What Ever Happened to Latin America?

March 30, 2017

U.S. foreign policy has often been driven by responding to crises or threats to our national interests and security.  This response is no different under the Trump administration, although the public pronouncements and policy decisions are to say the least unconventional.  As in the past we send troops to fight Middle East wars; we engage China and the rest of Asia over trade and investment; we pay close attention to our relationship to our European allies, especially in terms of dealing with growing Russian expansionism; and we often provide generous assistance to those desperately poor and ill in Africa. But as was the case with other administrations, this country takes a pass on Latin America. We know it’s there south of our border but that’s pretty much the extent of our interest.

Sure we are wrapped in an epic struggle with Mexico over the wall and the North American Free Trade Agreement, but our relationship with our neighbor to the south is more about domestic issues than foreign policy concerns. Take Mexico out of the equation and all the other Latin American countries are not viewed within the context of crises, interests and security. To quote the oft-used slogan, “There is no there there.”

The fact that Latin America is way down our foreign policy agenda is probably a good thing, since we have enough on our plate with the rest of the world. But it is kind of interesting that a part of the world that sends us cocaine, baseball players, tangos, rumbas, sambas, precious metals, cheap clothes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course Gisele Bundchen is all but forgotten. See what happens when a part of the world is generally at peace without war, border disputes, terrorists or crazed leaders.  Sure there is massive corruption, areas of gang violence, and desperate poverty, but compared to many parts of the world Latin America is likely happy to be ignored.

U.S. disinterest was not always the case as during the 20th century we sent our troops throughout the Caribbean and Central America to “bring order and democracy” and help the people become ” like us.” This work as policeman to the hemisphere didn’t really pan out as we left the region not so much better off as relieved. Now in the 21st century our mission is largely business related – to spread Wal-Marts everywhere, bring our brand of football to the masses (the Patriots play the Raiders in Mexico City in November) and make sure that the lithium from the deserts of Bolivia and Chile make their way north to our battery manufacturers.

Thank goodness Latin America is just “there” to our south so we can spread mischief, mayhem, and malice in other parts of the world.

 


How Quickly We Forget

March 21, 2010

The seventh anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq was quietly remembered over the last few days- a few demonstrators, a few spirited speeches against the war, but mostly short memories of what has been our most divisive war since Vietnam. How quickly we forget.

There are about 96,000 US troops in Iraq, down from 170,000 during the height of the surge. Most of our troops are encamped on the fringes of Baghdad or in the Green Zone and tasked with reserve missions rather than frontline combat or those night patrols over dangerous and bombed filled roads. 

Over the coming months those numbers should drop again, although it is unlikely that the number of troops stationed in Iraq will ever be a mere token presence. It is also important to realize that our largest embassy in the world is in Iraq, and those civilian personnel will definitely remain in force for a considerable period of time. It is now up to the men and women in the khaki pants and shortsleeve shirts to become the face of American intervention.

Historians will have much to debate about the war – 4300 lives lost, ten times that number in casualties and perhaps as much as $ 3 trillion in national treasure. It is important to remember that the initial justifications for the war have all faded into the background- no WMDs, no clear ties to al Qaeda, and no real national security threat from the regime of Saddam Hussein. But in an unusual twist, Iraq will be remembered as our longest nation-building, domestic security and democracy enhancement project.

Today there is much to be pleased with in Iraq, although progress must be judged in tiny increments of improvement. Free and fair elections, relative peace, a budding economy, and increased levels of national unity. But as this slow improvement was taking place, Americans have moved on to the next war in neighboring Afghanistan or to fears about the economy and the endless domestic battles over health care reform.

The question of the day and every day in the coming years will likely be ” Was it all worth it?” Certainly the war was not worth it if the question is built on the initial justifications. But Americans are a people who rarely like to admit that a war was a waste or had no merit, and so building a new Iraq, a new democratic Iraq, a new united and properous Iraq will become the mantra for justifying all the dead and wounded and the price tag. Most wars are a waste of lives and money, few rise to the level of the ” greatness” as was the case in World War II, but the Iraq war is unique in that its justification evolved over time and the memory of all the miscalculations and arrogance are but a distant memory.


Did We Really Win the Vietnam War?

March 9, 2010

On a recent trip to Vietnam I could not help think about the end of the war in 1975 with the rescue helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy and desperate Vietnamese trying to get out of the country before the Vietcong captured Saigon. The Vietnam War is often described as this country’s most serious military defeat with 58,000 dead, 1300 MIAs and the onset of self-doubt and reluctance to challenge communist insurgency. Despite the upbeat promises of victory by the generals ( “the light at the end of the tunnel”), the exaggerated daily body counts of the enemy, and the constant reminder about falling dominoes in South East Asia, the US was never able to master jungle warfare.

Thirty-five years later the war is not only a distant memory in Vietnam, but also we just may have won the hearts and minds ( and pocketbooks) of the Vietnamese people. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are booming examples of the capitalist ethic. In Hanoi I stayed in the Hanoi Hilton, not the prison where John McCain endured unbelievable torture, but the American hotel chain. Examples of United States corporate presence are everywhere – Chevrolet SUVs, Apple iPhones, Miller and Bud, and always the face of Colonel Sanders hawking Kentucky Fried Chicken. Looking up from my hotel in Ho Chi Minh City I turned and saw the Prudential Financial Center.

While the Vietnamese have been open to our products, we have also fostered a vibrant trade relationship with them. Since the beginning of diplomatic relations during the Clinton presidency, Vietnam has found the United States a welcome market for its goods – textiles, wood products, silk, shoes and low level computer components. I happened to glance at my Rockport shoes while in Hanoi and was surprised to see Made in Vietnam on the label. Since opening up Vietnam to the global economy, the United States has become a major trading partner with over $ 15 billion in trade annually.

I was most surprised to see little public display of the materials of warfare from the 1970s. Other than the war museum with rusted out US helicopter gun ships and jet fighters, the Vietnamese show little interest in discussing that period or shoving their victory in the faces of Americans. If there is any animosity about foreign intervention it is directed at the Chinese, who historically have invaded and dominated their neighbors to the south. In fact this year is the 1000 anniversary of the Vietnamese leader, Ly Thai To’s great victory over the Chinese. Parks in Hanoi were full of flowery celebrations recognizing the liberation of Vietnam from Chinese control.

Traveling through the country it is difficult not to run into American tourists. Last year over 300,000 visited Vietnam and more are expected in the coming years. Many from the Vietnam War generation want to return out of curiosity and the lure of lush highlands and beautiful beaches; others to perhaps purge those visions of napalmed children and massacres of unarmed villagers. But for whatever reason, there is a growing bond between Vietnam and the United States and the movement of people between both countries. Every morning outside the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City long lines of people with their papers in order enter the fortress-like compound hoping to get a visa to head to the states where areas such as Orange County, California have become “Little Saigons.”

But as I moved around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City I was constantly reminded that this remains a communist country. The hammer and sickle flag blows into the wind next to the Vietnamese flag with its gold star over a field of red. The picture of Ho Chi Minh is everywhere exhorting the populace to work hard, be ethical and take pride in the revolution. When I left the country, the US Embassy issued a report highly critical of human rights abuses by Vietnamese officials. Vietnam may be capitalistic in the Chinese mode, but it is a one party state which does not tolerate political dissent or opposition organization.

The Vietnam conflict has for years remained to many a disturbing military defeat. But Vietnam today is a far different country from what it was during the war. In fact to see Vietnam now it is possible to come to the conclusion that we just might have won the war.


The Killing Fields Thirty Years Later

March 3, 2010

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a country with a horrific past, but its people, especially the young, are determined to move beyond the genocide of 2 million innocents by the infamous Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge revolutionaries and enter the new global economy.

I visited the country recently and saw both the terrible legacy of mass murder in the torture chambers used by the Khymer Rouge and the hope for a better future that fills the air in the  major cities like Phnom Penh and the quiet villages that dot the lush countryside. Everywhere there is hustle and bustle ( the constant noise from millions of Honda motorbikes)  and a firm belief in the capitalist ethic ( the US corporate presence is everywhere).  From the small shop owners to the burgeoning tourist trade around the Angkor Wat temple region, Cambodia is now open for business.

But as with all less developed countries, particularly those that have suffered through a period of internal chaos and destruction, Cambodia is a country with a sad underside that is not immediately visible to the foreign tourist. I visited orphanages where sad eyed children begged to be taken to America, HIV group homes where kids whose parents died from the disease are taken care of, as they too have contracted the disease, and makeshift school houses where five year olds from the most desperate of conditions are given English language training only because the headmaster gives their parents extra rice rations to permit the children to stay in school.

The study of English is a national phenomenon as I visited a major university where each day there are hundreds of classes taught to eager students who believe that facility in the world’s dominant language will give them a leg up in new global business environment. Many Cambodians have used their facility in English to leave the country and head at least temporarily to the United States. Long Beach, California is now the center of Cambodian immigrant life with Lowell, Massachusetts a close second.

The Cambodian people are filled with beauty and grace; they have preserved their heritage and overcome unbelieveable tragedies. Yet reviving a country thirty years after the killing fields destroyed the professional class has made national revival difficult. It is said that time heals all wounds, and Cambodia is an example of this wisdom.


Starting from Scratch

January 18, 2010

How to rebuild a country that is a failed state, an economic basket case and a sad example of perpetual instability and injustice?  The Haitian earthquake poses a monumental problem not just for the Haitian people and what’s left of their inept government, but also for the international community, which will undoubtedly spend billions in the coming years to get the country back on its feet.

Just when Haiti was beginning to see a faint glimmer of hope as relative political stability and some foreign investment interest were more in evidence, the earthquake smashed all possibilities. Now besides the unimaginable human and physical destruction, there is the near complete absence of governmental institutions and leaders. It is the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and other rich countries that are runninig Haiti, and will likely do so for years to come.

Some optimists believe that the earthquake offers the country a new opportunity to start over and build a nation anew, not just with new structures, but a new social and political culture that is based on a more cooperative spirit, honest and active government, and a willingness of the diaspora to return home and lend their talents and money to create a Haiti that is able to stand on its own, rather than depend on international hand outs.

But even if this terrible tragedy offers hope and opportunity, rebuildiing Haiti is a generation’s work that will cost hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions of dollars, far more than the hundreds of millions in aid raised or committed so far. It is when the media leave and the world turns its attention to a new tragedy that the Haitians will be left to their own resources to start anew.

Fortunately, the Haitians are a people of enormous strength and resilience who have plenty of experience with adversity, but this is not an ordinary natural disaster; this is the destruction of an entire country with the capital city of Port au Prince enduring the worst of the destruction.

The reality of this crisis is that hundreds of thousands of Haitians will be seeking protected status in the United States and elsewhere in the world; an international police force will be on the ground keeping the peace for years with an enormous price tag; and rather quickly money that is flowing now will begin to dry up, leaving the recovery a patch work of some successes and many failures.

Hope is all the Haitian people have at this time, but the devastation is just too overwhelming to turn hope into faith in the future. Haiti may never recover.


Respect and Understanding

November 25, 2009

I was recently in the Middle East, in particular Jordan and Egypt. Over a seven day period I had numerous conversations with college students and administrators that often led to the thorny issue of what Americans think of Muslims and the Muslim world.

The message that came across to me loud and clear was that what the Muslim people wanted most from the United States was respect and understanding, rather than what they perceived to be false impressions, cruel stereotypes and group condemnation.

They were overjoyed with the election of Barack Obama and the end of the Bush/Cheney regime. But they wanted more than just a change of administrations; they wanted to see a new period of changed perceptions and genuine goodwill.

 Many of the students and faculty were convinced that Americans saw all Muslims as terrorists and had little respect for the religious beliefs and customs of the Middle Eastern world. Although they embraced much of our popular culture from KFC to Hollywood movie mayhem, they wanted Americans to see them as good people, normal people, friendly people. My hosts never missed an opportunity to drive home examples of the civilized Arab world- the countless contributions to mathematics, science, and literature that originated in this the cradle of civilization.

This theme of respect and understanding has been central to the Middle East pysche for years, if not generations, and has often been the greatest obstacle to achieving peace agreements and reducing the terrorist threat. From the perspective of my hosts, if Americans could see the Muslim people as no different than other people, many of the thorny issues of the region could begin to move toward resolution.

But from the American point of view, it is difficult for visitors to this region to move past the outward image of Muslims – the head scarfs and burqas on women, the dominance of males in the social structure, the rigid rules of Islam and the lack of a religious reform movement to replace the jihadist philosophy.

Respect and understanding of the Muslim world will only come with greater contacts between everyday people from this country and the Middle East. This may sound like some idealistic bromide, but barriers that separate people are only broken down when people talk to each other and accept each other as equals, despite their differences.


Soft Power

November 11, 2009

Much has been made of soft power – the promotion of American culture, values and standard of living as tools for advancing our interests, even to the point of perhaps influencing the internal dynamics of rogue regimes. As the argument goes – if our adversaries and the people they control could be exposed to our way of life, they just might change their ways and become like us.

Two recent events speak to the evidence of American soft power in the world. The Disney Corporation just announced that it has reached an agreement with the Chinese to open up a $ 4 billion Disneyland outside of Shanghai. Although there is a Disneyland in Hong Kong, most Chinese cannot travel to see Mickey and Donald and Snow White without travel permits. By placing a new Disneyland in a more centrally located site and easing travel restrictions, the new middle class of China will be able to enter the dream world of American cartoons.

Then there is the new polling data from an outfit called Eurodata TV Worldwide, which asked viewers in 66 countries what were their most popular television shows.  Not surprisingly, the United States led the way – Fox’s quirky medical show House was the top drama, Desperate Housewives from fictional Wisteria Place won in the comedy category and the Bold and the Beautiful topped the soap opera category.

I guess as proud Americans we should all be happy that Disney characters are a big hit in communist China and the world is watching our mindless television shows, but I wonder whether these examples of our popular culture, and therefore our soft power, have the ability to remake authoritarian governments in our image or to advance our way of life around the world?

If we as a nation are about promoting open elections, the rule of law, human rights, personal freedom and equality, then I guess I don’t see a connection between Disney and democracy or how the morally challenged gals on Desperate Housewives advance our most cherished values. If anything Disney and popular television shows reenforce the view that America is really about escaping reality and embracing infidelity.

Disney in China and popular television shows  may help to portray the United States as filled with people who are happy, contented, playful, well-off, and gorgeous, but of course this is pure fantasy ( much like Disneyland). If anything, such images do send a subconscious message to the people of the world that there is something else out there besides abject poverty, brutal control, drab lifestyles and little hope. I guess that may be the real value of our soft power –  not stimulating governmental change, but creating a dream.

So three cheers for American soft power. I am not sure that we are winning over our adversaries or changing governmental power, but the world sure does love our pop culture and our mindless stuff.