The Carthage Syndrome (IV): Ignoring Latin America


César Vidal


       In the preceding articles I have pointed out how the Carthage Syndrome, which manifested itself in the foreign policy of the United States, had its origin in the unexpected end to the Cold War.  Starting with today’s installment, I will attempt to explain how this syndrome has led to disastrous consequences in important places such as Latin America, the Middle East, Russia and China.


     We will begin with Latin America, not only because it is a region of vital importance to the United States, but also because it illustrates the point to which the Carthage Syndrome was involved in the decisions taken - or not taken - , which have had huge ramifications for the country.


      The collapse of the Soviet Union and the conviction that the Cold War had been won caused Latin America to be instantly forgotten.  Starting in the 1950’s the United States had paid attention to Latin America and had even made it, against its will, into a bloody stage for the Cold War.  But once the Cold War was over, it was regarded as lacking any importance.  Victory against the Soviet Union had been so decisive that naturally the same would be true south of the Rio Grande.


     A few factors seemed to indicate that this was an apt conclusion.  For example, throughout the 1990’s, Latin American countries began accepting the so called “Washington Consensus”, and NAFTA was approved, which limited free trade to a framework that particularly benefited the United States.  In addition, the only apparent hostile nation to the mighty U.S. was Cuba, but after the fall of the Soviet Union its dictatorship was no longer a threat. Indeed, since the 1970’s there had already been voices raised in Moscow in favor of leaving the island to its fate.  It had, after all, cost the Soviet Union nine times as much as the Marshall Plan cost the United States, and now the new lords of the Kremlin had rushed to close Soviet military establishments in Cuba and distance themselves from its tiresome and insatiable dictator. Cuba was an irritant because of what it still represented, but it didn’t seem to be anything more than that.  Thus, starting with the Clinton presidency - the first of the post-Cold War era - Latin America ceased to be relevant in the eyes of the various U.S. administrations.


     It is quite telling that Clinton did not make a single visit to Latin America during his first term in office. In 1994, in a gesture that was more propaganda than substance,the Summit of the Americas took place in Miami, Florida.  Clinton spoke about free trade, even stating that it would reach “from Alaska to Argentina”.  In 1997 he submitted a proposal to Congress for the renewal of fast track authority in negotiating international trade agreements, but the proposal didn’t go anywhere, perhaps because 54% of Americans did not want to see NAFTA expanded to other Latin American countries.  Viewed from any perspective, Clinton’s actions as president  - noteworthy, certainly, in other areas - were not very remarkable when it came to Latin America.


     The situation did not improve under President George W. Bush.  During his 2000 election campaign, Bush talked about policies towards Latin America, going as far as to say he would look at the south as a “fundamental commitment”.  This was an encouraging statement because it seemed to indicate that for the first time since the Cold War, a president would place Latin American among its foreign policy priorities.  Unfortunately, the hopes that were generated did not materialize.  His first term in office was notable for its absence of any Latin American specialist, to a large extent because the administration had launched an ambitious program in Asia.  Not until the second term, with the appointment of Thomas Shannon as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, did the Bush administration give this area of the world a portion - and only a portion - of the attention it deserved.  One could argue that Bush was preoccupied with more important matters.  That may be, but to what extent the Carthage Syndrome, as applied to Latin America, was unquestionably harmful to the United states can be seen in a some very revealing facts.


     For example, in 2004 a survey of the elite in Latin America revealed that 87% had a negative opinion of of Bush’s foreign policy and only 12% thought that his foreign policy benefited the hemisphere.  At the same time, almost every single Latin American country joined one initiative after another to end the embargo against the Cuban dictatorship.  But without a doubt the worst was - and continues to be - the growth of governments clearly opposed to the United States.


     In 1999, barely a few years after the end of the Cold War, Hugo Chávez, the “Red Gorilla”,  came to power in Venezuela.  He did so not through a coup d’etat, which he had previously attempted, but through the ballot box, and with a great deal of support.  This would have consequences, because Chávez opposed the Washington Consensus, was an enemy of free trade and brandished a flag of anti-imperialism as well as of socialism, a socialism that was not exactly the democratic socialism of Scandinavia.  The worst, however, was that Chávez believed he had a mission in the entire continent and linked  himself to the emancipator Simón Bolívar. He believed it was imperative that he accomplish this mission and he was willing to use the resources of Venezuela for this end.  Bush drew on the the good offices of the Spanish President José María Aznar to try to get him back on the right path but  this was of no use whatsoever.  Soon the problem was not limited to Venezuela.  In the following years, with the approval of Chávez -  and of course of the Cuban dictatorship, which had found a new defendor  - other Latin American countries began to be governed by politicians who had little or no liking for the United States and furthermore, who had come to power by way of the ballot box, which of course granted them a great deal of legitimacy.


     It is staggering to look back at the early years of the 21st century.  In 2003 Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva came to power in Brazil and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina.  In 2005 Tabaré did the same in Uruguay.  In 2006 Evo Morales of Bolivia and Michelle Bachelet in Chile won the elections.  In 2007 it was Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina.  And in 2008 Fernando Lugo came to power in Paraguay.



     In every single case, adding whatever nuances one desires, there was the same set of circumstances.  First, a political message of aggressive opposition to the Washington Consensus was preached, uniting a leftist viewpoint with nationalism and a call to anti-imperialism.  Second, there was a refusal by politicians to tackle reforms that would address corruption, inefficiency and the disrepute of various national institutions.  This blindness on the part of the political class that thought they had the future secured, was really a red carpet  for the likes of Chávez, Morales and Correa.  On top of all this - which were in reality problems of Latin America itself - was the unfortunate blindness of some U.S. administrations.  Intoxicated with the Carthage Syndrome, they were completely unwilling to take action in Latin America.  In truth, Bush was upset with the fact that the countries south of the Rio Grande did not support his plans to invade Iraq, but not bothered enough to find the reasons for it and try to solve it.  He did announce in September of 2002 that he would only end the embargo against Cuba if it guaranteed free elections, advances in human rights and the facilitation of private enterprise.  But in general terms, nothing changed.  Indeed, although Castro allowed the base at Guantanamo to be converted into a prison after the attacks of 9-11, this was not due to pressure from the White House but to an astute effort to disassociate himself from terrorism in the eyes of international public opinion.


      In January of 2009 the new president of the United States, Barack Obama took office, but he didn’t have any intention of placing Latin America among his priorities either.  This was in some sense understandable, because the country was immersed in two wars that had been impossible to win up to that point and which were enormously expensive. Some estimates put the cost of just the Iraqi war up to the year 2010 at enough to pay for healthcare for the entire county for fifty years.  This was all taking place in the midst of a dramatic economic crisis that had erupted towards the end of Bush’s presidency and which his administration had apparently not foreseen nor known how to fix.


     Even so, the fact that Latin America continued to be viewed as unimportant to the United States had consequences in the early years of Obama’s administration.  In 2010 José Mujica came to power in Uruguay.  In 2011 Dilma Rousseff upheld Lula’s policies and in 2013 Nicolás Maduro did the same in Venezuela.  The “Washington Consensus” had been thrown into the wastepaper basket in almost the whole continent, and leftist governments in some cases came only inches away from being dictatorships, passing laws that restricted freedoms more and more while bragging of a few successes.


     In order to have an impartial and realistic view of these events, it is necessary to take a deeper look, if only briefly. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), poverty affected 48.4% of the Latin American population in 1990.  By 2014 that figure had decreased to 28%.  Infant mortality fell by two thirds between 1990 and 2015.  In some cases the progress seemed truly spectacular.  For example, in Brazil the followers of Lula could boast that in one decade 38 million people had moved from poverty into the middle class, which was already at 61 million people.  The annual per capita income had gone from $6,160 in 1990 to $9,324 in 2014.  The Gini index, used to measure inequality, fell between 2002 and 2013 from 0.542 to 0.486, that is, about 10%.  To top it all off, these types of figures were especially positive in countries which could more nearly be described as dictatorships than merely leftist governments.  That was the case, for example, in Bolivia.  In 2003 the international reserves were at 12.1% of the GNP while in 2015 they exceeded 48%.  In 2014 Evo Morales could boast that UNESCO had declared Bolivia free of illiteracy.  These were not some insignificant propaganda points.


     Naturally, these results need to be weighed against the loss of freedoms, ruthless persecution of the opposition, the dramatic increase in corruption, collaboration with drug trafficking and the decline in living standards that sooner or later comes crashing down on countries that take this economic, social and political path.  Nevertheless, the propaganda apparatus was full of significant arguments that must be understood in order to thoroughly analyze the Latin American situation.


     In addition to the above, Chávez, expressly and even scandalously working together with Castro, promoted and financed international mechanisms that would serve as a platform for a socio-political scheme described as 21st century socialism.  There are numerous examples of these.  Among the most important is ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America), made up of thirteen countries, with Syria, Iran and Haiti as observers.  ALBA not only is a means for articulating a whole socialist economic policy, but is also a focal point for intercontinental propaganda that contends that the United States is a villain and its international policy and economic views are bad and must be vigorously opposed.


     UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) is another organization similar to ALBA.  It was vital in, for example, keeping Evo Morales and Rafael Correa in power in 2008 and 2010 respectively.


     Also important was the creation of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States).  It was formed on February 23, 2010 during the Latin American and Caribbean Unity Summit at Playa del Carmen, Mexico and it wasted no time in airing its ideology.  It was officially constituted during the Summit of Caracas, Venezuela in December of 2011.  CELAC had its first summit in Chile in January, 2013 and its second in Havana, Cuba in January of 2014.


     To understand the significance of CELAC, it is important to realize that until then, Latin American countries as a whole had never put together an international organization that excluded the United States.  Yet CELAC did include Cuba, which was invited to participate as a full member.  Its dictatorship must have looked on with enormous satisfaction as all the members of the new organization condemned the U.S. embargo against the island.  Furthermore, CELAC and China held a conference in Beijing in January, 2015 in an open attempt to displace the U.S. from its position of socio-economic prominence in the region.


     SUCRE (the Unified System of Regional Compensation) is important as well.  Created in 2009, it is aimed at the very heart of the economic power of the United States, because it is attempting to supplant the dollar as the currency of international trade.  The dollar’s position has allowed the United States to maintain its high deficit for example, because there is a base of remittances of monies from other countries. However, this highly favorable situation would be seriously endangered if there were other currencies that took on this role in international trade.  In addition, this means that there is the possibility of setting up modes of international financing that would bypass the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of which are largely controlled by the United States.


     As a corollary, there is also a plan to build a southern oil pipeline that would connect the oil regions of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, which would make a way for energy independence as well as sale to the rest of the world - of oil and also of the Socialist gospel of the 21st century.


     All of these examples - and they are but some of the more prominent ones - take on great significance because they demonstrate that the United States has lost much of its influence in the region and has barely reacted to significant geostrategic changes, changes that present a clear ideological, economic and social challenge to it.  Whether this collection of phenomena is attributed to an agenda coming Havana or to the resurgence of various anti-American viewpoints - the latter is more likely in my opinion, without excluding Cuba’s role - really doesn’t matter very much.  The important point is that the Carthage Syndrome, which convinced the leaders of the United States that all was won with the end of the Cold War, has led to disastrous consequences.  For example, these leaders were unable to grasp the driving forces that led to Pope Francis becoming the main champion of the Cuban dictatorship - as Obama and Raúl Castro both recognized -, of Maduro’s government and of a socio-economic policy that sympathizes with leftist and populist dictators even though this policy is radically opposed to freedom.


     To tell the truth, despite some positive steps such as the Plan Colombia or President Obama’s executive order in March of 2015 declaring Venezuela a threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States - an order that prompted CELAC and UNASUR to lend enthusiastic support to Maduro - , the foreign policy of the United States towards Latin America, be it from Democratic or Republican administrations could hardly have been more deficient.  It never led to anything beyond fractious discussions over illegal immigration, the waves of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States and drug trafficking.  We will discuss some possible solutions to these problems, but first we will continue to look at the effects of the Carthage Syndrome in other areas of the world.