Today’s Latin America defies the descriptors of eras past, making U.S. foreign policy in the region, as well as the international media’s tendency to make generalizations about a growing leftist trend, badly in need of an update.
That was one of the messages Michael Shifter, vice-president of the Inter-American Dialogue and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., presented during a recent visit to Costa Rica. The U.S. foreign policy expert, who has testified before Congress on foreign policy toward Latin America and has written widely on the subject, spoke with journalists and gave lectures at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO).
However, the goal of his visit was not only to teach others about hemispheric relations, but also to learn more about Costa Rica’s changed political scene. For Shifter, Costa Rica and President Oscar Arias – like the rest of Latin America – are searching for solutions in new ways that demand a more sophisticated response.
“Relations (between the United States and Latin America) are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War,” Shifter said at his final UCR lecture, adding that though he doesn’t expect significant short-term improvements, he’s optimistic that relations could improve farther down the road.
“Maybe I’m naïve, but I have hope that things could be a little better…We’re going through very difficult times (that could) result in slightly more interesting policies towards Latin America.”
Costa Rica and the rest of Latin America are certainly undergoing significant change, thanks to increasing dissatisfaction with existing economic models; the decline or collapse of traditional political parties; and a growing desire to gain “more distance, more elbow room from the United States so people can exercise options in the global economy,” Shifter told The Tico Times May 17, the first day of his visit. However, describing these changes as a widespread shift to the left misses the mark, he said.
Asked about Arias’ March 15 opinion piece in The Washington Post, entitled “Latin America’s Shift to the Center” – in which the newly elected President argued that the media has overblown the so-called leftist resurgence in the region, distracting from the more serious problems posed to Latin American countries by U.S. agricultural subsidies and a lack of foreign aid – Shifter called the article “refreshing.”
“Arias is right. It’s not very useful to talk about these labels of left and right. They’re artificial constructs, better suited to the Cold War period,” he said. “Today it’s much more complicated than that, and these labels don’t capture it.”
One example of that complexity is the significantly different strategies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, he said.
Though both leaders are often lumped together as “leftist,” Chávez has confronted the United States in an aggressive way, while Chile, which opposed the war in Iraq, has sought consensus with the United States in other areas, signed free-trade agreements and worked to attract foreign investment, Shifter said.
“To put a government like Chávez’s and like Bachelet’s in the same category makes no sense at all,” he said.
Oscar Arias himself provides another example, Shifter added.
“One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to see how Arias is perceived, because analysts have been having trouble trying to fit Arias into one of these categories,” he said. Though Arias is best known to many as the young leader who challenged U.S. President Ronald Reagan over the Central American peace process in the 1980s, he now supports the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) and emphasizes the need for foreign investment.
“Costa Rica in this last election illustrated perfectly the real limits of using those terms (right and left), because a person like Oscar Arias defies those labels,” Shifter said.
He added that Arias’ established commitment to democracy and progress will prevent much of a negative U.S. response should Arias strike a petroleum deal with Chávez, an option the President has appeared interested in pursuing. Arias planned to meet with Chávez on the day of his inauguration, May 8, but the Venezuelan leader cancelled the visit at the last minute, citing other obligations (TT, May 12).
“The United States is very sensitive now about people who are working out deals with Chávez, but the government is going to be pragmatic,” Shifter said. “A lot of members of the U.S. Congress are working out deals with Chávez, too, getting discounted home heating oil. He’s been making deals in seven U.S. states so far… The United States has to understand that if countries are in dire economic straits, they’re going to try to find the best deal they can get. We’re in a context now where energy is very, very important.”
Arias’ support for CAFTA aligns him with the United States as well – though because of Costa Rica’s unique cultural emphasis on consensus, the agreement’s future is not clear.
“In most other countries, when you have a majority in Congress ready to approve something and the weight of public opinion supporting it, you would assume that it would go to a vote, but here it’s a society that prizes consent, wants to preserve serenity,” he said. “It’s very unusual and different from a lot of other Latin American countries.”
Shifter proposed increases in U.S. aid and support for Latin America during his May 19 lecture at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). This stance echoes that of Arias, who has argued the United States should do more to reward countries struggling to improve their lot.
“Opportunities are not being taken advantage of,” Shifter said during a public dialogue with Costa Rican political analyst Constantino Urcayo. “The Washington policy could be much more active, much more intelligent.”
The United States could respond to Chávez, for example, not by supporting the opposition, but by “providing some ideas” about alternative solutions, Shifter said – an argument he also made in “The Search for Hugo Chávez,”which appears in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. In the article, he argues that Chávez’s Venezuelan and international opponents, by criticizing the leader’s model without proposing their own, give him an upper hand he may not deserve, given that Chávez’s “dubious” social policies have had limited success despite the windfall resulting from skyrocketing petroleum prices.
“What the populists offer doesn’t work,” he said at the lecture. Therefore, a U.S. return to a foreign policy along the lines of the 1960s Alliance for Progress, with renewed commitment to improving Latin America’s infrastructure, supporting social development and addressing immigration issues, would likely prove more effective than the current tack.
Increasing financial support for the efforts of José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), to address the problem of ingovernability in Latin American would also help.
“The United States would say, ‘We’re doing that,’ but I think (the country) could do much more,” he said.