Ray Suarez: The U.S. and Latin America

BY Ray Suarez  March 19, 2010 at 12:44 PM EDT

In addition to my work at the PBS NewsHour, I’ve been the host of a program produced by Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, HITN. It’s called “Destination Casa Blanca,” and bills itself as “the Latino Voice in Politics.” Each week, I’ll be posting a blog on that week’s program, cross-posted at HITN.TV, the Huffington Post, and now, at the NewsHour’s Web site.

raysuarez_smbw1_utility_small_horizontal.jpgThis week we took a look at the state of relationships between the United States and Latin America … from the border with Mexico, through the Caribbean, clear down to the Southern Cone of Argentina and Chile.

The changes in the last two decades have been remarkable. The countries of Latin America labored in the murky shadows of the Cold War for decades, seen not only for their own strengths, weaknesses, and needs, but as one of the staging grounds of the proxy war with the Soviet Union.

Once conflict inside the Continent and throughout Central America was no longer examined through the prism of the superpower conflict, what remained of the relationship? Would Uncle Sam continue to lay his heavy hand on the scales as countries from the Rio Grande clear down to Cape Horn figured out where they fit in the world? Would the relationship with Washington continue to be decisive in a Latin nation’s global profile? Could the warmth or frostiness of ties to the United States make or break a country?

If you were trying to figure this out in the year the Soviet Union collapsed, you never could have written the scenario that’s played out in the decades that followed. China has moved from economic stagnation to dynamism. Brazil has moved from a “country to watch in the future” to one of the ten biggest economies on the planet and a place emerging under the leadership of Lula da Silva to punch its weight on the global stage.

You might have predicted that the Castros would no longer be in charge of Cuba 20 years hence … and you would have been wrong. Perhaps you would have forecast continuing stagnation in the Dominican Republic, instead of solid years of economic growth beating the worldwide averages.

Now what? Donde estamos?

They’re probably trying to figure that out at the Latin America desks at the State Department too, as countries like Peru and Argentina craft their place in an economically multipolar world, a flatter, freer, richer world than ever before.

We began the program in an unusual place: Puerto Rico. America, but not America… the island, home to some 4 million United States citizens continues its long family fight over what to be in the future. The current status is called Estado Libre Asociado, Associated Free State, but the English shorthand is Commonwealth.

What does it mean to be associated?
What does it mean to be free?

Could Puerto Rico decide unilaterally to be mas libre, but menos asociado? Could the governor of Puerto Rico make overtures to his Caribbean neighbors, craft agreements on local matters, and speak with a Puerto Rican voice without having to ask for State Department permission first?

And hey, if someday the citizens of this freely associated state decided to either join up and become the 51st star on the flag, or go their own way… would Washington let them? Do they really have that level of self-government and sovereignty?

Next we moved to Cuba, where the Obama Administration had both made specific promises and signaled its intentions during the campaign and the transition to the White House. The new president quickly followed through last year with a lifting of the Bush-era restrictions on travel to see family, and cash transfers to relatives in Cuba.

Then things kind of got stuck right there.

Our panel concluded that Raul Castro and his brother Fidel are more to blame than anyone for the lack of progress. President Obama has predicated further opening to Cuba on confidence-building measures from the Havana government, and so far there haven’t been any. In fact, our panelist concluded, the Castros appear to go out of their way to ignore or mock American overtures.

Their conclusion? American commercial interests in opening Cuba will remain substantial, but will ultimately be thwarted until there’s some movement on Havana’s end. Thus the commercial remains hostage to the political, for the time being.

What of the rest of the continent? From divergent perspectives came a surprisingly consistent conclusion: That a free-trading, multi-power world was giving Latin Americans options, but the closer you came to the borders of the United States the more important relations with Tio Sam became… the panel took pains to differentiate between South America on the one hand, and Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean on the other.

The “Bolivarian Axis” of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, said one guest, was in the vanguard of trying to build on the New Anti-Americanism, but had few takers around Latin America. For all the rejection of what globalism skeptics called “Neo-Liberalism,” (lowering or ending tariffs, ending protection of domestic industries, allowing currencies to float) in the early years of this century, South America has stayed on a pretty predictable free-trade capitalist path. When economies around the world went into the tank, South America remained relatively stable.

We closed the hour with a look at Mexico’s drug wars, the Calderon government’s attempts to fight back the drug gangs, and where the country can go from here.

I would love to hear from you this week. If you are from Latin America, how is the U.S. handling its relationship to your home country? If you are from the United States, what is your assessment of how successive American administrations have dealt with hemispheric neighbors?

Watch video highlights at http://www.hitn.tv/dcb