Toward a Post-Cold War Latin America Policy

I join various Western Hemisphere leaders in hoping for rapid progress toward a warming of US-Cuban relations. But beyond that, I hope that an effort to get more reasonable on this issue can help us move beyond the larger problem of the Cold War frame of our entire approach to Latin America. For the past fifty years or so our approach to the hemisphere has been really dominated by the idea that Latin America represents some kind of soft underbelly of the U.S. security system and thus our primary concern has to the be the rise of pro-Soviet regimes.

Thus, every political controversy in the region wound up being read as a contest between a pro-American faction and a pro-Soviet faction, with America’s primary interest being in helping the pro-American side.

People will probably debate forever whether or not that was a sound approach to the Cold War era. But I think it’s clearly the wrong approach for a world in which there is no Cold War and is no Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we really keep seeing things this way. We worry that Venezuela or Bolivia or El Salvador may join the “anti-American” bloc and the really important thing about Colombia is that its government is “pro-American.” This just doesn’t make much sense as a way to think about a whole region of the world.

At the end of the day, our interests in Latin America are pretty limited. And that means we can and should take a laissez faire attitude to who wins what there and who’s on whose “side.” The Chinese aren’t going to station nuclear missiles in Ecuador and threaten our cities, and the Russians aren’t going to threaten us with starvation by monopolizing the banana crop. There’s just nothing to it. If we would just be more willing to buy stuff that Latin America makes — to lift the barriers to importing sugar, beef, etc. from the region — then people in the region would be richer. They’d probably be somewhat better-disposed toward us, and since they’d be richer they’d buy more of the stuff we make. And everyone could just sort of calm down.