The U.S. government is seriously intent on multiplying international student exchanges. The name of the initiative — One Thousand Strong Educational Exchange — is not easily translated into Spanish, but the concept is understood without difficulty.
Washington wants to encourage 100,000 Americans to study in China and an equal number of Chinese (an easier task) to study in the United States. The project also includes Latin America. The Obama administration would like 100,000 Latin Americans to enroll in U.S. universities and vice versa.
It will be a lot easier to find 100,000 Latin American students — or a million, or 10 million — ready to travel north, especially if scholarships are available, than to mobilize an equal number of Americans southward.
Direct knowledge of other cultures and other languages contributes to eliminating prejudices and multiplying virtues. It cultivates and universalizes. Simultaneously, that type of vital experience serves to discard preconceived assumptions that do not withstand contact with reality.
I remember the case of several Cuban and Peruvian friends who abandoned communism after studying in the Soviet Union. Once they experienced real socialism they were horrified.
By living and studying in the United States, many foreigners will become familiar with research and entrepreneurship so that, after they return to their countries, they will be more innovative and productive. By learning how people live and work in the world’s most successful nation (despite its flaws), they will unintentionally propagate the beliefs, knowledge and activities that have made that leadership possible.
Why does Washington do this?
• In the first place, it is preferable to live surrounded by prosperous friends than by poor and resentful enemies. To the United States, it is safer and more pleasant that the world resemble Canada, not North Korea. Conflicts are reduced, transactions are multiplied, we all benefit and peace on Earth and glory in heaven.
• Second, there’s a certain philanthropic instinct, mixed with political interests, in the North American culture. It is very convenient to stimulate Latin America’s economic development. In the 1960s, for instance, the Alliance for Progress swallowed $30 billion uselessly. That willingness to help is not as intense as in the Scandinavian countries, but it does exist and is manifested in various ways.
• Third, because no one doubts that it is useful to improve the deficient education of Americans in subjects such as geography, history and the languages of the rest of mankind. It is a formula to aid the neighbor and benefit oneself.
Of course, this not a public relations exercise, at least not in Latin America. Washington doesn’t need that. Contrary to the widespread impression, Latin Americans’ perception of the United States is quite good.
On average, 77 percent of Latin Americans say they have a good opinion of the United States. Those who most frequently say they admire their powerful neighbors are the Dominicans, the Salvadorans, the Panamanians and the Hondurans. About 90 percent of them appreciate the United States markedly.
The ones who like the United States least are the Argentines, but even in that country 54 percent, the majority, also share a good opinion of Americans.
In my judgment, it will be easier to make Chinese, Latin Americans, Europeans and Africans come to soak up American culture and benefit from that contact than the reverse.
The paradox (and the curse) of the great nations is that, from contemplating their own navels, they end up being culturally provincial.
In any case, there is nothing wrong with trying to correct that deficiency.