US no longer towers over Latin America

As America became distracted by the war on terror after 9/11, the region sought other partners.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When a foreign mining company bought an entire mountain in Peru last year and secured a virtual monopoly on copper production in the country, it may have struck some as the likely act of an American corporation – extending Uncle Sam's grip in Latin America, the United States' traditional backyard.

How wrong, how '90s (or earlier still) such an assumption would be.

The multibillion-dollar purchase of Toromocho mountain by China's Chinalco corporation was yet another example of China's voracious appetite for resources. Yet the Chinese claim on Toro­mocho also symbolizes how, across Latin America, the US is no longer the only game in town.

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As President Obama turns his attention to America's own hemisphere – he visited Mexico on his way to the Summit of the Americas this weekend in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago – he finds a region that within a decade has diversified its interests and adjusted interdependencies, moving away from a US dominance that dates back to the Spanish-American War.

After concluding that post-9/11 America was too busy with international terrorism and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to pay much attention to them, Latin America's political and business leaders looked increasingly beyond the US for partners. The Latin American publics followed suit, tired of waiting for Washington's economic prescriptions to deliver progress and relief.

The result is that Mr. Obama encounters a region that views its relations with the US quite differently now. At the same time, it's a region more prepared for a dialogue among equals – on development, energy, immigration, and security.

"The last 10 years have produced dramatic changes in Latin America, and one of the most striking is the loss of the United States' formerly towering dominance in a wide range of areas," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

The region has undergone a political transformation beyond US control that was un­­imaginable a generation ago, Mr. Tinker-Salas says. It began with the election of Venezuela's ­leftist-populist (and anti-gringo) President Hugo Chávez in 1998, and has culminated with the victory in March of Mauricio Funes, El Salvador's first leftist president.

"This doesn't mean there is a united left in Latin America somehow threatening the US, as some have suggested," Tinker-Salas says. "But it does mean there is a much more independent foreign policy vis-à-vis the US and more nationalistic perspectives on economic matters. It's no longer the backyard where, either through benign neglect or direct intervention, the US could more or less freely act to achieve its goals."

Instead, the idea of a US-centric hemispheric free-trade area has faltered, and Brazil has become one of the world's top developing powers and emerging markets. Moreover, three Latin countries – Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina (which are part of the Rio Group) – are members of the Group of 20, which met earlier this month to reform the global financial system.

Politically, the region demonstrated last year its growing independence by expanding the Rio Group to include Cuba – creating a kind of rival to the US-dominated Organization of American States, which at Wash­ington's insistence excludes Cuba.

Indeed, that deepening independent streak may be on display in Trinidad this weekend if Mr. Chavez follows through on his pre-summit promise to confront the US over what most Latin leaders believe is an outdated and counterproductive policy towards Cuba.

Perhaps most significant, Latin America has managed to cut its poverty rates over the past decade – evidence for the region that progress is not dependent on the goodwill and focus of Uncle Sam.

"Between 2003 and 2008, we had average annual growth of 4.5 percent – growth we had not seen since the late 1960s," says Inés Bustillo, director of the Washington office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations agency. "That growth, and some really sound fiscal policies and expanded social initiatives, led to a 9 percent drop in the poverty rate – 40 million people moving above the poverty line."

None of this means the US has become irrelevant in the region. The US remains the largest single source of foreign direct investment in Latin America, although its share of the pie has shrunk as Europe and Asia have expanded theirs.

Colombia, an American favorite during the Bush presidency, has managed to pull itself out of the dregs of a narcotics-fueled civil war – with multibillion-dollar backing from the US. And Mexico remains inextricably tied to its giant neighbor to the north, sending 78 percent of its exports to its free-trade partner – down from 89 percent in 2000.

An attenuated US dominance has opened the door to a new level of political, economic, and diplomatic maturity in the region. "The US will always be a preeminence in Latin America, but the fact that its influence is weakening means these countries are growing up," says Norman Gall, executive director of the Fernand Braudel Institute of World Economics in São Paulo, Brazil.

The new reality of Latin America's relations with the US, some regional experts say, is more in tune with the approach of Obama, who recognizes the US is no longer an unfettered superpower and who uses words like "equality," "exchange," and "listening" to describe his diplomacy.

"The region is ready for a new dialogue, and there is considerable excitement about a new president who uses the word 'dialogue' more frequently than it was used in the past," Ms. Bustillo says. Added to that is a sense in much of the region that Obama speaks a "common language" with the region on economic development, she says. After swinging too far into market deregulation, the region is "looking for the right combination of the state and the market," she says.

Obama's approach to the region will be on display at the Summit of the Americas, which brings together 34 countries. He "doesn't go to Trinidad with all the answers," as the US might once have done, says Jeffrey Davidow, Obama's adviser for the summit and a former US ambassador to Mexico and Venezuela. Instead, it's "Let's see what other countries have to say."

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