America's new circus diplomacy and Latin America

Shortly after she was confirmed by the Senate as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice gave her seal of approval for keeping Roger Noriega as Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, a post he held since May 2003.

If you give Americans a multiple-choice question as to who they think Noriega is, many would likely favor any answer associating the name with the 1989 invasion of Panama. But this Noriega is in no way related to the saber rattling Panamanian dictator, and CIA stoolie, who crossed the senior Bush. This gray figure, with equally gray credentials, is definitely not an alumnus of the infamous “School of the Americas ” but a product of Washburn U. in Topeka , Kansas… a conservative from America’s heartland.

Truth be said, Noriega was an accommodation in 2003 to Otto Reich, a first choice by the Bush administration sponsored by the ultra-rightist political arm of Florida’s Cuban exiles. But as Latin Americans will tell you, there wasn’t much of a choice for them between these two hard-liners, one a payaso (clown) and the other a matón (bully). Noriega, the payaso, proved to be an easier nomination to confirm, even if his tutelage had come from none other than Jesse Helms.

But Noriega is de-facto a figurehead, one not to be taken seriously by anyone at either side of American foreign policy- those who formulate it at the White House or those at the receiving end, the leaders in Latin America . Noriega is seen by our Latin friends as a man who ni pincha ni corta (cuts no ice) and therefore not paid much attention to, other than perhaps in pragmatic situations, such as helping Kirchner with the foreign aid package to Argentina in 2003… but not policy matters. Latin American leaders know there is no serious diplomatic link to the Colossus of the North other than by making the pilgrimage to the White House, or the Crawford ranch… if and when invited.

Benign neglect is an often used malapropian way of defining the foreign policy attitude of the United States toward Latin America , a region approaching 10% of the world’s population and commanding substantial natural resources.

No, it’s not benign neglect. It’s never been that, nor is it likely to be. America pays the price it needs to pay to protect its economic interests in the region… not a penny more, not a cent less. And that’s not neglect, either benign or malign. What then?

Perhaps Latin America should not be treated as a catch-all region in terms of culture, economics or politics. Nor should the seven-decade old Good Neighbor Policy be considered applicable in today’s world. If foreign policy is to be the frame of reference, perhaps it would prove wise for the region to be thought of as two: those nations north of the Caribbean ( Mexico and Central America/Antilles) and the Sub-Caribbean group (South America). Why such division?

The first group, with Mexico at the vanguard, represents the source for much-needed labor that the US requires to function in many agricultural and service areas even if, to the dismay of many, that source is tapped via the illegal immigration route. This topic has invited some media charlatans, who rely more on the highly-charged emotional aspects of this issue than their own personal grasp of world politics and economics, to make hay by muddling the waters.

America’s foreign policy towards Mexico and the other nations north of the Caribbean is truly one with a domestic twist that promotes political ambidexterity. These millions of “undocumented” workers pose a problem which requires a long-term solution, one that short-term politicians are unwilling or incapable of finding. Whether or not present handling of the situation is a mutually-deceptive accommodation with geo-political implications, the foreign policy reality is that these [mostly illegal] immigrants provide their countries of origin with over $70 billion a year in hard currency- a fact which superimposes economic issues over all others… national, cultural or even legal.

Relations with Mexico, as the third leg of NAFTA, require a circus diplomacy that’s beyond the reach of any lowly clown, demanding participation by the ringmaster. A tough task for Bush whether he is dealing with Vicente Fox or anyone else.

As we go farther south, the foreign policy woes loom even larger. For over a century the US has advocated democracy for Latin America … while sub Rosa helping install and/or maintain dictatorships in power. Now that democracy is beginning to take hold, Washington powers are in dismay of the outcome. Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina, Chavez in Venezuela, Vasquez in Uruguay, Lagos in Chile, Gutierrez in Ecuador- all represent an unwavering trend in South American politics clearly pointing center-left. Free market economies, yes; but with very profound political populism determined to improve the lot of the many, instead of the proverbial ruling few.

South American nations seem to be looking to European democratic models and the type of institutions that have done well there. To the consternation of the Bush White House, there is little or nothing that America’s new circus diplomacy can do there. For the time being, Noriega et al have little to do but watch the inking of agricultural, mining and petroleum agreements by Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela with new commercial partners such as China. And also mull the implications of a successful Mercosur.

Did it ever occur to the gray matter circulating in Washington, whether in government or think tanks, that the next logical step for China might be economic vertical integration? Latin America appears as China’s optimal candidate to help achieve that… and Latin America , in the process, will no doubt fare well.