Respecting Our Neighbors to the South

Having only recently become a U.S citizen, I now join the millions of immigrants eligible to vote in this year’s presidential election. For my native Latin America, none of the candidates is offering a real alternative to the failed policies that have made the U.S. government wildly unpopular among people from Mexico to Argentina.

The United States became notorious during the 20th century for backing brutal dictators under the guise of preventing a communist takeover of Latin America. Past military interventions in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and elsewhere, and support of repressive regimes like that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile have made Latin Americans skeptical of U.S. motives. More recently, U.S. policy toward the region has focused on two issues: drugs and free trade. Both policies have harmed the economic and political lives of the region.

Today, Latin America is undergoing a transformation as indigenous and social movements are rising up and demanding a say about the future. Elected leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and to varying degrees Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay are asserting themselves as symbols of an independent and even defiant Latin America. And voters in those countries are overwhelmingly backing them.

So how should the United States respond? A successful policy begins with respect. The U.S. should give the elected governments the space to succeed rather than flooding discredited opposition movements with aid in an attempt to influence elections and undermine governments as they are doing in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Respect can be shown also through abandoning our insistence on so-called “free” trade policies, which favor transnational corporations over the environment and the rights of workers. Instead, we can join the region’s move toward fair trade policies that support sustainable development in poor countries and protect small farmers from unfettered competition with heavily subsidized agribusiness. Our trade policies should be based on the idea that our hemisphere is more secure when all peoples can develop diversified economies that meet local needs first, and raise people out of poverty and hopelessness. Strong local economies would also reduce pressure on poor people to migrate, easing much of the illegal immigration in the United States.

Respect can be extended by ending the senseless war on coca farmers, which has fueled conflict and human rights abuses. Instead, we could help countries deal with drug trafficking, money laundering, and other organized crime through good policing—if they request the help.

It would be respectful to cancel the illegitimate debt acquired by past authoritarian regimes so that governments can address endemic poverty and improve people’s lives.

The next president could create a real “good neighbor” relationship with Latin America. A promise to do that would go a long way toward earning my vote. In Latin America, nothing else will be welcomed.

Nadia Martinez is the former co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network project at the Institute for Policy Studies.