Above: Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina, Haiti’s Michel Martelly and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez
By Alexander Britell
This week, heads of state from around the region will gather in Cartagena, Colombia for the Sixth Summit of the Americas, on the theme of integrated prosperity in the region. As Latin America and the Caribbean continue to grow in influence, they are encountering several barriers; chief among them is the increasing problem of transnational crime due to the drug trade. This and other issues are certain to be on the agenda at the summit. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, an editor, columnist and member of the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, is one of the leading commentators on these developments in the Americas. To learn more about recent trends in the region, both economic and political, Caribbean Journal talked to O’Grady about US policy in the hemisphere, the War on Drugs and the growing influence of China.
The most high-profile interaction by the US in the region under President Obama was probably in Honduras with Zelaya. How would you describe the US’ engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean under this administration?
I would say it’s not a lot different than previous governments, which is that the region, in general, is not very important to Washington. The main reason for that is that it doesn’t have any nuclear weapons. So there is a lot more focus on Asia and the Middle East. I never really quite understood why the Obama administration got so engaged on the Honduran issue. But apart from that, I would say it’s had pretty much the typical Washington engagement, which is pretty limited, and only in areas where it feels compelled to do it. My own feeling on what Washington can do for the region is that trade is very important, and in that way I think the Obama administration was an enormous failure because of its resistance to the Colombia and Panama Free Trade agreements, quite obviously in the interest of its US union supporters. I think that sent a very bad signal to the region. Because the US should have something of a leadership position, particularly on economics, and the opening of trade is something that is critical to the advancement of the region.
“The US should have something of a leadership position, particularly on economics, and the opening of trade is something that is critical to the advancement of the region.”
We know that the fact that the region was so closed during most of the 20th century and only started opening in the 1990s made it difficult to open [these markets], and there’s political interest in that area against it. So it’s difficult. I think that a trade agreement, while not the perfect solution for trade — I much prefer a unilateral agreement — is helpful, because there’s some recognition of the political interests you have to satisfy to get [agreements] done. And yet, it inches the ball forward and it also institutionalizes openings — so that a new movement comes in and it’s more difficult to close it up again if the pendulum swings back to the other side. So I think on trade, the Obama administration has been very disappointing. I am opposed to the US War on Drugs, and of course, that’s been fought by both parties vigorously.
“On trade, the Obama administration has been very disappointing.”
I’m disappointed with the Obama administration, but I can’t criticize them uniquely, because the Republicans are big fans of the War on Drugs. But I did think this president would be a little bit more inclined to recognize that there is demand in this country for drugs and that’s the main driver of the problem, and he hasn’t. In fact, the President of Guatemala is questioning the War on Drugs, and [President Obama] has responded by sending both [Secretary of Homeland Security] Janet Napolitano and, more recently, Vice President Biden, to the region to reinforce the US view that we are going to keep fighting this war on drugs, which is a colossal failure. From my perspective, it’s also an immoral arrangement, because we’re consumers of drugs in this country, and we can’t expect the problem to be solved by another nation — we have to solve the problem ourselves.
What are other major issues you see right now for the US in the region?
Another is the issue of foreign aid, and the “economic mandate” that the US hands to some of these countries. Again, I don’t think the Obama administration has been unique in any way, but I think it’s unfortunate that there’s been a continuation of this tide that these countries need higher taxes on the rich in order to develop. We know that when the US was in the stage of development that these countries are in, the US did not even have an income tax. This idea that you collect all this money to somehow redistribute it to the poor in these countries is backward. I think the redistribution of wealth is something that richer countries can take part in. But you can’t start talking about the redistribution of wealth before you actually collect wealth. What you find in a lot of countries in the region is that the State Department has an economic office, and that office pressures the local governments to impose the kind of redistribution and entitlements that the government in this country thinks are fair and just, and that will not lead to development. Overall, I don’t give the administration a very high rating, but, again, I can’t single it out as if to say other Republican governments did much of a better job.
You mentioned the War on Drugs. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has pointed to drug trafficking and its increasing threat to regional security, and called for drug leglization. Is that the kind of issue that could bring the US to re-engage in the region, and, if not, what is?
Well, the US was very engaged in Colombia during the Bush administration, because of the objective of stopping the cocaine coming to this country. So, presumably, that could happen. Although if you look at what’s gone on with Mexico, there’s been a lot of talk about the Merida Initiative, but, in fact, you haven’t really seen a very focused effort there. In part, it’s because countries recognize, and I think the US recognizes, that you can’t replicate what happened in Colombia. You’re not going to see Washington spending that amount of money in Mexico and then in Guatemala, and then in Haiti … and all the places where you have this leakage where drugs are coming through. So it’s kind of a whack-a-mole, and I think they won’t admit it publicly, but I think they basically get it, that we, too, have limited resources. I kind of take exception to the idea of engagement with the region. Because, for example, there are a lot of people in Mexico that felt that NAFTA should imply that the US should make wealth transfers in a similar way that, in the EU, money was transferred from the richer countries to the poor countries.
You’re not going to see Washington spending that amount of money in Mexico and then in Guatemala, and then in Haiti … and all the places where you have this leakage where drugs are coming through.”
I don’t think that’s either necessary or a good idea, for example, to make NAFTA work better. The fact that the money is not transferred doesn’t mean that the US is not engaged with the region. Development does not require wealth transfers from richer countries. The US didn’t get wealth transfers from anybody — when it developed, it was with the wealth that it had. This is due to good policies that attract capital and make it want to stay in a country. I reject the idea that these countries are so poor because the US hasn’t engaged with them. I go back to the War on Drugs, which is not a question of engagement, it’s a question more of hegemony, of dominance, of directing what they should do. In my view, all of these countries were better off with less engagement. We ask that they raise tax rates, in order to meet our qualifications so they get more foreign aid — that’s not going to lead to development. I’m suspicious of this claim by people who want the US more engaged in the region, and it often comes from foreign aid contractors, who feel that we should be down there buying new computers for the judiciary, and this is not the problem of any of these countries. It’s more of a question of policy decisions that a country makes on its own. I’m not a believer in nation building, and I think if you could take the US constitution and plop it down in any of these countries, and have them adopt it, sure you’d want that, but it doesn’t work that way. The Rule of Law grows out of the norms and values of a population. That’s why, for example, marijuana criminalization in [the US] doesn’t work, because the norms and values of the country are such that people don’t reject [marijuana], in a similar way that people didn’t reject alcohol broadly enough in order to make prohibition work. You couldn’t just say now it’s illegal, because that wasn’t a part of the norms and values of this country — there were too many people who wanted to drink alcohol. While I don’t think marijuana use is as wide as alcohol, I don’t think there’s a strong consensus in this country that people who use marijuana should be in jail. And that’s why it doesn’t work. So going back to other kinds of things, you can’t tell a country that property rights should work this way, and impose that, because the views of property rights in that country have to grow out of the norms and values of that country.
China has been increasingly involved in the region — from increased political interaction to infrastructure projects. Is that something you think the US is monitoring?
I’m sure the US is looking at it. First of all, let me say that I don’t think that a strong Chinese influence in Latin America is really a good thing. I don’t applaud it enthusiastically. Primarily, because the Chinese government is still a very repressive communist government. I’m happy that it seems to be evolving, and people are now able to own property in China, and a lot of people have moved out of poverty, but, unfortunately, it’s still not a democracy. So I don’t think China having a very strong influence in Latin America is necessarily a good thing. But there’s a problem there, because, more than anything, I think China wants to have influence in the world, and there are a lot of countries in the Caribbean who for many years have taken money from Taiwan, in exchange for voting to support Taiwan at the UN. And China wants to counterbalance that kind of influence that Taiwan has had. Unfortunately, China is looking for raw materials and resources; as it develops, it’s going to be gobbling up a lot of everything that Latin America puts out, from food to energy products. So that’s a big part of why it’s moved into the region. But I don’t think there’s a lot that the US can do. Primarily, the US could have the most influence on economic issues — of open trade, because that’s how, if we want to promote traditional American values of property rights and equality under the law, and limited government and sound money, the best way to do that is to engage the citizens of the region commercially. When you have a president who goes to the mattresses to block the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, what are the Colombians supposed to think, when the Chinese are standing there saying, why don’t you do business with us, because they don’t want to do business with you. I don’t think there are a lot of ways the US can keep China out. But it should show Latin America that the US way is the better one. I think freedom makes its own strong argument. But not when your argument is this kind of brow-beating, whether it’s the War on Drugs or tax rates or gender equality. These are the things these countries have to be respected enough on to make their own decisions.
Haiti has been increasingly cooperative with Hugo Chavez’ ALBA alliance. What do you think about that development?
Well, I talked to someone in the Martelly Administation, and I should qualify this by saying I don’t consider myself an expert on this at all, but someone I know who was in the meeting when Chavez met with Martelly, and I think that Martelly’s view is, look, we need money. What they’re saying is, and I don’t know this for a fact, is that there’s no quid pro quo — it’s simply ALBA is ready to give them money. I think that’s possible. I think that the way ALBA and Cuba and Venezuela operate is they think that, by sending money, they will get good will and good public relations with people who will then look favourably on those countries, because they can say “we built this.” And we’ll have to see whether Martelly then has to deliver something else to Hugo Chavez. But for now, it looks like a lot of the countries that belong to PetroCaribe get this discount, and it’s considered favourable, and that’s why they do it. Not because they have any intention of adopting the ideology of Cuba or Venezuela, but that they just want the money. I should say that what would worry me most, almost as much as the ideology, is the corruption. If you look at what’s happened in Nicaragua, basically all of the discounted oil that comes to the country is controlled by the Sandinista party. And they use that to make themselves richer and able to win elections, and give handouts and that sort of thing. And that’s where I think the Organization of American States ought to object, because that’s the real interference with the democratic process in a country like Nicaragua. I couldn’t understand why there was such an outcry against Honduras when they stopped Zelaya from violating the constitution, but nobody seemed to care when Ortega did it in Nicaragua.