The Latin America that President Obama is facing at the Summit of the Americas this weekend is very different from the region in which the United States was able to get socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende ousted 36 years ago.
In 1973, when Allende was killed in a military coup, the American economy was a shining example for the world. And among its neighbors to the south, a well-heeled elite reaped benefits from America’s prosperity. The region’s “haves” were afraid of a growing threat from “communism” as the “have nots” became more discontented and “leftist” policies gained popularity. That meant the United States could count on support from the “haves” – a powerful Latin American constituency – in its crusade against spreading Soviet influence.
Today, the Cold War is history, and in Latin America the “haves” are suffering – not nearly so much as the “have nots,” of course, but suffering nonetheless. In recent years, as political ideologues stripped government regulations from the American financial industry, greed and recklessness prevailed, plunging the world into possibly the worst economic crisis in history. The resulting ripple-effect is being felt throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. So, the United States can no longer count on the local “haves” to help fight “socialism” in the Americas. (In a 2005 defense meeting in Quito, Ecuador, for example, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld failed to drum up support for American-backed anti-communist military policies.)
And as Latin Americans increasingly seek alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez are becoming popular. His economic policies are apparently succeeding in his country, and he has won support from his neighbors by selling them cheap oil and providing financial aid.
Chavez has embraced Cuban dictator Raoul Castro (photo at right), despite fundamental political differences, because of a shared hostility to U.S. domination of the region. Now, Venezuela supplies Cuba with cut-price oil in return for the long-term loan of about 20,000 Cuban health workers, who staff free clinics in rural areas and in the slums surrounding Venezuela’s major cities.
Not only Venezuela but also most Caribbean and Latin American countries have cordial relations with Castro, and America will be pressured to end its trade embargo on Cuba.
Faced with these and other changes in the region, President Obama will no doubt have to modify America’s traditional policies, which have resolutely supported “capitalism” and opposed “communism.” It is no secret that unbridled capitalism has failed – imploding under the stress of its own fatal flaws. Yet, back home in the U.S. a violent backlash is taking place against the perceived threat of “socialism.” The new American President will have to walk a fine line indeed if he hopes to forge a workable alliance with his neighbors to the south without stirring up a hornet’s nest at home.