President-elect Donald Trump’s intentions to renegotiate trade deals with Mexico and other countries, to build a border fence across the southern border and to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants, have made it conventional wisdom that his administration will have an antagonistic and rocky relationship with Latin America. But, in fact, an exceptional opportunity now exists for the Trump administration to redefine positively the the United States’ relationship with its southern neighbors.
For almost 60 years, the United States has tried unsuccessfully to redefine its politico-economic relationship with Latin America, most famously with John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress in 1961 and with Ronald Reagan’s 1982 address before the Organization of American States to announce his Caribbean Basin Initiative. Empirically, these policies turned out to be not much more than short-lived public-relations successes. The Alliance for Progress, in particular, was a failed U.S. response to the Cuban Revolution.
Since the early 1960s, the disciples of “dependency theory” who blamed United States “imperialism” for all the continent’s ills, have worked intellectually against U.S. policy efforts in Latin America. The book Dependency and Development in Latin America, written in 1965 by sociologists Fernando Enrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto, became the left’s theoretical textbook for economic development. It was required reading in Latin American universities as well as for Latin American programs in American universities. A wiser Cardoso later served as president of Brazil (1995-2002) and acknowledged that he knew little about economics when he wrote the book.
But most important, it was the Cuban Revolution and the Robin Hood image of Fidel Castro and his willingness to confront the United States that gave practical context to Latin America’s anti-Yankee posture inspired by Cardoso and Faletto’s dependency theory.
Since 1959, Fidel Castro not only had been an inspiration to the Latin American left, but its de facto continental leader. With Castro’s death, the Latin American left has lost its champion. And, with the abysmal failure of his economic model, it has also lost its strategic direction.
There is viturally no one in Latin America today with the charisma and revolutionary credentials to replace Fidel Castro in the mentorship role he played on the continent. Also, the universal failure of centrally planned economic models leaves the region without a viable politico-economic paradigm, leaving the left an orphan in this regard.
This confluence of events presents the United States with the best opportunity in six decades to redefine its relationship with the hemisphere on values of democratic governance, limited government and free markets.
Historically, U.S. policy toward Latin America has shifted from neglect to intervention, from inattention to paternalistic involvement. The incoming Trump administration, with its business acumen, intuitively understands that a Latin America that is entrepreneurial, prosperous and free-market oriented is in the national interest of the United States on multiple fronts: It limits the influence of hostile foreign powers, such as Iran or Russia, in the region; it begins to address the economic root causes of the migration problem; it enhances markets and opportunities for American companies; and it promotes democratic governance.
President-elect Trump recognizes that U.S. and Latin American national interests will not necessarily always coincide. And that no nation, be it the United States or any in Latin America, should be faulted for pursuing its national interests. The principal security challenges to the United States from the hemisphere are not military or economic; they are challenges embedded in a failed hostile ideology of collectivism that can now be uprooted.
This understanding opens the door for the design of imaginative policies that acknowledge that a productive relationship is not always a happy relationship. With Fidel Castro gone, and his economic ideology discredited, the Trump administration now has an opportunity to bring Latin America out of the collectivist camp. To do so, it needs to implement policies that allow Latin Americans to perceive that it is in their best interest to choose the side of innovation, entrepreneurship and free markets; which is, demonstrably, the side of prosperity and freedom.
José Azel is a senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of the book “Mañana in Cuba.”