First Lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s recent decisive victory in Argentina’s presidential elections, the first for a woman in that country, has meant inevitable comparisons. Frequently referred to as “Argentina’s Hillary,” the president-elect is the glamorous wife of current President Nestor Kirchner, and despite a long personal political resume she is sometimes likened to Evita Peron. Then there’s the widespread noting of how Argentina has followed in Chile’s footsteps in electing a woman president. But Fernandez de Kirchner ‘s win probably matters more because of where she stands on the political spectrum than because of her gender. As she takes office on December 10, the next president of Argentina will deepen the consolidation of Latin America’s increasingly decisive “left turn.”
Best known by Venezuelan Hugo Chávez’s flamboyant presidency, South America’s tilt to the left has drawn a great deal of attention from U.S. pundits and policymakers. With good reason. The wave of populist, socialist, and social democratic movements and leaders coming to power in South and Central America and nearly getting elected in Mexico is no fleeting trend. Latin America is bucking free-market fundamentalism and the Washington Consensus and moving toward a policy paradigm favoring poverty reduction, an increased role (again) for the state in the economy, and pan-Latin American unity in opposition to U.S. hegemony.
By most accounts, Latin America’s new Left now encompasses the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela, alongside the old left stalwart Cuba. Considering the near misses of leftist candidates in Mexico and Costa Rica, it is entirely possibly that this club will be expanded during coming election cycles. Of course, as is often pointed out, there is significant variation within this sizeable bloc. Basic ideological affinities aside, the leaders of Latin America’s ascendant left have employed different governing styles and development strategies. Most prominently, there appears to be a clear—though frequently overstated—distinction between supposedly “radical” leaders, namely Chávez and his Bolivian ally, Evo Morales, and their more moderate counterparts—i.e. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and Uruguay’s Tábare Vasquez.
To counter the prevailing regional trends, the Bush administration has attempted to divide the leaders of what it dubs the “responsible left” from those who, in the words of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, espouse a ” false populism.” This effort has largely failed. Instead of driving a wedge between the various elements of Latin America’s post-neoliberal “pink tide,” Washington’s strategy has been met by a further consolidation of the region’s disparate left-wing forces. This is illustrated not only by the refusal of Latin American leaders to join the White House’s attempt to isolate Chávez but also by the growing movement toward economic integration, as demonstrated by the newly-created Banco del Sur, a regional alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
In contrast to the misplaced notion that the Bush administration has patently “ignored” Latin America, a view often expressed by mainstream commentators and the Democratic Party, the administration has, in fact, been fairly attentive to the region. In light of its ineffective attempt to cleave a divide through the region’s progressive forces, the White House has updated its diplomatic response to Latin America’s seismic shifts. In a manner befitting the current president, however, this response continues to be fashioned around a rather striking disconnect between rhetoric and reality.
Social Justice Tour
In March of 2007, in preparation for President Bush’s tour of five Latin American countries, the White House released a “Fact Sheet” entitled “Advancing the Cause of Social Justice in the Western Hemisphere.” Noting that “the working poor of Latin America need change,” the document committed the United States to “helping their governments provide it.” In a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Bush stated that the persistence of poverty in the region was a “scandal,” one that required the United States to work with its partners to “change old patterns and ensure that government serves all its citizens.” During the trip itself, which took Bush to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, the president repeatedly touched on themes of economic development, poverty alleviation, and the need for democratic institutions to serve the common good. The Washington Post even referred to Bush’s jaunt through Latin America as his “social justice tour.”
Naturally, the Bush administration never bothered to define “social justice,” which it continues to discuss largely in connection to trade policy, economic growth, and fiscal responsibility, rather than the region’s chronic inequality. The term is conspicuously out of place in the Bush lexicon, given not only the president’s hyper-reactionary tenure. It’s virtually inconceivable that Bush would utter the expression “social justice” in any other context, foreign or domestic. It’s also ironic as well as hypocritical, given the sordid history of U.S. interventionism in the region. Journalists Larry Rohter and Jim Rutenberg, for instance, who covered Bush’s recent tour for The New York Times, wrote that his “striking use of the revolutionary language of the left reflected an urgent attempt by the president to stave off the growing regional influence of populist leaders like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who have used the discontent of the poor to promote an anti-American agenda.”
As demonstrated by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s landslide victory in Argentina, the waning influence of the IMF, and a host of other regional events and trends, Washington’s status in Latin America has continued to decline. With little choice but to react to this development in one way or another, the U.S. diplomatic corps has turned its social justice frame into an integral component of its broader hemispheric strategy. Speaking at the Organization of American States (OAS) on October 9, for example, Rice claimed that the United States was helping its fellow democracies “create opportunity and social justice” in an effort to “expand the promise of our Pan-American community to all.” Furthermore, in his October 22 remarks to the Council of the Americas, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said the promotion of social justice was the “paramount goal” of U.S. policy in the Western hemisphere.
Forging New Ties
Armed with a healthy dose of skepticism, it doesn’t take a great deal of digging to uncover this ploy for what it is: a discursive smokescreen aimed at obscuring the unfortunate fact that U.S. policy in Latin America has been left fundamentally unchanged. Indeed, it remains a product of the same forces of power and profit that have long guided U.S. behavior in its own “backyard.” As stated in a recent report from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) entitled Forging New Ties, “The United States has continued to invoke the same set of policy recommendations, even as Latin America’s political dynamics have undergone a drastic change.”
As the WOLA report makes clear, the United States continues to pursue a deeply flawed and highly militarized approach to Colombia’s drug trade, despite the fact that Plan Colombia has been an unmitigated failure. What’s worse, the White House recently outlined a carbon copy of the aid program for Mexico, labeled the “Mérida Initiative” to avoid the negative connotations that would accompany an official “Plan Mexico.” Additionally, as evidenced by Bush’s bellicose speech on October 24, the White House has refused to back down from its hard-line stance toward Cuba at a time when the rest of the world seems willing to further engage the island and its leadership.
To be sure, Washington’s newfound rhetorical commitment to social justice was backed-up by several aid initiatives aimed at helping Latin America’s poor and middle class inhabitants. Announced in March, prior to Bush’s trip, they included sending a Navy medical ship to make port calls in a number of Latin American and Caribbean countries, building a healthcare professional training center in Panama, and helping thousands of Latin American students improve their English through a U.S.-based study program.
Ironically, the aid package mirrors many of the so-called “populist” initiatives that the administration so frequently rails against when implemented by its ideological foes in the region. After all, to what degree does a stopover visit from a Navy medial ship help foster long-term change for communities in need of a lasting commitment? Like Bush’s laughable use of the term social justice, the aid program, unveiled ostensibly to mark a “new” hemispheric approach, can’t mask the reality of Washington’s steadfast commitment to the status quo.
As detailed in the WOLA report, a truly fresh approach to U.S. policy in Latin America would move beyond failed neoliberal orthodoxies while remedying Washington’s hostility toward democratic models that challenge its elite-led vision. It would begin by acknowledging the pervasive disillusionment with U.S.-dominated economic policies in the region, and would be based on a new foundation of respect that allows for innovative development strategies to promote growth and equality, enhance citizen security, and strengthen human rights. Perhaps most importantly, a genuinely new approach would treat Latin American nations as real partners, not as threats.
However, despite its rhetorical emphasis on “change,” the Bush administration has continued to push a stale agenda centered on unregulated markets and the discredited tenets of the collapsed Washington Consensus. Having recently pressured Costa Rica into ratifying CAFTA by the slimmest of margins, for example, it continues to aggressively pursue pending free trade agreements with Peru, Colombia, and Panama.
For their part, the major Democratic presidential candidates have yet to articulate an alternative vision for U.S. policy in the Americas. At present, it’s unclear whether the next occupant of the White House will usher in any improvements in U.S.-Latin American relations. Regardless of who wins the U.S. presidency, the region’s popular and social democratic forces—reflexively referred to as “anti-American” by the U.S. media—continue to gain ground. Increasingly, Latin America’s consolidated Left is putting the Bush administration on the defensive. In a cynical attempt to stem this “pink tide,” the White House has adopted the language of its rivals and tried to obfuscate the true meaning of social justice.