As the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center covered the pages of every U.S. newspaper with solemn remembrances, Latin American papers also marked the event but often in very different terms. In countries throughout the region, the date brought the requisite mourning of innocent lives lost. But there were also many reflections on the patent failure of the response of the Bush government and on the adverse repercussions that the self-proclaimed “War on Terrorism” has had on countries far removed from the frontline of terror.
Most Latin American media has been tough in its evaluations of the war. The left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada editorialized: “The world today is a much more violent, uncertain, unjust, and arbitrary place than it was five years ago. This is a great triumph for the U.S. Republicans and a bitter defeat for people of peace, understanding, and good will.” Argentina’s Página 12 noted the way President Bush “wants to again use the issue of insecurity to improve his popularity” in the advent of difficult mid-term elections for his party.
Clearly, what Bush called in his speech “the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century” has found little echo south of the border. Latin American nations nearly unanimously disapproved of the invasion of Iraq. Diplomatic and economic pressures to join what many view as Washington’s war,’ attempts by SouthCom to establish greater military presence in the hemisphere, and the formula of equating free trade agreements with security have not been viewed as part of a common battle but rather as violations of national sovereignty.
The problem is that in many parts of the world, and notably in Latin America, the war on terrorism as defined by the Bush administration is now seen more as a cynical attempt to pack the global agenda with objectives that have been on the back burner of the U.S. right.
Tragically, what could have been a global effort to disarm terrorist cells and renounce violence as a means of resolving ideological differences has become associated both with the militarization of society and with the human rights violations characteristic of the past. For a region that well remembers that past, and that still lives with its scars and its ghosts, the squandering of U.S. moral authority following 9/11 and the detour to an agenda of global hegemony over the past five years have left the United States with a tarnished image.
In fact, half a decade since the attacks, the strategy of the architects of Bush foreign policy to use the war on terrorism for its own geopolitical objectives has failed. The attempt to define the world based on a “struggle for civilization” (Bush’s phrase) is questioned in a region that is actively seeking its own definitions.
For most of Latin America, the pressing battles today take place on the globalized home front, against enemies like poverty, injustice, and crime. These stem not from an “Islamo-fascist” conspiracy but from fundamental inequities. Haiti, the half-island whose claim to fame is that it consistently ranks at the bottom of all social indices in the hemisphere, is a classic case. Since its independence, the nation was saddled with a crushing debt to France and the result has been cycles of violence and instability, fuelled by an economy that has never been able to get on its feet. Correcting that inequity of the past could save millions of dollars in stop-gap aid in the future.
The current Chilean miner strike provides a contemporary example of struggles for fairness, one that presages more battles to come. Miners at the world’s largest copper mine have asked a simple question: Who should benefit from the enormous profits generated by our nation’s natural resources? Although the company in this case is Anglo-Australian, the protest”along with recent student demonstrations in defense of quality public education”constitutes one of the first and most important indications that even in the region’s “successful” case of economic integration, growing inequities are producing a popular call for regulation and reform.
Faced with the ultimatum from Washington of “you’re with us or against freedom”, Latin America is responding by tracing its own paths and learning from its own experience. While the United Status seeks to impose a Pax Americana based on “free trade” agreements that generate greater inequality and “freedom” that restricts individual liberties and international law, social movements and progressive governments in Latin American countries are building their own alternatives that erode the overwhelming influence of their neighbor in the North.
Washington generally views all these measures of independence and inconformity as a threat to U.S. dominance. But an enlightened foreign policy would welcome them as evidence of a region coming of age and striving to resolve its own problems in its own ways. This is a good thing for U.S. citizens as well. A relationship of mutual respect between equals creates a stronger, more stable neighborhood for everyone.
LAURA CARLSEN directs IRC’s Americas Program, www.americaspolicy.org, from Mexico City, where she has worked as a political analyst for two decades.
The Latin America Working Group, a partner organization of the IRC Americas Program, has done an excellent study on the U.S. image in Latin America. See Haugaard, Lisa, “Tarnished Image: Latin America Perceives the United States”