October 11, 2008
QUITO, Ecuador -- In a matter of weeks, a Russian naval squadron will arrive in the waters off Latin America for the first time since the Cold War. It is already getting a warm welcome from some in a region where the influence of the United States is in decline.
"The U.S. Fourth Fleet can come to Latin America but a Russian fleet can't?" said Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa. "If you ask me, any country and any fleet that wants can visit us. We're a country of open doors."
The United States remains the strongest outside power in Latin America by most measures, including trade, military cooperation and the sheer size of its embassies. Yet U.S. clout in what it once considered its backyard has sunk to perhaps the lowest point in decades. As Washington turned its attention to the Middle East, Latin America swung to the left and other powers moved in.
The United States' financial crisis is not helping. Latin American countries forced by Washington to swallow painful austerity measures in the 1980s and 1990s are aghast at the U.S. failure to police its own markets.
"We did our homework - and they didn't, they who've been telling us for three decades what to do," the man who presides over Latin America's largest economy, President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva of Brazil, complained bitterly.
Latin America's more than 550 million people now "have every reason to view the U.S. as a banana republic," says analyst Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "U.S. lectures to Latin Americans about excess greed and lack of accountability have long rung hollow, but today they sound even more ridiculous."
From 2002 through 2007, the U.S. image eroded in all six Latin American countries polled by the Pew organization, especially in Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia. (The others were Brazil, Peru and Mexico.) People surveyed in 18 Latin American countries rated President Bush among the least popular leaders in 2007, along with President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and just ahead of basement-bound Fidel Castro of Cuba, according to the Latinobarometro group of Chile.
In three years of presidential elections ending last year, Latin Americans chose mostly leftist leaders, and only Colombia and El Salvador elected unalloyed pro-U.S. chief executives. In May, the prestigious U.S. Council on Foreign Relations declared the era of U.S. hegemony in the Americas over. And in September, Bolivia and Venezuela both expelled their U.S. ambassadors, accusing them of meddling.
Along with the loss in political standing has come a decline in economic power. U.S. direct investment in Latin America slid from 30 percent to 20 percent of the total from 1998 to 2007, according to the U.N. Economic Commission on Latin American and the Caribbean.
The U.S. still does $560 billion in trade with Latin America, but in the meantime other countries are muscling in. China's trade with Latin America jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $102.6 billion last year. In May, a state-owned Chinese company agreed to buy a Peruvian copper mine for $2.1 billion.
Other countries are also biting into U.S. military sales in the region. Boeing Co. is vying with finalists from France and Sweden for the sale of 36 jet fighters to Brazil. Venezuela's Chavez has committed to buying more than $4 billion in Russian arms, from Sukhoi jet fighters to Kalashnikov assault rifles. In April, Brazil and Russia agreed to jointly design top-line jet fighters and satellite-launch vehicles, and Brazil is getting technology from France to build a submarine.
"Similar deals could have been made with the United States had it been willing to share its technology," said Geraldo Cavagnari, of the University of Campinas near Sao Paulo.
Last month, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered to help Chavez develop nuclear power. Even Colombia, the staunchest U.S. ally in South America, isn't limiting its options. After expressing alarm about the Russian warships a week ago, its defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, promptly headed for Russia himself to discuss "better relations in defense." Chavez says he expects to hold joint Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises as early as November.
Bolivia also is looking to deepen ties with Russia and Iran.
Although the Islamic republic's ambassador has yet to arrive in South America's poorest country, its top diplomat there announced Friday that Iran will open two low-cost public health clinics.
And while Bolivia's only announced Russian hardware purchase is five helicopters for civil defense, Moscow's ambassador told the AP - after Bolivia booted the U.S. ambassador - that Russia has every right to help Latin American nations arm themselves.
"We know of many historical cases of U.S. intervention in Latin American countries," said the diplomat, Leonid Golubev.
Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the hemisphere, wouldn't comment directly on whether the U.S. has lost influence in Latin America. But he added that there is no doubt that the U.S. still holds most of the military power in the Caribbean, and said it has no interest in reviving "Cold War rhetoric." Shannon also noted that overall U.S. aid to the region will reach $2.2 billion for 2009, to total more than $14 billion during Bush's presidency.
However, critics point out that roughly half that aid is for the military or counternarcotics, and that Washington sends more money annually to Israel alone. Even U.S. giving has been dwarfed by Chavez's checkbook diplomacy, which easily eclipses U.S. aid between outright gifts and discounted oil.
His largesse has lured several longtime U.S. friends. Honduras' president, Manuel Zelaya, said last month that after pleading with Washington and the World Bank, he accepted $300 million a year from Chavez for agricultural investment to help fight rising food prices.
"Allies, friends, did not help me when I asked," he said.
Costa Rica's president, Oscar Arias, says Venezuela offers Latin America about four or five times as much money as the United States. Costa Rica has become the 19th member of Petrocaribe, through which Chavez sells Caribbean and Central American nations cut-rate oil at very low interest.
The diminished profile of the U.S. in Latin America comes after a history of welcomed influence dating back to President Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy of the 1930s, which emphasized cooperation and trade over military intervention. There have been major bailouts, such as Washington's $20 billion rescue of Mexico in the 1994 peso devaluation crisis. As former Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich noted, "We are the assistance bureau of first choice for the region."
But the U.S. has an ugly legacy of covert intervention in countries including Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba. Chile's center-left president, Michele Bachelet, was jailed and tortured by a U.S.-backed military dictatorship in the 1970s. She recently recalled telling Washington's ambassador to Chile an old joke: "Some say the only reason there's never been a coup in the United States is because there's no U.S. Embassy in the United States."
The United States has also long served as chief educator to Latin America's elite. Correa is among its presidents with a U.S. graduate degree - though that didn't stop him from accusing the CIA of infiltrating his military, or refusing to renew a lease for U.S. counterdrug missions to fly out of Ecuador.
With the U.S. facing its own financial crisis, it's unlikely to be able to leverage economic influence in Latin America anytime soon. Sen. Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, Dan Restrepo, acknowledges that his candidate is essentially proposing a symbolic shift in style - albeit adding a special White House envoy for the Americas.
"Barack doesn't see the United States as the savior of the Americas, but as a constructive partner," Restrepo told the AP.
Reich, an adviser to Sen. John McCain who served three Republican presidents in the region, put it even more bluntly.
"No matter who is elected in November, there is not going to be any money for Latin America," he said. "Latin Americans expecting financial resources, any kind of help from the United States, they are barking up the wrong tree."
Associated Press writers Dan Keane in Bolivia, Eduardo Gallardo in Chile and Stan Lehman in Brazil contributed to this report.