Are you with U.S or against US?
April 15, 2012
Some may view the behaviour of the US secret service agents this week in Colombia as a further sign of the growing discontent between the US and the rest of Latin America. The sheer audacity of these professional individuals, tasked with securing the safety of President Obama, carries with it an ugly reminder of the disrespect that characterised US attitudes towards Latin Americans in a period of time thought to be long resigned to history.
A recurring theme at this year’s Organisation of American States (OAS) was the ever- growing divide between North and South America, ranging from issues such as the British claim over the Falkland Islands, to the de-criminalisation of the drugs trade. This is in line with the economic dissociation that has seen the decline of US influence in the region and the gains made by China as a result. Chile and Peru, along with Brazil, the economic powerhouse of the continent, now have closer trading links with the Chinese than the US, with Colombia and Argentina likely to follow suit. Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank stated in a pre-summit report that ‘”Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs and with declining capacity to propose and carry out strategies to deal with the issues that most concern them.”
For instance, South American leaders argue that the legalisation of drugs would put a large dent in the profits made by the trade and help to reduce drug related violence that has crippled South American economies and deprived them of much needed foreign investment. Predictably, any hopes of US enthusiasm for the policy were soon dashed, but Obama did concede that the United States is the region’s biggest consumer of illegal drugs and has a responsibility to reduce demand.
Also, on the 30th anniversary of the conflict, Argentina’s request for a negotiation of the Falkland Island’s sovereignty from Britain was supported by a handful of leaders including Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro who said ‘there should be no colonial possessions in our America’. Again, the US opposed this sentiment.
Perhaps most significant of all was the debate surrounding the makeup of the organisation itself. Rather unsurprisingly, Cuba was ostracised from proceedings as it has been since the birth of the OAS. A more surprising development was the Bolivian President Eva Morales’s claim that this ought to be the last OAS summit without Cuba. Latin America is largely united in their opposition to the US trade embargo of Cuba, and the absence of Castro provoked Ecuador to boycott the summit altogether.
Clearly, this all adds up to a growing sense of unity between the Latin American states in a way that increasingly differs from the US worldview. While this is by no means a new development, the fact that these disputes have come together on the world stage this weekend seems to have created a real sense that the South American continent has a choice to make. What each nation needs to be clear about is exactly what that choice is.
OAS or UNASUR?
In the summer of 2010, the already strained relations between Colombia and Venezuela would face their toughest challenge yet. Then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Hugo Chavez of harbouring 1,500 guerrilla fighters associated with the FARC rebel group. Brazilian President Lula da Silva argued that the dispute ought to be handled by UNASUR, the economic and political bloc that excludes the US and Canada, rather than the OAS, to prevent talks being tilted towards Colombia and against Venezuela. The dispute would spark wider criticism of Colombian foreign policy under Uribe and condemnation of the US military bases in Colombia, seen as a way to provoke war between the US and Venezuela. Brazil has been resentful of the US presence in the continent, especially after a US Air Force document was leaked describing the bases as a launch pad for ‘mobility operations against Anti-US Latin American governments’. A meeting of UNASUR managed to agree that these bases ought to be prohibited from use for military operations outside of Colombia’s soil.
With a change of leadership in Colombia in 2010, President De Silva may feel his entreaty has been noticed. Colombian President Santos has explicitly noted his desire to ease relations with Chavez, which can only be to the benefit of both nations, given that over 11% of their respective exports are exchanged between the two of them. However, the end result of this dispute may have set an uneasy precedent. The decline of US influence can be seen as much as a rise in Brazil’s bargaining position as a mere benign integration of South American governments.
There are obvious advantages to a more peaceful relationship between Colombia and Venezuela, provided that Santos remembers why and how his country has achieved its present position. Colombia continues to be one of the main recipients of US aid, and has been the largest recipient in the Western Hemisphere for quite some time. The relationship between Former Presidents Uribe and Bush helped to substantially reduce the FARC threat and created an economic boom in what was once a war torn, near failed state. Any indication, however slight, that Venezuelans are harbouring the very enemy that Colombia has fought so hard to eliminate must be taken with the highest level of seriousness. It seems only right that the US is included in these talks, given the level of disorder the Colombian rebels have caused on the US border through drug trafficking; almost as much as the US internal problems with trade. More generally, it would be foolish to exclude the world’s largest military power from talks about regional security, even if one has reservations about wider US foreign policy.
South American integration can be a positive step in terms of political stability and economic prosperity, just as long as the region experiences a steady, equal growth that is beneficial to all involved. No country should be made to feel ashamed of previous ties with the US, especially if those ties were instrumental in triggering growth and regional peace. The ability to choose one’s allies is a right that all states should be able to enjoy. But one must not bite the hand that still has the ability to feed.