Hugo Chávez, the most outspoken anti-American leader in the Western Hemisphere in recent years, is forever gone. During his fourteen years in power in Venezuela, Chávez made anti-imperialism one of the cornerstones of his discourse—even as the United States continued to be one of the most important markets for Venezuelan oil. His anti-imperialism went beyond rhetoric. Chávez disrupted diplomatic relations with the United States, embarked on a crusade to unite Latin America through the creation of alternative organizations such as the left-wing Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), and attempted to undermine the influence of traditional inter-American institutions such as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Chávez also reached out to extra-hemispheric actors such as China, Russia, and even Iran. Now that Chávez has passed, U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed hope that relations between Venezuela and the United States, as well as relations between the U.S. and Latin America more generally, will improve. Yet the prospects for improved relations may be dimmer than U.S. policymakers appreciate.
One of the first issues to consider, though too often forgotten, is history. The United States and Latin America have long had a rocky relationship, and Chávez was not the first leader to express his disgust at the influence of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, while anti-Americanism has long been a staple of the left in Latin America, even conservative elites have historically resented and resisted imposition from Washington. Distrust of the United States remains extensive in several countries in the region—and not only in countries where the president is an outspoken critic of the United States. For example, 2012 survey data from the AmericasBarometer demonstrates that in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Uruguay, over forty percent of the population does not trust the U.S. government, though distrust is low in Central America and the Caribbean (see chart below).
Although the torch of anti-Americanism will not automatically be transferred from Chávez to one of the other ALBA presidents (Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua, or Raúl Castro in Cuba), these presidents are not likely to soften their anti-American discourse anytime soon. In fact, they will likely continue to exploit anti-American sentiments as part of what appears to be a highly effective domestic political strategy. Furthermore, if acting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is elected next month (as polls currently predict), his recent allegations that Chávez was infected with cancer by “imperialist” enemies certainly do not bode well for an improved relationship with the United States.
Beyond the existence, or persistence, of openly anti-American leaders, it is important to consider the growing independence of Latin America from the United States. Whether one considers the lack of support for the invasion of Iraq or more current issues such as Palestine, the drug war, and the incorporation of Cuba into the OAS, there is significant divergence in the positions of the United States and Latin America—regardless of the ideological orientation of the region’s leaders. While the future of ALBA is probably in question in the post-Chávez era, U.S. policymakers should attempt to better understand why Latin American leaders continue to pursue integration in organizations where the United States and Canada are expressly excluded, such as the recently created Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). While Chávez may have promoted these organizations, the fact that Latin America has not been a priority for U.S. foreign policy, particularly after 9/11, is no less important.
The relationship with Latin America cannot be based on the belief that once the openly anti-American leaders leave power everything will go back to “normal.” What was “normal” twenty years ago will probably never be true again. In order to improve relations with the countries to the south of the border, U.S. policy-makers need to try to find common ground and understand alternative points of view on different issues. While it is certainly easier to have a rapprochement with leaders who believe and practice free-market policies and liberal democracy, the United States cannot dismiss potential partnerships based merely on ideology. Latin America’s desire for regional integration seems to be, at least at this point in time, something far deeper than an ideological disposition. Thus, as the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States continues to expand, U.S. policymakers would do well to consider how they could better understand and identify with the rest of the Americas.