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Latin America: Anti-US in Words, Not Deeds

An avalanche of secrets exposed by a former National Security Agency contract worker is complicating US relations with southern neighbors. Reports allege that the United States spied on countries regardless of poor or good relations. Stopping the Bolivian president’s plane in Europe for a few hours to search for Edward Snowden may be a hiccup compared with allegations that the NSA compromised computers of Brazil’s state-owned oil company and spied on President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff blasted the United States with a speech before the UN General Assembly. Still, “The United States and Latin America are joined at the hip, economically and demographically,” explain Luisa Parraguez, Francisco Garcia Gonzalez and Joskua Tadeo. Trade between north and south continues, and Latin Americans are the largest ethnic minority in the United States. Brazil, as the world’s sixth largest economy, has concerns about what Rousseff labeled “industrial espionage,” and the nation may use the allegations for future leverage. Trade will likely continue to trump ideology. – YaleGlobal

Latin America: Anti-US in Words, Not Deeds

Despite spying allegations, the United States is locked into partnership with its southern neighbors
Luisa Parraguez, Francisco Garcia Gonzalez, Joskua Tadeo
YaleGlobal, 1 October 2013
Trading accusations: The Bolivian president's aircraft is forced to land and searched by Austrian police in the Vienna airport (top); Brazilian President Rousseff  with President Morales, united in denouncing the US

MEXICO CITY: The Latin American blogosphere held its breath when Bolivian president Evo Morales’s plane was forced to land in Vienna in July. As European authorities searched for former US National Security Agency contract worker Edward Snowden on board, Twitter accounts of South American presidents exploded with resentment. The continent denounced the United States for extending its hemispheric supremacy to Europe, sputtered words like “colonialism” and “imperialism,” and claimed that the incident violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner called the incident “not only humiliating to a sister nation, but also for the whole South American continent.”

Fury continues with reports that the NSA allegedly hacked web accounts of Brazil’s state-owned oil company – described as “industrial espionage” by President Dilma Rousseff – and monitored internet and phone communications of Rousseff and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto while he was a candidate. Rousseff postponed a state visit to Washington, pending investigation, and with President Barack Obama waiting in the wings of the UN General Assembly for his turn at the podium, she tore into the United States for its “breach of international law.”

This may be a turning point in US relations with its southern neighbors. While anti-American sentiment on the street, a result of a long history of domination, is real, the bedrock reality is that the US and Latin America are joined at the hip, economically and demographically. Trade, investment and immigration data reveal growing relations and interdependence.

Trade, investment and immigration data reveal growing interdependence between the US and Latin America.

Rousseff’s suspending her trip to Washington is only the latest episode in a long history of turbulent relations with external powers. Simón Bolivar, the Liberator of the South, first proposed combatting European colonialism in South America in 1826. During the Cold War, the US policy of containment led to military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, and supported right-wing dictatorships in the Southern Cone. According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands were tortured, exiled or “disappeared” by US-backed military juntas in Chile, Argentina and Guatemala.

The US fear of communism spreading in the region was controlled through the Organization of American States. After the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, the Multidimensional Secretariat was established at the OAS to deal with transnational threats such as terrorism and organized crime. Hundreds of thousands more have lost their lives in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras with the rise of organized  crime in the region.

Until his death in March 2013, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela spearheaded a group of eight nations under the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, ALBA, in an anti-imperialist movement that carries the banner of 21st century socialism. ALBA, led by Cuba and Venezuela against the Free Trade Area of the Americas headed by the United States, was born to counteract US dominion in the region.

Soon after the NSA revelations began, leftwing governments in South America – Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela – made international headlines by offering asylum to Snowden. The whistleblower’s plight is similar to that of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, who has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since June 2012. On July 20, less than a month after the beginning of the Snowden affair, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro took the opportunity to end conversations that had begun in June with US Secretary of State John Kerry, stating, “My policy is zero tolerance to gringo aggression against Venezuela.” Talks to replace a US ambassador in Caracas were abandoned yet again.

Trade vs ideology: Despite anti-US rhetoric, the country is a top trade partner for Latin America. Enlarge graph

In Latin America, ALBA countries act as an axis of anti-American sentiment. In February 2013, the Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiñocalled the OAS Inter-American Defense Board "useless,” suggesting that it was merely another arm of US influence in the region. A month later, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa stated in the inaugural address of the 22nd Summit of ALBA that its members “must create a shield against exploitation, a shield against neocolonialism.” ALBA nations have established their own School of Sovereignty and Defense in Bolivia to keep US imperialist intervention at bay. A main security argument is that drug trafficking is a problem for the US and not necessarily a policy issue for South American countries.

It would follow that the strong, constant flows of trade, aid and security cooperation between Latin America and the US would dry up after so much tension. Nevertheless, the US Census Bureau reports that trade remains stable for now, especially for oil producers like Venezuela and Bolivia. Anti-American sentiment in the region seems to be purely rhetorical, having little impact on trade relations with the United States.

Anti-American rhetoric in ALBA countries has not prevented them from listing the US among their main trade partners. As of 2012, the US was the main import source for Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Honduras. Particularly striking is that 31.2 percent of Venezuela’s imports and 28 percent of Ecuador’s come from the United States. Adding to this list, the US is Bolivia’s fourth largest source of imports, producing up to 10 percent of its imports, and Argentina’s second source after Brazil.

The United States receives the largest percentage of Latin American exports from Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras. In the case of Bolivia, it drops to second place after Brazil. Such significant flows of merchandise and capital will not stop overnight, no matter how many countries forced the Bolivian presidential plane to land for a few hours.

Anti-US rhetoric in ALBA countries has not prevented them from listing the nation as a top trade partner.

Demographically and economically, the US is changing in ways that make any standoff with Latin American partners unlikely. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s recent report on foreign investment in the region, the US still accounts for 58.5 percent of foreign investment. At the same time, the 53 million people of Hispanic and Latino origin in the US account for 17 percent of its population, making them the largest ethnic minority in the country. In much the same way, as reported by The New York Times, Latin American migration to the US has reached equilibrium with new arrivals roughly equivalent to the number of people returning home. Americans are also picking countries as diverse as Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and  Nicaragua to retire, while recent trips to Mexico and Chile by the US president and vice-president emphasize education exchanges.

South America expresses its outrage through diplomacy. Consider, after Morales was allowed to return to La Paz, the diplomatic rumble escalated as members of the regional trading institution Mercosur called back their ambassadors in the countries that had denied the Bolivian president use of airspace. Ecuador joined them four days later, at which point Venezuela also officially removed ambassadors in Spain, France, Portugal and Italy. An apology was issued July 25, and ambassadors from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador were reinstated to their offices in Paris, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon two days later.

Concerns may run more deeply over reports of the United States monitoring communications of presidents and strategic industries. Brazil is the world’s sixth largest economy, and Rousseff may use the embarrassing disclosures to leverage the United States on trade, internet regulation and other priorities.  With the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics coming up, Brazil will most likely use the situation as much-needed political capital at home, instead of attempting any change in relations with the US beyond venting at the UN. Rousseff cannot afford to risk an international snafu amidst growing discontent over her actions concerning domestic policy.

Trade overrides ideology. The bottom line, leftwing leaders like Maduro and Morales need US business in their economies, and the most vehement anti-imperialist talk is overshadowed by economic pragmatism. Ecuador is in an even more critical position, as reliance on the US dollar in its economy means it cannot afford poor relations with the United States. Ideological hot air may grab headlines, but will not trump Latin America’s heavy flows of trade with the world´s most powerful economy.

 To read a Spanish translation, click here.

Luisa Parraguez is a professor and researcher at the Global Studies Department of Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Mexico City Campus. Francisco Garcia Gonzalez is a Tecnológico de Monterrey graduate and research coordinator at Mexico’s Auditoría Superior de la Federación. Joskua Tadeo is an international relations student and research assistant at Tecnológico de Monterrey’s Mexico City Campus.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

13 October 2013
'US fear of communism spreading in the region was controlled through the Organization of American States'
Not only communism, but to make American Corporativism succesful, even if that meant ending democratic a non-communist countries. For instance, Guatemala and the United Fruit Company was a non-ideological conflict.
'A main security argument is that drug trafficking is a problem for the US and not necessarily a policy issue for South American countries.'
This arguement poorly choses a clichéd topic of the many issues that repel OAS from ALBA. Worst, it frames the entire Southamerican conflict with a regional alliance that doesn't represent half of the countries in South America. ALBA represents more countries of the Caribbean than from South America. What about UNASUR or CDS? This maniquean assertation implies that Dilma Rousseff's military intent for reducing drug quartels in favelas, along with the reduction of crack consumption in Brazil, plus that Mujica or Evo legalized specific drugs, were excercised due to ideological issues.
'US and Latin America are joined at the hip, economically and demographically. Trade, investment and immigration data reveal growing relations and interdependence'
More evidence and more references would enrich this. I didn't see any demographic data.
-Leo Lozano , Mexico
12 October 2013
Brasil is doing a good job shifting its formed dependence on trade with America to China and other nations and specially stopping plans to reequip the military with American made weapons that by now should be well understood to be full of back-doors like software products and services supplied by American companies.
The less South American nations and the whole world for that matter depend from War Prone, Trigger Happy United States of America the best!
-Paulo Borges , Brasil
12 October 2013
I am convinced that, at this stage and with all that has been seem and published, we can all say with FULL CONFIDENCE that American spying spree is almost entirely dedicated at STEALING commercial, industrial, resource and private secrets not only from Brasil but most, if not all, nations of this planet that are not well equipped to protect themselves or naively believe they should not fear "friendly" and "allied" nations.
The United States of America has demonstrated it's comprehensive disrespect and dishonesty for the most basic expectations on a friendly and cooperative relations among civilized nations.
America shows the medieval mind set of our primitive ancestors who believed that stealing is a good business.
If American espionage machine was geared toward finding terror plots they would have heard of the Boston bombing and SPECIALLY the Kenya terror plot where hundreds, perhaps more extremists worked for more than a year extensively using the Internet and telephones to setup the plan but were completely invisible to the billion+++ dollar Obama's big nose machinery.
Either American espionage machine is geared entirely at STEALING nations, peoples and businesses private secrets or they are COMPLETELY INCOMPETENT at the job they insist is the object of their SECRETIVE work.
For most America is just showing it's dishonest and selfish face AGAIN!
-Paulo Borges , Brasil
6 October 2013
Interesting article in how it ascertains relationships between American countries in economic terms. Given the long-spanning tradition of anti-american discourse arising from the region, the topic itself begs for an expanded (historical if not comparative) study of 'words vs. deeds' - if only to identify the breadth and impact of diplomatic tensions in the wider scope of hemispheric relations. Hopefully the authors might give it some thought.
-Kim Piaget , Switzerland