Fri, Mar 25, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Obama goes south

The US president is visiting a Latin America that is far different from what his predecessors saw

By Jorge G. Castaneda

Illustration: Mountain People

US President Barack Obama’s current swing through Latin America will probably be short on substance, long on rhetorical flourishes and symbolism, and might include a few announcements affecting US business in the region. More importantly, he will see real success stories, and how Latin America as a whole has changed.

The main change is that Latin America is splitting in two. Indeed, this might be the last trip that a US president ever makes to “Latin America.” Later visits will be either to South America, or to Mexico and the Caribbean Basin.

Chile’s success is old, if still inspiring, news. More than two decades of democratic rule and economic growth practically ensure that, simply by staying the course, the country will achieve lower-tier developed status by 2020.

And there is every reason to believe that it will stay the course, even if Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who will preside over Chile’s best economic performance in 15 years, is succeeded by former president and rival Michele Bachelet in 2014. Even the country’s proverbial inequality is beginning to shrink, albeit slowly, and lower-middle-class living standards are finally rising to where they should have been a decade ago.

Brazil’s success is also well known. Millions of families have been lifted out of poverty. Inequality has diminished, though from astronomically high levels. The economy is growing at a sustainable pace. As long as China and India maintain their insatiable appetite for commodities, Brazil’s exports will finance today’s consumer boom.

In the international arena, new Brazilian President Dilma Roussef has pulled back from former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva’s many excesses (indifference to human rights abuses, support for Iran and its nuclear program, and rhetorical anti-Americanism) during his last year in office, and may even have a present for Obama. Brazil has been mulling whom to pick to renew its air force’s fighter fleet, and, whereas Lula favored France, Roussef canceled that option and may be leaning toward the US.

El Salvador is Latin America’s most interesting success story. It is far from a picture of health and stability, with high levels of violence and crime, mass emigration, a slow-growth economy and perpetual tensions within its center-left coalition government. However, next year the country will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, which ended its decade-long civil war. Ever since, a country that had never truly experienced democratic rule has enjoyed all the charms and vicissitudes of competitive elections, legislative battles and rotation in power.

After a succession of conservative governments, in 2009 Salvadorans elected a president running on the ticket of the FMLN, the old guerrilla group that fought the Salvadoran army and its US ally to a draw in the late 1980s. The right accepted its defeat and the left has governed reasonably (maintaining the US dollar as the national currency). The right has started to regroup, and Obama will surely point to this virtuous cycle as one in which the US has played a positive role, and can continue to do so.

This would be even more true if the US were to move toward immigration reform. El Salvador, together with Ecuador, leads the world in terms of the proportion of its population living abroad. It also has an economy that is not growing sufficiently to stem the ongoing tide passing through Mexico to the US.

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