In his First Inaugural Address in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to soothe a nation gripped by economic depression while succoring an international community resentful of decades of American interventionism.
“I would dedicate this nation,” he pledged, “to the policy of the good neighbor – the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others.”
The Good Neighbor Policy, aimed at improving U.S.-Latin American relations, has been strained by persistent American interventions in places like Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua. Under Roosevelt, the U.S. lowered tariffs (to the benefit of Cuba’s sugar market), removed U.S. troops from Haiti in 1934, de-authorized the military occupation of Cuba and, in an uncharacteristic move, peacefully negotiated an agreement with Mexico after Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico’s leftist leader, nationalized the country’s oil. The new partnership helped pull America out of the Great Depression and fueled the Allied effort during World War II.
Unfortunately for both sides, the onset of Cold War politics following the war would undo much of the politico-economic gains achieved in the hemisphere. With the seemingly ubiquitous threat of Communism, the U.S. policy toward Latin America became less of a “good neighbor” and more of a meddling one, as the U.S. sought to control the destinies of Latin American countries by orchestrating the overthrow of democratically-elected leftist governments and inserting American-imposed fascist regimes. By the 1980s, while Reagan was proclaiming “morning again in America,” Latin America was suffering through ravaging political turmoil and its gravest debt crisis in decades.
As the American focus has moved decidedly away from its backyard in the last two decades, Latin America has flourished and today remains one of the economically strongest regions in the world, even while faced with a global financial crisis. So there is little doubt why IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde took a tour of the region last December to drum up support for an economic bailout of Europe (that’s right; Latin America may rescue Europe).
And Lagarde is not the only one sizing the region’s potential. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has visited Latin America six times since 2005, drawing the ire of the U.S. on each occasion. Now Iran has launched a Spanish-language channel, Hispan TV, with a potential audience of 329 million native Spanish-speakers worldwide. During his tour in mid-Januray, Ahmadinejad visited with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Raúl Castro in Cuba and promised to build partnerships with the two anti-imperialist nations.
And again, Iran is not alone in courting a region largely ignored by the United States. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff met with both Castro brothers last week and promised $600 million in aid credits and even more funding for the Mariel port expansion, to which Brazil has already provided $683 million thus far. When asked by reporters about the human rights violations in Cuba, Rousseff responded, “You can’t turn the politics of human rights into just a weapon of politico-ideological combat.” (Subsequently, trade between Cuba and Brazil totaled $642 million, a record high, which helped Brazil overcome the U.K. as the world’s sixth-largest economy.)
Europe’s debt crisis and its effects on the U.S. show us that the nation must diversify its portfolio, so to speak. Improving ties with Latin America may be a way in which the U.S. can do just that. Let’s hope Washington adopts a foreign policy based on diplomacy, instead of adhering to the sophomoric, “I’m not talking to you” policy of old.