (or none), corrupt government and chronic unemployment constitute a preferable way of life. Even as governments posture, mobile immigrants are transforming their native cultures far more profoundly than they alter ours.

What can Washington do to accelerate progress, a hemispheric rapprochement and strategic cooperation? There are countless specific initiatives that might be recommended, but the fundamental answer is straightforward: Treat others with respect and live up to our rhetoric. Latin America isn’t our backyard, it’s a complex collection of neighbors with various personalities and interests. And those neighbors ask one thing above all: respect. The worst thing we do to Latin America isn’t economic imperialism (a myth) or bumbling CIA antics (as ineffective as ever). The worst thing is treating a vast region of enormous potential as not worth serious attention.

Latin American states have plenty of internal problems they must confront, but we have to confront our own failings, as well — not least our outdated regard for Europe and our ignore-all-else obsession with the Middle East. Latin America is far more important to the U.S., both in our day-to-day lives and in our strategic future, than France or Saudi Arabia. Yet, we continue to pull along in the old harness designed by yesteryear’s Europhiles and craven oil companies.

After all of the revolutions through which Latin America has suffered, let’s try a revolution of our own: treating our hemispheric neighbors as equals.

RALPH PETERS is a retired U.S. Army officer, a strategist and journalist, and the author of 21 books, including the recent “Never Quit The Fight.”