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Can the United States Ever be a Good Neighbor?

Much of the debate on the U.S. presidential elections in Latin American countries does not center on who would be better for the region, Bush or Kerry, but on whether it makes any difference at all.

Interviews with analysts and citizens reveal a deep skepticism as to the U.S.’s potential, under either of the major political parties, to return in these modern times to anything like the Rooseveltian “good neighbor” policy of the 1930s. Since the invasion of Iraq, criticism of U.S. foreign policy has surged and fed into rising protests against deeper economic ties with the United States as well.

The skepticism has a solid foundation. Documents released under freedom-of-information law, and truth commissions in nations still emerging from military rule have provided hard evidence of U.S. involvement in everything from dirty tricks to assassination attempts. Allegations have been made for years, but now Washington’s shady role in the region has become part of the historical record.

Scars of intervention still run deep: 50 years after the Arbenz government was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup, Guatemala still struggles to rebuild democratic institutions and alleviate deep inequities. The bloody Operation Condor, coordinated in the Southern Cone by military dictatorships with the encouragement of the U.S. government, has left families sundered and whole nations traumatized. The same can be said of El Salvador, where the U.S. fuelled the bitter civil war, and Nicaragua, which now looks on as the architects of the Iran-Contra scandal serve in high-level Bush administration posts.

Even a cursory review of John Kerry’s proposals shows little difference on the major issues of concern to Latin Americans. Old- guard leftists argue that the Bush-Kerry showdown is just the latest redux of the same-old Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum elections in the United States . Miguel D’Escoto, former Sandinista Minister of Foreign Affairs, states the case: “It would be a serious mistake to conclude that the current conduct of the United States represents something temporary that will change when George Bush Jr. leaves the presidency. The United States has never in its history stepped backwards in its drive toward universal domination, and has never corrected its behavior, which has only gone from bad to worse from the point of view of the rights of the rest of humanity.” Many analysts second his views, either due to their structural political analyses or because they’ve simply grown weary of expecting anything else from the United States .

But most citizens seem to make some distinction. Polls show that Latin Americans much prefer Kerry; a recent Globescan/University of Maryland canvass shows 19% for Bush and 42.5% for Kerry.

Government spokespersons have been diplomatically circumspect about expressing an opinion. Indicative of the deep divisions within the Lula government, the Brazilian foreign ministry has reportedly stated it is “closer to the Democrats than to Bush,” but members of the economic cabinet have openly warned of “a wave of protectionism” under a Kerry government. Argentina’s president Kirchner, on tenterhooks over upcoming debt negotiations with the IMF that could be affected by U.S. political developments, recognized that “Argentina is not a priority for the U.S.”

Much also depends on the specific political agenda of Latin American leaders. Hugo Chávez, never one to mince words concerning his opinion of George W. Bush, maintains hope for relief despite John Kerry’s recent rail against “political persecution” in Venezuela. Mexico’s Vicente Fox has undoubtedly crossed his fingers for a Bush victory that would enable him to push through blocked pro-business reforms and save face with a limited immigration pact. Other nations are nervously waiting on the sidelines.

Oddly enough, the Cuban government, which has suffered under the economic embargo imposed by every U.S. administration since 1961, is among those who insist on making a clear distinction between the two candidates. While fundamental policy has not changed under Democrats or Republicans, nuances in U.S. policies affect the island directly. Bush administration efforts to enforce the embargo far beyond any previous measures have angered even anti-Castro Cubans in Florida. The tightened travel ban, reduction of allowable remittances, and sanctions against foreign companies doing business in Cuba represent a marked increase in hostilities and greater hardships for the island. Cuban Minster of Foreign Relations, Felipe Pérez Roque noted this week when the UN General Assembly voted for the 13 th time to condemn the U.S. embargo: “We gather here just five days before the elections in this country, which we all await with a secret hope. It’s true that these past four years have been terrible for the world.”

Although not everyone is convinced of the real possibilities for change, there has rarely been a U.S. presidential election as hotly discussed beyond its borders. Latin America and the rest of the world are actively debating what’s at stake for them. The combination of the geopolitical context of the undisputed hegemony of the United States, and the new political context of the Bush administration’s unilateralist and interventionist foreign policy doctrine has created a globally volatile mixture.

Some fear that a second Bush administration would interpret its victory as a ratification of its radical, neoconservative views, thus pushing imperial hubris to previously unimagined levels.

Another fear is that respect for the sovereignty of other nations–particularly resource-rich, developing countries–could become a concept of the past under a revived neocon government. The crudely orchestrated “resignation” of Aristide in Haiti, criticized by Kerry, may be a mild taste of things to come under a second Bush administration. Although hampered by military over-extension in Iraq and Afghanistan , administration members and advisers are already making noises about other nations, which according to them, are ripe for regime change.

In this context, John Kerry’s proposals for Latin American policy would represent little positive change. Although he has proposed a “community of the Americas,” he heartily endorses continued internal meddling through agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy, and Kerry has failed to oppose the wars on drugs and terrorism that have led to militarization and human rights violations throughout the continent.

But throughout the world, the U.S. elections–beyond obvious similarities in policy proposals–reflect a clash of worldviews that has turned many skeptics into, at the least, passionate onlookers. If questioned further, it’s a safe bet that Latin Americans who opted for Kerry in the opinion polls would not cite lofty expectations but rather a simple desire to keep things from getting worse.

Most recognize that for the United States to develop a real good neighbor policy, based on respect for self-determination, political solutions to conflict, and decreasing inequities, is probably a bit much to ask for now. But if the high-level of interest in this year’s elections forces both U.S. citizens and Latin Americans to reflect on the U.S. role in the region, and if it succeeds in detaining this particularly blatant form of imperialism, it could be a step in the right direction.

LAURA CARLSEN is Director of the Americas Program for Interhemispheric Resource Center. She holds a BA in Social Thought and Institutions (1980) from Stanford University and an MA in Latin American Studies (1986) from Stanford. She received a Fulbright Scholarship to study the impact of the Mexican economic crisis on women in 1986 and has since lived in Mexico City. She can be reached at: laura@irc-online.org