When the Yanquis go home

The ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has provided Latin America with a revelatory moment. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine--and extending through countless invasions, occupations, and covert operations--Washington has considered the region its backyard. So where was this superpower these past few months, as Honduras hung in the balance? More or less sitting on its hands. The fact is that the United States is no longer willing, or perhaps even able, to select who governs from Tegucigalpa, or anywhere else in the region for that matter. Looking back at the history of the hemisphere, this fact is remarkable--and certainly transformative. For the first time in centuries, the United States doesn’t seem to care much what happens in Latin America.

The roots of the diminishing U.S. presence can be found in the end of the cold war. It’s not that the rivalry with the Soviets was the only factor driving U.S. involvement in Latin America. Clearly, James Monroe and Teddy Roosevelt didn’t plunge their country deep into the hemisphere out of an anti-communist impulse. But the conclusion of the long struggle with the Soviets sharpened a question that may have long lurked in Washington’s subconscious: What national interests, exactly, did the United States have in Latin America?

Of course, it is tempting to view this possible retreat from the region as further evidence of Barack Obama’s realist foreign policy. But consider the approach of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. During their administrations, America’s grandest policy moves in the hemisphere were in the realm of economic policy--NAFTA, the Mexican bailout of 1995, CAFTA. And, when the United States did exert itself militarily, it did so in concert with regional allies--as was the case in Haiti and with Plan Colombia. But since George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama, there have been no unilateral military interventions, no coup plots or new embargoes, not even the propping up of decaying regimes.

To understand this new passivity, we can examine the two events that have most riled the old critics of imperialism: the Bush administration’s alleged complicity in the botched military coup against Hugo Chávez in 2002 and the plans to build a wall along the Mexican border. Both of these events are partly real and largely idle. Even if the coup plotters in Caracas had the tacit approval of the United States, they were almost certainly acting on their own, and sloppily. Meanwhile, the fence has yet to be completed. Recession has abated the human flow northward--and policymakers surely know that a wall will be futile once the economy eventually recovers.

At first, in the case of the Clinton years, this attitude of benign neglect made Washington popular. But then, for reasons having more to do with Iraq and Afghanistan, that popularity evaporated. And, in the end, the rise of anti-Americanism in the region didn’t make much of a difference. Chávez has not stopped selling oil to the United States; Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa rants against imperialism but maintains the dollar as his country’s national currency, with the Fed’s quiet acquiescence.

Of course, the United States still has its critics. Some--the left, mainly--would prefer that it play even less of a role: a unilateral end to the Cuban embargo, immigration reform, voiding the military basing agreement with Colombia. Others--the right, chiefly--have called for further confrontation with Chávez. But, by and large, a strange and centrist hemispheric consensus has emerged in support of U.S. indifference. Therefore, this policy will persist, unless things get nasty.

With the rise of Chavismo, it isn’t always possible to see the salutary benefits from this new U.S. policy. But they are tangible. It has grown increasingly difficult for certain regimes to blame Washington for their failures. From Venezuela to Argentina to Bolivia, populist governments have pursued economic and social policies, as well as geopolitical alliances, that can scarcely help their people. When these policies inevitably fail, these governments won’t be able to replicate the rhetorical trickery of the Cubans or the Sandinistas. They cannot hold Washington responsible for their setbacks. At best, they can argue that the peasants in the Andes are still hungry because of the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but that is not an easy sell.

And the change in regional dynamics is even more profound than that. The past decade has seen the rise of governments--like those of Lula in Brazil, Michelle Bachelet and Ricardo Lagos in Chile, and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay--that have ideological differences with Washington but a strong desire for a good working relationship with it. These governments can fend off the most radical segments of their left-wing constituencies, who frown on any relationship with Washington, by citing the end of U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere. When the so-called “Shiite” faction of Lula’s Workers’ Party protests against hosting George W. Bush for lunch, he can reply that, whatever one may think of Iraq, Bush did not inflict any harm on Brazil; when Chávez rails against the U.S.-Colombian military agreement, Chile and Uruguay can reasonably respond that, while they may not like the deal, it does not affect them.

This U.S. stance is also a positive development for symbolic reasons. Too much is made about the imperative for U.S. atonement or humility; they are both overrated. Nonetheless, the United States does carry baggage in the region, and the history of its engagement with Latin America is not a proud one. Breaking with that past, at least by not repeating it, is a good idea and wins points in most quarters of the hemisphere. There is a legitimate debate about the motivations for U.S. intervention in Latin America, as well as its consequences. But placing that history behind us allows for a relationship stripped of the rhetorically strident and often vapid atmospherics of the past.

Unfortunately, this new strategic environment is precarious. Over the long run, the U.S. policy of benign neglect stands a good chance of isolating Hugo Chávez. But such policy depends on turning the other cheek--and perseverance in turning the other cheek depends largely on the intensity and frequency of the slaps one receives.

The least-dangerous threat posed by Venezuela and its allies is economic: that companies will be nationalized without compensation; that a gradual drop in Venezuelan oil exports to the U.S. Gulf Coast will turn precipitous; that defaulting debt will trigger a regional financial crisis. None of these scenarios would be the end of the world, but Barack Obama could hardly pursue his jocular attitude toward Chávez if they materialized. Another danger lies in the Caracas caudillo’s domestic policies. If he goes too far in muzzling the press, intimidating the opposition, and tampering with the electoral process or the courts, Washington will find itself unable to ignore his authoritarian crackdown.

But it’s Chávez’s foreign activities that could prove most menacing. For now, his partnership with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more bluster than substance. The idea that the two dictators’ countries can truly help each other, given their economic similarities, is far-fetched. But it is possible to imagine situations in which Chávez would lend Iran a truly destabilizing hand. If Tehran faces trade sanctions, especially an embargo on gasoline sales, Venezuela could help mitigate the damage with exports. Venezuela could also serve as a base for transshipment of Russian arms sales to Iran, with the hope that Israel would not detect them until it is too late. Finally, Iran could farm out sensitive stages of its nuclear program to Venezuela, where it would hope to avoid the watchful eye of inspectors. Any of these scenarios could provoke the United States to abandon its deliberate passivity.

Chávez has already shown a penchant for mischief, particularly within Latin America. So far, he has meddled successfully in the electoral processes of smaller countries--Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras--and much less successfully in larger nations--Mexico, Peru, and Colombia. His flops have permitted a certain tolerance for his triumphs. At the end of the day, who governs in Managua is no longer a matter of huge preoccupation in most foreign ministries.

But the larger countries are a different kettle of fish. Two, in particular, stand out as tempting targets for Venezuelan adventurism. Colombia is Chávez’s ongoing obsession. He cannot bring this country into his orbit electorally, but he could conceivably try to move it into his column through other means--revolution, insurrection, pressure from across the border. Peru, the more likely candidate for his meddling, will hold elections in 2011 under highly adverse circumstances, with its (unjustly) unpopular ruling party and no viable centrist alternative to the Chavista, Ollanta Humala. In either case, successful Venezuelan involvement would in all likelihood trigger a U.S. response of one type or another. These countries are simply too large, with too many U.S. investments and a central role in the drug trade.

While the region has reason to cheer this turn in U.S. policy, it simply can’t afford for the United States to disappear. On matters such as immigration, free trade, and the battle against corruption, almost nothing can be done without U.S. cooperation or leadership. Or take the steps toward drug decriminalization made by California, Nevada, and Oregon. These shifts in policy could be more important for the hemisphere than the 40-year-old “war on drugs” or the Mérida Initiative or Plan Colombia. The producer countries of the drug trade will not advance toward decriminalization unless the consumer country par excellence moves in that direction first.

Economic development in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America is hardly conceivable, let alone possible, without a significant U.S. contribution, both monetary and conceptual. Building up infrastructure, stabilizing currencies, and establishing effective and transparent antitrust institutions are tasks that countries cannot carry out alone, given their integration with the U.S. economy.

Many of the region’s traditionally anti-interventionist nations--Mexico, Brazil, Argentina--are coming to understand the need to anchor Latin America’s democracy in a strong, intrusive, and detailed legal framework, the same way that free-trade agreements, as well as World Bank and IMF programs, have solidified economic policies that are finally yielding results. The United States must be part of this framework, to coax these countries along and to bestow credibility upon whatever is built. Many of the institutions that enshrine this emerging consensus--the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights--would be meaningless, like the League of Nations, if Washington were not a part of them.

These new structures are filled with potential. But, to deal with crises both ongoing and looming, they will need to devise answers to knotty questions: How will they address the subtle and innovative threats to electoral fairness, an impartial judiciary, and freedom of the press posed by Chávez’s authoritarian drift? When does the legitimacy of a democratically elected president transform itself into the illegitimacy of undemocratic governance? When should free-trade privileges be suspended--when labor rights and environmental rule are threatened, or when democracy is interrupted?

Whatever policies emerge from these discussions would be meaningless without the United States. This is why the South American attempts at replacing the Organization of American States with a new organization that excludes the United States, Canada, and perhaps Mexico are futile at best, counterproductive at worst. The void left by U.S. retrenchment would be occupied by someone--and the alternatives are not attractive. Mexico is consumed by domestic tribulations, and Brazil is bound by an anti-interventionist diplomacy; only Caracas and Havana (the former with money, the latter with skill and experience) can fill the vacuum.

The end of the era of intervention should be hailed by the region. Washington’s less intrusive presence will broaden the leeway certain governments have and force others to assume their responsibilities. But world events do not seem likely to permit an indefinite U.S. disengagement from the region, nor would that be desirable.

Washington has drifted into its current position with little forethought. But, to avoid the worst-case scenarios, it will need to actively manage its relations. The challenge presented by the Latin hard left must be confronted in a new fashion. Obama will need an actual doctrine--or, at least, coherent policy--to guide his decisions: a calculus that distinguishes between matters that are properly part of a country’s domestic policy and those that entail violations of freely consented international agreements. By making this distinction, the United States could shed its history and get off the defensive, shifting the onus to Chávez. James Monroe’s doctrine would officially be retired. A new era could truly begin. 

Jorge G. Castañeda, the Global Distinguished Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University, was foreign minister of Mexico from 2000–2003.

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