Latin America Views the Changing
Transnationally, of course
Cynthia A. Watson, PhD; Associate Dean, The National War College
Latin Americas View: Recognizing the Inevitability of Asia
Upon termination of World War II, Latin American states ranging from Mexico south to Tierra del Fuego expected to take center stage in U.S. strategic thought. Since the Monroe Doctrine proclamation in 1823, the United States had declared that it had major, serious interests in this region and intended to bar competitors from moving in. The Spanish-American War of 1898 showed that Washington would move against outside states (albeit almost three quarters of a century after Latin America would have expected help in ridding the region of colonialism). During World War I, the possibility of German efforts in Mexico, exemplified by reaction to the Zimmerman Telegram, illustrated Washingtons concern and willingness to pay attention to imminent threats in the region. But, after all was said and done, Latin American states during the early years of the twentieth century did not see a strategic appreciation at the hemisphere by the United States; instead, the approach was one of economic exploitation. Finally, after World War II ended and Latin American states felt they had contributed to the allied victory, they thought the playing field was level and they would be given their fair attention by the United States.
Instead, the years after 1945 reinforced Latin Americas view that the United States looked at Europe and Asia strategically, while paying scant attention to its southern neighbors unless a crisis cropped up. Only as happened in 1954 (Guatemala), 1959 (Cuba), 1965 (Dominican Republic), 1970-73 (Chile), 1979 (Central America), and periodic ally in Mexico when electoral events coincided with financial meltdowns, the United States realized that it might have strategic concerns in the western hemisphere. Otherwise, presidents infrequently traveled to the region and Latin Americans felt increasingly neglected.
With the end of the Cold War, Latin America moderated its expectations of its role in U.S. national security strategy. For the first time in its history, Latin America had no one against whom it could hope to balance the United States. Second, there was no other model on the horizon: Marxism was discredited and Washington made it clear that pushing democracy and free market economic reforms was going to be a more prominent feature of the new world order than had been true before. There was no need to worry that some other outside power or persuasion would capture Latin America. Both Washington and Latin America now recognize that the region is second tier for the U.S. strategist.
During this same post-war period, the United States made extremely strong, continuous investments of life and treasures in Asia. Japan, in an effort unique in world history, was rebuilt from the rubble of wars end, while the United States fought wars in Korea and Southeast Asia. Although less direct, the U.S. role in the Asian economic miracle was also crucial. This U.S. attitude and resulting activism was markedly different from the empty words that normally define policy in and toward Latin America.
Into the Next Decade: Respecting Washington while cultivating Asia gingerly
Latin American states, particularly the stronger economies,1 have already made a conscious decision to reach out to the international community, regardless of U.S. actions on expanding hemispheric free trade. Latin Americans, particularly Chileans and Argentines, would prefer the benefits of expanded NAFTA membership, as originally offered by President Bushs Enterprise for the Americas in 1990, but the reconfiguration of the political scene in Washington since 1994 has made this virtually impossible. The Chilean government of Eduardo Free believed it (unlike Mexico, in truth) had fulfilled the criteria for NAFTA membership and was optimistic about admission after the December 1993 Miami summit.
Carlos Saúl Menem has taken Argentina to foreign policy positions that no analyst would have predicted upon his election in 1989. The policies have ranged from supporting the United States on the Gulf War in 1990-91, to offering to send Argentine forces to assist in redemocratizing Haiti in 1994, to warmly embracing Mr. Clinton during all of the latters political difficulties. In return, Menem expected that he would be welcomed to an expanded NAFTA with welcome armsand significant assistance.
Neither of these southern cone analyses proved accurate. They did not account for the strong prejudice that still exists in the United States against Latin America as a fiscally responsible area. Memories of the 1980s debt crisis, spurred by the 1995 Tequila Crisis in Mexico and more recent Brazilian crash, reinforced views that Latin America was not a stable economic area. Residual doubts about the resiliency of democracy in the region were also contributing factors. The October 1998 Pinochet arrest in London only raised again concerns that the military might be plotting in the barracks across the region.
Thus, external views of Latin America did not appear to support an expanded role vis-à-vis the United States or the international community. Latin America recognizes that the United States will focus on the Asia-Pacific region while retaining its interests in Europe. With the end of the Cold War, most U.S. geostrategic analysis continues excluding Latin America. Latin America, thus, has begun looking out with modest expectations.
Brazil, the bastion of suspicion in the region regarding U.S. intentions, will grow in significance as Mercosur/Mercosul spreads as a regional market and integration instrument. The Brazilians, already concerned that Washington would overpower anyone in the western hemisphere free trade zone, will enhance their own power within the Common Market of the south while keeping more than an arms length form the United States. Brazils problem is institute the basic domestic reforms required for continued growth. These economic and political reforms will take considerable power away from state and local governments as well as interest groups with long-standing power in Brazil. But the 1999 crisis, provoked by the actions of a former president now serving as a state governor, indicated that decentralization in Brazil, when coupled with tremendous institutional inertia and vested interests, cannot continue. If the state is to pursue the path that President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has been walking since his inauguration in 1995, reforms are absolutely necessary.
Regardless of the need for reform, Brazil will maintain its leadership both in the region and as a state representing the region outside the hemisphere. Brazils economy is one of the ten largest in the world and its ties with the Asia-Pacific area are growing. More importantly, Brazils perception that the United States is not willing to focus on the Western Hemisphere as a true, equal partner will reinforce regional disappointment and resignation. In the medium range, this resignation is likely to lead to retrenchment on economic and political reforms as Latin American states see fewer concrete benefits than anticipated from reform. Instead of encouraging the region to pursue more reform, states may return to some of the nationalist, protectionist policies that satisfy domestic constituencies rather than concerning themselves with meeting the expectations of the United States and international economic community.
Latin America is keenly aware of the potential that the Asia-Pacific region offers as a market partner and a counterweight to the United States. Japan has been investing in the region since the 1970s, with the highest investment coming immediately before the Japanese crash of 1989-90. Sufficient Japanese presence in the region dates to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Japanese immigrants played an important role in railway construction projects on the west coast of South America and in some of the inner colonisation of Brazil during the same time period. President Alberto Fujimoris election in 1990 marked an obvious connection between Japan and Peru, leading a fair number of Peruvians to believe that Tokyo would bail Peru out of its financial troubles. The 1997 siege at the Japanese Embassy in Lima again showed that Japan was a target of interest in the region.
But Japan has been cautious in its investment in the region. The bulk of the debt involved in the 1980s crisis was U.S. and European, not Japanese. The financial downturn of the past decade has scaled back investments and left Latin America far less impressed that the road out of reliance on the United States runs through Tokyo.
Chinese interest in Latin America also dates back to the nineteenth century when significant Chinese immigration was an important transformation to the Brazilian scene. During most of the early twentieth century, Latin America treated China as a distant, foreign place with which little contact was even contemplated. The two areas did come together in various Non-Aligned meetings, since Argentina (in particular) and later all of the region, was committed to the Group of 77, the Non-Aligned Movement, and other organizations which championed the role of the Third or Developing World against outside aggression. Both Latin America and the Peoples Republic of China were sensitive to the issues of sovereignty, particularly U.S. violation thereof. The 1998 Chinese White Paper on Defense discussed hegemonism and power politics remain[ing] the main source of threats to world peace and stability,2 precisely the same terminology that Latin American nationalists use.
The White Paper also notes that Latin America has been the subject of minor but growing Chinese interest in military-to-military contacts, including 1997 naval visits to Mexico, Chile, and Peru.3 In a recent trip to Argentina, Brazil, and Bolivia, the senior military officials were all enthusiastic about growing PRC interest in mil-to-mil contacts with their countries and the possibility of arms sales. With the downsizing of military budgets in these states as a result of structural reform, procuring Chinese arms is a much more attractive option than it was a decade ago. These states would prefer buying from the United States, but recognize that they cannot afford many of the U.S. programs and know that China may be more willing to sell to them. Finally, the Chinese have also been welcoming Latin American trade delegations as initial steps to increase the PRCs role in Latin Americas trade are explored.4
APEC has also had a Latin American flavor for several years. Mexico was the initial Latin American member, joining in 1993, immediately before its entry into NAFTA. Chile, with its sustained economic growth and frustration with the U.S. policies over General Augusto Pinochet, acceded to membership the following year. Peru held observer status until joining the organization in 1998 at the Kuala Lumpur meeting. Other Latin American nations would like to participate in APEC but are less interested in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis and do not have either the sustained economic growth or political saliency to the APEC members. No Latin American members have been asked to host a meeting yet but they do remain active participants in the sessions.
Latin American Lessons for Asia?
Perhaps the greatest linkage between Latin America and the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific basin will be in considering transnational issues. As heartily as Washington might want to ignore Latin America entirely, the worrisome and spreading problem of Colombia and the associated transnational issues (TNIs) continues worsening.
Colombia is a laboratory both for those studying the linkages between TNIs and those developing strategies for responding to them. As Asia faces the long period of recovery from the Asian financial crisis, the likelihood of these issues spreading throughout the region is significant. Whether Washington likes it or not, it will be increasingly difficult to ignore the problems of Colombia yet these problems are as intractable as any where in the world. The political violence that afflicts the Republic is not a bilateral phenomenon. Instead, the violence is perpetrated by the guerrilleros who have been fighting the central government since 1964, the military which has engaged in a significant number of human rights abuses, and the more recent paramilitaries which are spreading from the northwest into other regions of this country four times the size of Arizona. The Colombian guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, have close alliances with the heroin and cocaine growers and traffickers who now operate in the Republic. Strictly speaking, however, the narcotraficantes are no longer narcoterroristas as was true in the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s. Instead, their willingness to perpetrate violence against the state has led to the central government in Bogotá focusing elsewhere. This is a country, after all, where the government acknowledges that it does not control 40% of its national territory.5
Colombias threats are beyond political violence. Instead, the violence has spread from the Republic into neighboring states in a couple of ways. First, refugees have spilled from Colombia into the Darien area of Panama and across the Orinoco River into Venezuela. International humanitarian rights estimates are that just under a million Colombians have been forced from their homes by political violence during the 1990s; that is one out of every 30 Colombians.6 States at the receiving end must figure how to accommodate these people and prevent their spread into areas where the governments are already hard pressed to meet national needs.7
TNIs and Asia: Problems on the Horizon?
The TNIs that offer significant challenges not only for the region, the individual states, and the peoples of Latin America are also crucial to the U.S. strategist and the vast Asia-Pacific basin. The socio-economic mal-distribution problems plaguing the region, and made all the more obvious after July 1997 by the financial crisis, are glaring strategic concerns for the next decade in Asia. The single example of more than fifty percent of the population of Indonesia sinking below the poverty line since the crash is cause enough for major concern. This economic crisis led not only to the overthrow of the long-standing Suharto regime but also refugee problems, religious and ethnic strife against the Chinese in Indonesia (among other places), and generalized upheaval in the subregion. One does not have to think exclusively in domino theories to understand that the stability of regimes in the region, and the intent to maintain power of those regimes in the face of significant public upheaval, is a real and enduring possibility. This is particularly true if the regimes involved respond to demands for improved socio-economic distribution by rescinding some of the reforms demanded by the international financial community (Mahathirs model at present) or if they abide by the international communitys demands by sacrificing domestic standards of living. Each is an equally perilous approach in a different way. Put another way, regime legitimacy, which is of varying strengths across the region, will be tested even further in the period as economic, political and social reforms are weighed and implemented or decided against. Each decision has an opportunity cost which must be recognized.
More to the point, however, each response allows a wide window of possibility for TNIs to flourish. States that are unable to respond to domestic demands by returning their populations to the basic standards of living that they had before the crash, such a basic employment, leave open the probability of spread of drug production. The international market today is simply too lucrative. The rapid rise in standards of living in East Asia, particularly in southeast Asia, over the past two decades mean that a significant portion of the population remember the standards from before the boom. The drug production and trafficking incentive may be too lucrative, particularly since the affects on the economies have been so devastating. The Asian financial crisis has been, as the 1980s Latin American debt crisis was, a de facto depression for the region. Using Latin Americas experience as illustrative, the production and trafficking of drugs rose in the region during the period of economic distress as fewer economic options were available. Even taking into consideration the highly authoritarian nature of several of the regimes in the region and the attendant theory of Asian values, it would appear likely that drug trafficking will increase.
Accompanying this problem will be a growth in international organized crime. In todays environment where banking is linked so tightly by globalizes computer networks and transportation can expedite communications as well, organized crime has advantages it never had in the past. Additionally, the personalistic style of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and its often subtle distrust of outsiders, breeds networking which will facilitate the power of organized crime.
The corruption that has already been linked to personalism in Asia, feeds feeding suspicion of national governments and will continue to grow. While financial transparency is intended to alleviate these problems, it would seem highly unlikely in the short term to obviate them because it will take a period of time to become institutionalized. Additionally, transparency is not guaranteed in some of the institutions of the state, such as the military. In an era when militaries are seeing their budgets eroded by economic realities of the state, corruption may be a greater, not a lesser problem for Asia.
Asia is not Latin America and the TNI threats facing the regions will not be precisely duplicative. Latin America does not face the religious and ethnic strife that afflict some parts of Asia. The overseas Chinese, particularly in Southeast Asia, have been subjects of considerable attack during the Asian financial meltdown. That these Indonesian citizens are also primarily Christian in the overwhelmingly Moslem archipelago is an additional source of tension. Tensions also exist in the smaller groups, such as the Karen, who migrate across borders in northern Thailand and Burma. Similarly, the Islamic citizenry in Xinjiang province may not yet provide a threat to the Peoples Republic of China but have certainly heightened Beijings awareness of the possibility of ethnic and religious strife. Latin America, for all of its troubles, has virtually none of this phenomenon.
What is the Strategist to do?
The options available to the U. S. strategist are many but each comes with a cost in this arena. Some of the costs are short term while others are medium and long term. But, recognizing these costs is an important aspect to strategy, all too often left out of the equation.
The United States can take positions which advocate the financial reforms that will further pressure states in Asia, with the objective of achieving long term reform, stability, and sustained growth. This option will probably lead to some political instability in the region (the Indonesian example may only be the beginning; the Malaysian government may still pay a price for the reform path it has chosen to follow) and may lead to short term problems of increased drug production, trafficking, and consumption. Certainly the vulnerability is there. A likely outcome of this option will be a prolonged period of nationalism that has been obvious (Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea) or just below the surface (Japan and China) leading to difficult trade negotiations, nationalist rhetoric, and other confrontational activities with the United States.
A second option would be for the United States to back off from its support/demand for economic reform, giving the Asian nations a bit of space to follow reform at their own speed. This would require backing off from strong commitment to international multilateralism à la the IMF and its orthodox economic policy prescriptions. This would be a significant change in course for the United States and would raise hackles in the U.S. Congress where the need for economic openness, free markets, and essentially acknowledging the evil of past ways is a prerequisite for confidence that the last 18 months will not be repeated. The cost of this choice would be that several states in the region would likely back off from draconian reforms that the IMF has pushed in hopes of satisfying local needs. Additionally, a cost would be that international investor confidence would not rise dramatically, limiting the amounts of outside capital investment. Since the region needs that investor confidence to rise, this would seem a precarious option. One benefit from this policy decision, however, would be a period when governments could consolidate their power and spend time addressing the needs of their citizenry rather than feeding the perception that the international bankers are manipulating them rather like puppeteers. This policy option would likely lessen the vulnerability to TNIs in the immediate to medium term because the panic associated with the dramatic drop in lifestyle and diminished government spending as a safety net would not appear as draconian. People would not seem as likely to turn immediately to drugs or other forms of corruption, as an example, to get themselves through the crisis if they did not feel that their governments were abandoning them to satisfy outside demands by the IMF and the United States.
Much ink has been spilled over the past decade on whether Japan, then China was the main enemy of the United States. This discussion will continue for the foreseeable future. The strategist can take a page, however, from the Latin American experience to understand that TNIs present a dramatic, enduring challenge for the United States in the Asia-Pacific basin as the era of enhanced transportation, communication, and data transfer continues. The most prominent issue in Latin America has been drug trafficking and the associated violence. More careful analysis, however, indicates that a slew of TNIs are woven together and can manifest themselves as threats in a number of serious ways. The Asia-Pacific region is NOT Latin America but some of the lessons and conditions are similar. We need to be considering more policy options than those we are simply comfortable with and think we already know.
About the author: Dr. Watson has been Associate Dean since 1997, having served in the Department of National Security Policy since arriving at the College in 1992. Prior to that, she was Assistant Dean for Social Sciences at Loyola University of Chicago where she also taught political science. She earned a Master's in Economic History/Latin American Studies from the London School of Economics and a Doctorate in Government and International Studies from the University of Notre Dame. She has written extensively on nuclear developments and conventional arms issues in third world settings. More recently, she has focused on political violence and civil-military relations, co-editing The Political Role of the Military with Constantine Danopoulos (Greenwood Publications, 1996). Dr. Watson's work increasingly examines the spread of transnational threats across regional boundaries. She is on the Editorial Board of Third World Quarterly. She was the Secretary for the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society for six years and serves on governing boards of several professional academic associations. She is currently President of the International Studies Association-Washington Region.