Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Can Latin America Lead Without the United States?

I don't tend to agree with Jackson Diehl's op-eds very much. Here's one, though, that merits pondering. The argument is this:

As hundreds of thousands of desperate Venezuelans flee their country, in many cases on foot, their Latin American neighbors face a critical test: whether they can respond effectively to a crisis that threatens their own stability without the leadership of the United States. 
So far, they are flunking — and they know it. “The answer is, we can’t,” says Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos. “It’s sad to say, but we can’t.”
This is one person's opinion, and from someone close to the United States. He was Vice President under Alvaro Uribe (and in the tangle of Colombian family politics he is also Juan Manuel Santos' cousin). But this is not a new refrain.

It is in fact something that I've heard informally from foreign policy makers. What often happens, they say, is that in times of crisis Latin American officials come to them privately, asking for the U.S. to do something. Publicly, they keep up a face of non-intervention and Latin American agency.

It would be easy to dismiss this as ideological but I always remember what Hugo Chávez said about Honduras:

Even Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, made a rare call to Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. on Friday to directly make an appeal he had issued earlier on television.
“Do something,” Mr. Chávez had said to reporters. “Obama, do something.”
For all the talk of losing influence, which is nonstop, the Latin American left and right feel free to keep asking the United States to take action in the region, even as they argue that solutions should come from within. The power imbalance is so great, and the history so deep, that sometimes there seems almost no other way. Further, every single institution that Hugo Chávez put together to unify Latin America has gone effectively defunct. There is no mechanism for regional action.

The question for U.S. policy is where to take this. Diehl wants the U.S. to lead a multilateral humanitarian intervention, whatever the hell that is. I want Latin America to build institutions that work. For them to be legitimate, the U.S. must step aside and let Latin America build them, but if Latin America doesn't build, then you're stuck with the U.S. taking the lead.

As I wrote last year, Latin America just refuses to unite. The Venezuelan crisis literally touches every part of the region, from Mexico to Chile. What does it take to get the region to work together? I don't have answers.


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