Latin America to U.S.: Tsk-Tsk

Brazilian President Lula da Silva at the U.N. Tuesday.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva at the U.N. Tuesday.

Miami is sometimes half-jokingly called “the capital of Latin America,” for its concentration of Latin American expats, Latin American corporation headquarters and even vacation homes for the region’s richest. No wonder then that both Senators John McCain and Barack Obama opted to outline their potential foreign policy towards the region while campaigning in Florida last week. Both candidates gave interviews to Radio Caracol that made headlines, each in its own way.

The highlight of McCain’s appearance was his apparent confusion as to Spain’s location and who its prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is [you can listen to it here.] A story on the incident in The Sydney Morning Herald was headlined “The brain in McCain under strain about Spain.” However, a campaign advisor denied there was any confusion, which can only hurt Spanish pride.

In respect to Latin America, McCain expressed coldness for the more anti-American leftist leaders in the region and support for Mexico’s Felipe Calderón in his war against drug cartels.

Obama, in turn, projected a more empathetic stance towards the region, admitting that the U.S. “has been so obsessed with Iraq that we haven’t spent time focused on the situation in Latin America.” He also seemed to defend his position on a potential meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who the McCain camp featured in an attack ad on Spanish-language TV this week:

I think it’s important for us to not overreact to Chavez. I think what we have to do is just let Chavez know that we don’t want him exporting anti-American sentiment and causing trouble in the region, but that we are interested in having a respectful dialogue with everybody in Latin America in terms of figuring out how we can improve the day to day lives of people.

Most people in Latin America would agree that the U.S. has not paid attention to the region so far this century. A lot of them, however, would probably view that as a good thing. Most Latin Americans consider the much-disliked free-market economic policies of the ’90s known as the Washington Consensus to have been forced on the region by the U.S. and the multilateral organizations on which it generally exerts commanding control, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In the years since 9/11, Latin American leaders have been mostly left alone to take care of their own business. That has resulted in part in the emergence of fiercely independent, anti-American leaders like Chávez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. But it also left room for regional cooperation and the consolidation of more moderate leadership like that of Brazil’s Lula da Silva.

In an example of this new cooperation, a newborn alliance called UNASUR, or Union of South American Nations, is holding a meeting today in New York to discuss the current crisis in Bolivia. South American leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly will be there.

The U.N. General Assembly, which began yesterday, has provided moments not many Latin Americans ever expected to witness.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday morning.

Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the U.N. Tuesday.

The Brazilian and Argentinean presidents used part of their speeches yesterday morning to tsk-tsk the U.S., wagging their fingers at its handling of the economy and the current financial crisis.

“We were told during the times when the Washington Consensus was in effect that the market solves everything, that the state wasn’t necessary, that (state) interventionism was mere nostalgia from groups which hadn’t comprehended how the economy works,” said left-leaning Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. “However, the most formidable state intervention that there’s memory of comes precisely from the place that had told us that the state wasn’t necessary, in the context, moreover, of a fiscal and commercial deficit.”

After its economic collapse of 2001, Argentina has been riding a growth bonanza for the last several years. As a sign of this dramatic improvement, Fernández de Kirchner announced Monday in New York that her government is studying paying off the last remaining debt from the 2001 default. But at the U.N. she said she was not reveling in the current situation in the now-worried Northern neighbor. She said the U.S. has the advantage of avoiding visits from risk assessment agencies or the IMF to tell it what to do now – the type of intervention Latin American governments facing financial crisis have become accustomed to.

But she criticized the U.S. “casino economy,” and pointedly observed that, “capitalism was imagined as a way to make money, but based on the production of goods, services and knowledge. Money alone does not produce more money.”

Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was more cautious in his approach to the crisis, calling for the U.N. to discuss a multilateral solution. “The global nature of this crisis means that the solutions we adopt must also be global and decided upon within legitimate, trusted multilateral fora, with no impositions,” he said in his speech.

After his U.N. appearance, da Silva told reporters outside his hotel he was “sorry” that President George W. Bush had not addressed the financial crisis in his own speech, the Brazilian press reported. “He chose to talk about terrorism again,” he said, adding the economic turmoil is the most pressing issue at this time.

[Brazil is also experiencing boom times, as da Silva reminded his audience at an Americas Society event Monday. “In the last two years, more than 20 million people moved out of poverty and became true Brazilian citizens,” he told them. He also said he was following the U.S. crisis very attentively and building measures to avoid its spread to his own country.]

In the evening, embattled Bolivian President Evo Morales presented a strong anti-American position, saying the time for imperialism and capitalism has ended. He blamed neo-liberal economic policies for the current financial crisis and said “the impositions from the IMF and the World Bank had not brought solutions to the majority of Bolivians.”

“If we don’t understand that capitalism destroys humanity,” he said, “I’m sure we won’t solve the problems of life, of the planet, of humanity.”

After accusing the Bolivian opposition of being “pro-Imperialist” and of trying to weaken his government, he sent a message to the Bush Administration: “Blacklists are over. We are in a time without empires, a time without domination and without the imposition of economic models that can badly hurt a country.”

The first day at the U.N. General Assembly made it clear that Latin America’s leaders are hardly aligned behind the U.S. The next American president has his work cut out for him if he wants to improve relations with the region. Perhaps Friday’s presidential debate on foreign policy will shed some light on how Obama and McCain intend to do that.

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