Missing the Point on Latin America

Today’s Washington Post editorial, “A Choice for Latin America,” ends with a provocative ultimatum for several Latin American governments: Choose the democracy of the 21st century over Hugo Chavez’s “half-baked” socialism, or else lose all material and economic support from the United States. Interestingly enough, however, the editorial does not give a single detail of what The Washington Post’s vision of democracy in the 21st century means for Latin America besides a nostalgic reference to the largely defunct and discredited “Washington consensus.”

To believe that what Latin America needs in the 21st century is to merely revitalize the Washington consensus is to completely miss the point. While it is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Latin America to have governments that rule undemocratically and in ways that inflame hemispheric relations, it is also not in the interest of the United States to further antagonize the region by using rhetoric based on a “you’re either with us or against us” mentality.

After several decades of deepening democratic processes and moderate economic growth, what Latin America needs is to build on the lessons learned from the Washington consensus of the 1990s and create economic and political systems that respond to the very serious and urgent needs of its citizens. These needs include finding solutions to rampant and worsening public insecurity, pervasive economic inequality, and ineffective and discredited institutions.

Despite the economic progress the region has achieved in nearly two decades—the percent of people living in poverty reduced to 35.1 percent in 2007 from 48.3 percent in 1990—Latin America and the Caribbean remains the most unequal region of the world. An extensive annual survey conducted in 18 countries in the region found that 63 percent of respondents reported feeling more insecure with each passing day, and 73 percent feared becoming a victim of violent crime. In the course of this decade alone, approximately 1.2 million people have been killed in Latin America and the Caribbean due to crime, and each year 200 million people—one-third of the region’s population—are victims of crime.

The set of very serious challenges confronting Latin America and the Caribbean cannot be viewed in isolation from the United States. Some conditions are exacerbated by what occurs in the United States, such as drug consumption and arms sales that make their way across the United States’ southern border. Others, such as endemic inequality, are the very conditions that create the push factors for people in Latin America and the Caribbean to immigrate to the United States in search of better work, opportunity, and better living conditions.

If the United States is serious about tackling the issues that complicate hemispheric relations, then it cannot do so by merely touting a foreign policy agenda toward the region that puts trade above everything else. Trade is important, but it is clearly not the magic bullet that promoters of the Washington consensus of the 1990s believed it would be. Otherwise, the set of problems described in the previous paragraph would not exist.

The United States needs to understand the complex political and economic changes occurring throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as the region’s attempt to respond to the varied and urgent challenges countries in the region are facing in different ways. The rise of people like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Evo Morales in Bolivia should be understood in the context of a complete failure of the political and governing systems before them to address the very real and urgent needs of the majority of those countries’ populations.

While the United States may not agree with Chavez’s “half-baked” socialism, as The Washington Post put it, he and the other leaders referenced by The Washington Post were elected by a majority of their country’s populations. These people felt that the policies and regimes that preceded Chavez, Correa, and Morales—those that adopted the Washington consensus—had neither benefited them nor served to protect their interests.

The United States’ response to these leaders therefore cannot be to deliver an ultimatum. To do so would only further aggravate hemispheric relations and alienate the regional allies the United States needs to effectively deal with Chavez, Correa, and Morales, and all those named by The Washington Post. Instead, the United States must very proactively engage with civil societies in all of these countries at the grassroots level.

The goal of engagement should be to understand what the United States can and should do to help consolidate a more democratic system of governance that actually delivers the benefits of trade and globalization to the majority of people in the hemisphere, thereby discrediting the economic policies of Chavez and company in the process. Nostalgia for the Washington consensus has no place in the democracy of the 21st century in Latin America and the Caribbean. A more cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and the countries of the hemisphere does.