Re-establishing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has been a long time coming. But all the current US excitement about Cuba only highlights a big strategic void: Why is the US so hesitant to engage itself more in Latin America as a whole?
For all the attention the US government has paid to far-away places, like Afghanistan and Iraq, a lot of problems are festering much closer to the home front. The list of troubled countries in the Western hemisphere is topped by Latin America’s largest economies. That should raise alarm bells in Washington. Brazil, South America’s largest economy, is teetering on the brink of a political collapse. In Mexico, the second-largest economy, expecting any semblance of law and order has become wishful thinking.
Oddly, there is little sign of consternation in the US capital. When it comes to engaging with Latin America, the US evidently prefers to choose the minimalist course of action. What is painfully missing is a deeper form of engagement, which, at the same time, does not repeat the imperious attitudes of the past.
There have been a few times in the 20th century when the US did engage successfully with Latin America. First, there was US President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, which turned the region away from a flirtation with fascism. Next came President Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress”, which opened the door to technocrats and development-oriented thinking. Finally, there was President George Bush senior’s “Enterprise for the Americas Initiative”, which led to the engagement for free trade. And yet, despite these interludes, what was started was never completed.
This lack of follow-through is ultimately self-defeating. As a consequence of geographic proximity, any evasive strategy in the US’ immediate “neighbourhood” will always come back to haunt it – and not so much in faraway South America, but rather, right on US soil.
As is the case with African migrants in Europe, immigration from Latin America to the US stems from unresolved poverty. In the US’ case, as in Europe’s, this originates in part from the US’ failure to fully integrate itself economically with its southern neighbours.
This is what Western Europe has done with Eastern Europe over the past quarter century. While this requires sizable investments and a long-term perspective, it is likely the only viable way forward. The strategy of benign neglect, which the US pursues, in contrast, works against its own interest. One pernicious effect of Mexico’s underdeveloped economy is that Mexican drug gangs, following in the footsteps of their Colombian predecessors, find a wide-open launchpad for their business activities all across the US.
While the drug problem in the last century mostly appeared in big US cities, the drug trade now reaches into the rural backwaters of the US, such as the poverty-stricken, mountainous areas of West Virginia. It begs disbelief that these cartels are far more active, if perversely incentivised, integrators of the economies of the Americas than US corporations and the US government.
But that is precisely how things are shaping up right now. All that the US government manages to come up with are concepts, such as the “War on Drugs”, and trade deals that primarily serve the interests of large US corporations.
Latin America is not Asia
The US’ government and businesses, meanwhile, are chasing another dream – the Asian dream. And yet, the US, no matter how hard it tries, will not succeed in what it yearns for the most: to be considered as being of Asia by the Asians themselves.
The latter effort was part of determined US efforts to dissociate itself from Europe. This dissociation – rudely interrupted by Vladimir Putin’s machinations – was undertaken by the US to stay in tune with its foundational myth of being a “young” continent, free of “old world” entanglements. In Washington’s eyes, it’s simple: Asia is young and dynamic. Partnering with this region can only benefit the US. It boils down to a straightforward trade – drop Europe, pick up Asia. And Latin America? It does not even enter the equation.
Latin America anyone?
The US evidently considers such an undertaking as too insignificant for such a seasoned and large a player as itself. The only time when Latin America really surfaces on Washington’s strategic radar with any urgency these days is when China undertakes economic diplomacy in the region, including offering soft loans to resource-rich, politically unstable countries.
In doing so, the Chinese are simply exploiting a vacuum left by a US that neglects both the risks and the opportunities of Latin America.
Can things be turned around constructively? Certainly not by merely merging Havana back into the greater Miami economy.
Stephan Richter is publisher and editor-in-chief of theglobalist.com and is president of the Globalist Research Center.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.