Neglecting Latin America

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Once, when asked how important Latin America is to the United States, Henry Kissinger reportedly said derisively, "South America is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of the Antarctic." It was a classic example of the rampant Eurocentrism that has long dominated American strategic thinking, mired in an idealized Europe-only past, with at best a smattering of fears and fascinations with exotic Asia. This narrowness of focus has long blinded this country to the overwhelming importance of its closest neighbors, Canada and Latin America. If what are really important are national security, prosperity, and domestic tranquility, it seems a decidedly parochial fixation.

Kissinger’s comment, coming as it did at the height of the Cold War, seems especially odd. When he made it, avoiding nuclear war was our greatest concern. Yet he blithely dismissed as strategically irrelevant precisely the region that generated the single greatest threat of just such an exchange. It was in Castro’s Cuba during the missile crisis, not in Europe or Asia, where we came closest to mutually assured nuclear incineration. Latin America strategically irrelevant? Hardly.

Yet today, decades later, Eurothink continues to drive American strategic decision making. Responding to massive human rights violations in the Balkans involving widespread death, destruction, and an immense refugee tragedy, we recently led NATO in a massive bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in order to coerce it to change its political policies. Yet just a few short years ago, when radical revolutions in Latin America were killing far more people and generating more than twice as many refugees, many fleeing directly to our own shores, we did precious little. In fact, many of those who vigorously urged on NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia actually supported the sponsors of these much larger Latin American pogroms against tribal Indians, peasants, and even Jews. Is it that Kosovo today is infinitely more important to the United States than Cuba was then, and Macedonia and Montenegro more important than Managua? Or is Kosovo yet one more example of Eurothink run amok. If so, we had best think again. A million Kosovar refugees are indeed a tragedy, but ten million Mexicans hitting our own border during a new revolution would be far more than merely tragic. And bombing Mexico City would not be an option.

How important is Latin America to the United States economically? Mexico is our second-largest trading partner after Canada. We sell more to Chile than to India; more to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay than to China; more to tiny Costa Rica than all of Eastern Europe put together.

It gets worse. When it comes to Latin America, not only do we have our political priorities upside down, we can’t even balance our checkbooks. Everyone agrees that trade is good because exports mean income, profits, and jobs, more than 20,000 per billion dollars of investment by some estimates. So our newspapers and journals are full of articles on opening up trade with China, resolving Asia’s financial mess, and the latest on American-European banana wars. Any decent analyst just arrived from Mars could not but conclude from our Eurasian fixation that Europe and Asia are by far our most important trading partners. But he would be wrong, as are we. Latin America, not Europe, is our best market. Mexico, not Japan, is our second-largest trading partner after Canada, before even counting in another $20–22 billion in yearly American border sales to Mexican shoppers. And that just for starters. We sell more to Chile’s 15 than India’s 920 million people; more to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay (the Mercosur countries) than to China; more to tiny Costa Rica than all of Eastern Europe put together. By 2010, exports to Latin America are expected to reach $232 billion, more than to all of Europe and Japan combined. And unlike Europe and Japan, Latin America imports over 40 percent of all it buys from us. Further, whereas exports to Europe and Asia remain flat, those to Latin America are rising fast, 66 percent in just four recent years alone. In his farewell address, George Washington said commerce is the main business of government. Unless he was wrong, today Latin America should be our top—not bottom—trade priority.

The United States has the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population of any nation in the world.

This is also true for providing for national security and ensuring domestic tranquility. Today the United States has the fourth-largest Spanish-speaking population of any nation in the world; by 2007 Hispanics will be our largest minority; by 2020 they will be the majority in our most populous state, California. Forty years ago Hispanic Americans were mostly rural or small-town descendants of Mexicans made Americans by war, concentrated largely in the Southwest, save for Puerto Ricans in New York. Today there are also newly arrived Cubans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, South Americans, living everywhere, especially in our major cities, many refugees from the region’s wars. With this new influx has come a cultural revolution. Our fourth-largest television network is in Spanish, Univision. Spanish newspapers are available almost everywhere. In 1998, Mexican Independence Day in Las Vegas was dominated by Latin stars, most unknown to mainstream America; Maná, Thalía, Alejandro Fernández, and top mariachi bands are playing for Hispanic-heavy audiences.

To ensure domestic tranquility we must adjust to this new reality. When once the Coca Cola–ization of Latin America was widely decried as American cultural aggression, today, as our current raging debate over bilingualism suggests, the Latinizing of America seems to many to be nearly as big a threat. It should not be. By remaining insistently Euro-, if not Anglocentric, in an increasingly global environment we are yet again undervaluing Latin America and missing the point. Yes, English should remain our national language. But we should welcome, not fear, becoming bilingual. English first, fine, but Spanish second. With the importance of Latin America to this country growing exponentially, it seems a natural. Further, a stable, democratic, and prosperous Latin America should top our list of foreign policy objectives, not languish near its bottom, because it is our biggest and fastest-growing market, a dynamic new cultural partner, and increasingly vital to our own domestic tranquility.