Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Ironically, I only just read Amy Chua's very persuasive book, World On Fire, a few weeks ago, and here we have Bolivia electing an Aymara-nationalist to their presidency. What are we to do?

I'm sympathetic to Ralph Peters' answer - nothing - but I don't think that quite cuts it. Here are some problems with just ignoring the obvious and growing trend of Indian nationalism in Latin America (which is the way Chua describes it, and which I think is a much better description than "leftist" or "socialist").

1. They won't necessarily stay home. Yeah, we built up Castro by making such a big deal about him. But he also actively assisted revolutionary and terrorist groups in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicarargua, Angola . . . it's a long list. Were we supposed to ignore that, too? Hugo Chavez has made repeated military threats against Colombia and Guyana. Morales has similarly made threats to reverse the outcome of the War of the Pacific. Once again, one can say: if Venezuela and Colombia get into a war, or Bolivia and Chile, that's their problem, not ours. Perhaps. But at some point mayhem to our south starts to become a problem for us, no? And in my book, war between Venezuela and Colombia crosses the line from "ignorable" to "not-ignorable" as problems go.

2. Benign neglect hasn't been working out so well. President Bush came into office promising a foreign policy that paid less attention to Europe and more attention to East Asia and Latin America. I thought that made a whole lot of sense back in 2000. Obviously, events originating in the Middle East changed that picture somewhat. But I'm still amazed at how neglectful this Administration has been of Latin America. So far as I can tell, all we've done since 2000 is push for a massive guestworker program (something Mexico obviously wants) and prematurely support a coup against Hugo Chavez. (Oh, and Doug Feith apparently speculated about attacking the Colombian narco-terrorist insurgents, FARC, in response to 9-11, just to keep 'em guessing.) It's during this period of purportedly benign neglect that Latin America has taken this turn. Obviously, there are more fundamental reasons for this change than American neglect; the economic problems of Latin America are very long-standing, and globalization probably has much to do with both the exacerbation of economic divides and the growing racial aspect to politics in the region (in both cases because globalization has accelerated internal migration, and the countryside is more indigenous than the cities). Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue complacently for a policy of benign neglect when benign neglect is what we've mostly been doing, and the ominous trend continues to accelerate.

3. What about Mexico? Events actually on our southern border have, quite obviously, much more significance than events a continent away. In the past couple of decades, indigenist movements in Mexico have been limited mostly to the Mayan regions bordering Guatemala that were never well-integrated into Mexico, going all the way back to pre-Columbian times. But that could change. Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador are out on one end of the curve in terms of the percentage of the population that identifies as Indian or that speaks an indigenous language rather than Spanish as a primary tongue. But as the rise of Hugo Chavez demonstrates, what is more commonly the majority in a Latin American country - people of mixed blood - can effectively be radicalized and turned against the dominant minority of more pure-blooded whites. Do we care if that happens in Mexico? We do. Instability or economic failure in Mexico would radically worsen our already quite bad illegal immigration problem. Solving that problem depends on serious effort both in the U.S. and in Mexico: in the U.S. to defend our borders and in Mexico to provide enough economic opportunity for internal migrants (whereas currently the Mexican government actively encourages these folks to keep on moving all the way to el norte). It might be tempting to think that an indigenist government that renationalized big companies, distributed land, etc. would provide that opportunity, or a semblance thereof, and hence reduce migration northward, but the overwhelmingly likely result is the precise opposite: precipitous economic decline and far more massive movements of people.

4. What makes Peters so sure that Chavez & Co. will be turned out when their policies fail? It's a funny thing: once you are el presidente, there are all sorts of things you can do to assure that you remain so. Chavez is doing most of those things right now. And to the extent that the current indigenist turn is a consequence of resentment of a distinct market-dominant elite that has disproportionately benefitted from globalization, it's not obvious that, in the short- or medium-term, current supporters will be that upset if they don't benefit much or at all from renationalizations and the like, so long as that elite suffers. Mugabe is still popular, at least in the countryside where most of Zimbabwe's people live, and he's brought those very people to the brink of starvation. More broadly, since World War II we've seen a bunch of countries make a turn towards democracy, in Northeast and Southeast Asia, in Central and Eastern Europe, in Latin America and in Africa. And there's a common thread to the countries that have made that transition successfully, becoming mostly democratic and remaining pretty stable and economically successful: they achieved modest economic success before the transition, they are not characterized by economic domination by an ethnic or racial minority, and they have been firmly embraced (in at least one case - South Korea - garrisonned) by America. (There are, of course, exceptions, most notably India, but this post is getting too long already.) The first and second condition do not clearly obtain in Bolivia, or in a number of other Latin American, though I would argue they do obtain in Mexico. The third condition, though, surely cautions us against expecting some law of history to work to assure a positive outcome in the end, whatever the setbacks along the way.

I gave President Bush some unsolicited advice over a year ago with respect to Latin America. I made basically three points. We need to reward our friends in the region, such as Colombia, and work to remain friends with countries that have been our friends in the past and that are reasonably stable and successful, such as Chile. We needed to be much more aggressive about courting Brazil, a country we know almost nothing about and that is emerging as a real regional power (and which is being courted aggressively by both China and the EU). A good relationship with Brazil would do an enormous amount to stem the tide of anti-Americanism in the region. Finally, we need to do much more to get Mexico to work to solve our illegal immigration problem rather than exacerbating it. It is obviously in Mexico's interest for there to be a completely integrated North American labor market. But it's not in American interests. Where our interests overlap is in Mexico's economic success. And we are the overwhelming external factor that will affect whether Mexico thrives or stagnates. That should give us at least some leverage, leverage we have steadfastly refused to use.

Do I think we should be ringing alarm bells about Morales? No. That would probably make things worse. Do I think we should be completely disengaged from Latin America, and let things take their "natural" course? No, I don't think that either.