Thursday, April 16, 2015

Weight of History in US-Latin American Relations

Orlando Pérez and Mike Allison weigh in on the importance of history for understanding current U.S.-Latin American relations. I talked about this precise issue in my U.S.-Latin American Relations class this week, using this quote from President Obama:

Leftist leaders also celebrated Cuba's inclusion at the summit, even as they continued to complain about past abuses by the United States. Many of the events they cited took place before Obama was born. 
"I always enjoy the history lesson," Obama said wryly during the summit's long-winded plenary session. 
"I'm certainly mindful that there are dark chapters in our own history," he said. But while bashing the U.S. may serve some leaders' political needs, Obama added, "that's not going to bring progress. That's not going to solve the problems of children who can't read, who don't have enough to eat. It's not going to make our countries more productive or more competitive in a global economy."
I made about the same point as Mike, though he sums it up more neatly: "necessary but not sufficient." In class we discuss all those abuses brought up by Latin American leaders (especially those on the left) and how U.S. policies have too often tended to have unintended and counterproductive effects. This is important for a better understanding of causes and effects.

But it does not mean, for example, that every discussion with Guatemala about child migrants must include lengthy analysis of the 1954 invasion. Or that dialogue between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro must get hung up on the Bay of Pigs. It's not that these things aren't important, but rather they are not always useful for solving any given problem.

On the other side of the ideological spectrum, it's not helpful to view current leftist leaders in a Cold War lens. Raúl Castro in 2015 isn't Raúl Castro in 1965. The FMLN in 2015 is not the FMLN in 1985. Insisting on that lens distorts current realities and makes solutions unnecessarily difficult to reach.

However, history does help us understand why U.S. sanctions on Venezuela make it more difficult for Latin American leaders to criticize the Maduro government. Past abuses generated a lasting belief in both non-intervention and disinclination to support the US when it targets particular Latin American governments. History does help us understand Cuba's obsession with particular issues that it sees as central to national dignity.

The mere fact that Obama continues to acknowledge that dark past is refreshing. Ideally, U.S. policy makers can use keen understanding of that past to forge current policies that won't repeat them.


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