Analysis - Socio-Cultural Interactions

Pragmatism Over Ideology

A new phase between the Americas

: David Mier Galera

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pragmatism Over Ideology

From its birth, the United States of America’s willpower has been to influence the rest of the American countries’ politics. During the 19th century, the US helped all the countries that were under the dominance of both metropolis (the Spanish and the Portuguese) to get their independence. Related with this, it is the establishment of the “Monroe Doctrine” in 1823, which consisted on the absolute intolerance of any foreign intervention in America [1]. This Doctrine is commonly known as “America for the Americans”. Finally, in 1898, with the Cuban War of Independence (Spanish-American War) the US achieved its goal: all the foreign invaders were expelled from the country.

However, at the beginning of the Cold War (1945), the US adopted a totally different attitude towards the continent, helping several coups d’état in order to guarantee the power of governments whose agenda fit within US interests: Chile (1945), Argentina (1976), Panamá (1968 and 1986), Bolivia (1971), El Salvador (1979), Brazil (1964). As a consequence of US support of military dictatorships, the left-wing Latin Americans were resentful; a feeling that continues to date. In fact, in the 2000s decade, some left-wing leaders, who were critical of Washington guidelines, rose to power [2]. These leaders were Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1998), Lula da Silva in Brazil (2002), Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006), and Ollanta Humala in Perú (2011). All of who were against what they call “imperialist politics from Washington”, whereby they designed politics that are contrary to their northern neighbor.

Consequently, during the past few decades, the Americas have been divided in two blocs based on ideological reasons: one for the US and another against it. This split has had huge negative effects for the common interests that both blocs have, such as those related with their goals (reduction of inequality, finding a solution for the drug trafficking problem), their interests (energy security), cooperation or progress. Nevertheless, this standoff seems to have reached its end. The Summit of the Americas (in Panamá) of 2015 seems to have been an inflection point in the intra-American relations (North-South), whereby President Barack Obama said that this was a start of a new phase based not on  ideology but pragmatism.

For the first time, the Summit of the Americas in Panamá has had a universal nature, due to the fact that Cuba was included in the meetings. In this context, with the efforts to consolidate the peace in Colombia and a rapprochement between Cuba and the US, it seems the region is beginning a period characterized by multilateralism [3].

Causes of change

It is worth noting this relaxation in diplomatic relations is not a chance occurrence and is also not the consequence of a unique cause. This relaxation is a result of economic, social and political determinants.

Last year, Latin America’s, and especially South America’s macroeconomic results were not favorable, they were experiencing a growing economic stagnation. Moreover, the World Bank reported that [4] during 2015, this economic stagnation will continue. The origins of this downtrend are the drop in raw materials and hydrocarbon prices, the slowing down of other commercial partners, the increase of national tensions, growing inflation and the lack of inversion. States that are especially affected by this downtrend are Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. In 2014, growth in South America slacked markedly to 0.8% of the GDP; in contrast, the GDP growth rate of Central America and the Caribbean was around 2.4% of the GDP, as a result of strengthening activity with the United States. This difference shows the importance of the US role in invigorating the American economies.

A second feature of this stagnation is the increasing influence that Beijing has on the region. During the last decade, China has tried to become a strategic partner of the sub-continent [5], importing raw materials and exporting consumption goods, creating a balance of trade in 2010 of 183 million dollars. Although China has complemented its commercial policy to encourage development – through the use of different tools such as donations, low interest credit or even 0% interest credit - its commercial importance unavoidably creates a dependence relationship. As a result, if the national demand drops, it influences the potential growth of Latin American countries, as is occurring nowadays. Investing in productivity, human capital or infrastructure could reduce this vulnerability.

Apart from the abovementioned economic causes, political factors are also recognized as having encouraged approaching positions and speeches.  One of the most important political factors is the generational replacement of leaders in the past few years. To begin with, in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement (who was an icon of the revolution), let his reformer brother Raúl take power; in Venezuela, Chávez’s death and his substitution by Nicolás Maduro has worsened the national crisis and reduced the country’s regional influence (ALBA); thirdly, Obama’s administration has been a radical ideological change comparing to his predecessor Bush; in Brazil, Lula da Silva has been substituted by Dilma Rouseff, who is unable to keep up to par with Lula’s leadership; and finally, in Argentina, Kirchner’s phase seems to be reaching its end. V.M. Hudson established the importance of the agent, of the individuals (leaders) when defining the foreign policy of the country [6]. Although each of these leaders has their own personality, the arrival of new leaders to Latin America seems to have a clear effect: neither of them is as charismatic as his/her predecessor and also most of them are considered as less ideologically extremist and more pragmatic (as evident in Obama and Raúl Castro).

Thirdly, another cause of change towards pragmatism is how agendas coincided with the new common interests between the Americas. Compared to G. W. Bush, Barack Obama is seeking cooperation in order to strengthen multilateralism in a world that is characterized by its multi-polarity.  Obama was able to detect the agenda issues that are shared amongst states within the continent. The first agenda item is the fight against inequality and stimulating economic growth, due to the fact that Latin America is one of the regions with most inequalities, its economies are not diversified and are still dependent on developed economies. The second agenda item is the promotion of renewable energy and energy security, which will be supported by the Green Climate Fund, that will invest 3 million dollars to fight against climate change [7].

A Win-Win situation?

As previously mentioned, the Panama Summit has shown a change in the American countries’ attitudes. It seems that the main purpose of this change is to build what is called a “win-win agreement” [8], which consists of a beneficial relationship between all parties, where there will be more positive effects than negative impacts. In order to achieve these mutual benefits, it will be necessary to design a complex system of balanced and cooperative dynamics.  There is a huge interdependence between American countries on a number of issues such as drug trafficking [9], social inequality, climate change, and economic development, whose positive resolution will require cooperation, dialogue and pragmatism.

Regarding drug trafficking, the US is the biggest drug consumer in the world, while in Latin America there are some of the most important global producers (México and Colombia). Nowadays, drug mafias have become “transnational organizations” that develop their criminal activity across national borders. To defeat them, countries involved must work together by coordinating their strategies. However, at present, cooperation has been halted in too many cases due to political rivalry.

Drug Trafficking and the high levels of violence that exist in the region have found their immediate cause in social inequality and lack of economic development. Usually, a critical lack of opportunities to attain a better life is disparaged in a violent society, with high levels of criminality [10].  In the past few years, the number of regional economic organizations created to address the drug trafficking crisis has grown in America [11]. These include, USAN, CELAC, ALBA, FTAA, CAN, NAFTA, as well as other important tools such as bilateral trade agreements, all of which have shown the importance of creating new jobs, encouraging economic development and trade exchanges. The current problem is, however, that these institutions have difficulties to achieve their objectives, especially since the beginning of the global financial crisis. In addition, the biggest economic growth of Mexico and Caribbean countries show how important US currency is as an economic motor in the region.

Consolidating economic growth and the fight against regional inequalities requires not only South-South cooperation, but also North-South cooperation [12]. Projects as ALBA or FTAA have prioritized the construction of economic blocks based on political or ideological issues, ignoring the common interest of the region. As a result, these organizations have become limited models and inefficient. Undoubtedly, the US and Latin American states are economic interdependent actors with the capacity to build a mutually beneficial agreement. Moreover, economic growth and well-oriented economic aid to development could reduce social inequality, which is one of the biggest problems in the region, as previously mentioned.

Despite of the fact that cooperation between the US and Latin American states might produce a great number of benefits for all parties, it could also generate challenges and disadvantages. The result of this cooperation could be both the construction of a “win-win relation” or “win-lose relation”. Whereas the US has enough power and influence to satisfy its interests, Latin American countries have an extremely limited capacity to negotiate.  It seems that the lack of equality in the capacity to force agreements will result in a win-lose agreement in favor of the North. A good example of this is the consequence that NAFTA has produced to farmers in Mexico [13]. With the liberalization of commerce, agricultural surface has been reduced dramatically in Mexico, increasing poverty between farmers and strengthening drug cartels in the rural world.

States have common interests, but also opposite interests. That is why in order to achieve a win-win agreement it is necessary that all the actors renounce to obtain all their demands. Currently we are in the initial stage of a new relationship, instead of speaking about which disadvantages the national interests will have to face, it is important to talk about the challenges of this future relation. The first stage is characterized by dialogue on cooperation, multilateralism, progress, equality and fraternity between peoples [14]. It is not worth making any specific compromise. Compromises and specific methods to build these new relations will arrive later in future meetings. Independent of which methods these parties will choose - trade agreements, treaties, regional organizations, forums or revitalizing OEA - all parties will have to consider the necessity of guaranteeing mutual benefits and keeping the voices of all interested parties: states, companies and civil societies.

The future of new relations

Despite the fact that the Panama Summit seems to indicate a change in the intra-American’s relations, it is too early to speak on the upcoming period. Many of the Latin American governments do not have much confidence in what Washington offers, while the US still has to deal with conflict and tense relations with some Latin American states, especially Venezuela.  For instance, on March 9, Barack Obama emitted an executive order declaring Venezuela as a Threat for US National Security [15].

On the other hand, Raul Castro in his intervention offered friendship between Cuban and American people. However, he remarked the importance of ideology and his intention to keep defending the socialist model. The US and Cuba reconciliation symbolizes, better than any other indication, the beginning of a new period. The start of new cooperative and pragmatic intra-American dynamics will involve different challenges. Every state has a lot of actors, groups or lobbies with their own political and economic interest [16] that are against any reconciliation policy. National Governments will have to fight against these political actors and aim to avoid their particular interests destroying the new pragmatic era.

To conclude, there will be lot of challenges in this time of new pragmatic and cooperative relations, especially at an internal state level, but the 2015 Panama Summit has shown itself as an important tool to build bridges on the road to a more fraternal, peaceful and better America.


[1] President James Monroe “Transcript of Monroe Doctrine”, 100 Milestones Documents, December 2, 1823, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=23&page=transcript (accessed April 15, 2015)

[2] Janette Gresh, “El poder de la izquierda latinoamericana a prueba”, Atlas de le Monde diplomatique: nuevas potencias emergentes (September 2012), pp 186-189.

[3] Natalia Saltalamacchia, “The Panama Summit and the Withering Inter-American Ideal,” Council of foreign relations, March 19, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p36298 (accessed April 16, 2015)

[4] World Bank, “Chapter 2: Regional Outlooks: Latin American & the Caribbean”, Global Economic Prospects: Having Fiscal space and using it (January 2015) pp 69-74.

[5] Jiang Shixue, “Una nueva época de la cooperación Sur-Sir las relaciones de China con África y América Latina”, Dossier la Vanguardia: China poder y fragilidad, no. 40, (July/September 2011), pp 90-97. 

[6] Valerie M. Hudson “Foreign Policy Analysis: Actor-Specific Theory and the Ground of International Relations”, Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol 1, Issue 1, ( March 2005), pp 1-30. 

[7] Barack Obama, “Comentarios del Presidente Barack Obama en la conferencia de Prensa después de la Cumbre de las Ámericas”, VII Cumbre de las Américas, April 11, 2015, http://cumbredelasamericas.pa/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/COMENTARIOS-DEL-PRESIDENTE-BARACK-OBAMA.pdf (accessed April 17, 2015) 

[8] Olivier Ramsbotham et al, Resolución de conflictos: La prevención, gestión y transformación de conflictos letales, “Chapter 1: Introducción a la resolución de conflictos: conceptos y definiciones”, (ICIP, 2011) pp. 59-61

[9] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, “América Latina: Una década muy particular”, Dossier la Vanguardia: 11S. El mundo 10 años después, nº 41 (October/December 2011) pp 84-87

[10]  Bernardo Kliksberg, “Artículo Invitado. El crecimiento de la criminalidad en América Latina: un tema urgente” Multiciencias. Vol nº2, Nº2 (October 2002) pp. 85-91

[11] Miles Kalher and Andrew MacIntyre, Asian comparative context, “Chapter 5: Regional Economic Institution in Latin American, Politics, Profits and Peace” (Stanford University Press, 2013) pp 107-141

[12] Piera Tortora, “Common Ground between South-South and North-South co-operation principles”, OECD: Development Co-operation Directorate, Issue brief, October, 2011, http://www.oecd.org/dac/stats/49245423.pdf (accessed April 18, 2015)

[13] Jackie Sieppert and William S. Rowe, “In the Wake of NAFTA: Economic and Social Outcomes of Free Trade”, Revista Perspectivas Sociales, Vol nº9, Nº2 (October 2007) pp 14-17. 

[14] Danielle Renwick “Interview to Shannon K O’Neil: Hitting the Restart on U.S.-Latin America Ties” Council of foreign relation, April 8, 2015, http://www.cfr.org/global-governance/hitting-restart-us-latin-america-ties/p36412 (accessed April 18, 2015)

[15] The White House, “FACT SHEET: Venezuela Executive Order”, The White House: Office of the press Secretary, March 9, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/09/fact-sheet-venezuela-executive-order (accessed April 19, 2015) 

[16] Graham Allison, Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (EEUU: Harper Collins Publishers, 1971) pp. 143-196



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