Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow offered a short course on U.S.-Latin America relations nine days ago at a breakfast meeting of Ty Cobb’s National Security Forum (NSF) group in Reno. Davidow was our envoy to Mexico, Venezuela and Zambia, and also served as Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America during his distinguished diplomatic career.
“Latin America isn’t a threat to U.S. national security,” Davidow said, “so Washington policymakers tend to look elsewhere in the world on the theory that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Obviously, he was referring to the volatile Middle East.
Latin America has made impressive economic and political progress in recent years, the ambassador continued, and is an important trading partner for American companies. He cautioned against lumping Latin American countries together, explaining there are major differences among and between those nations. “El Salvador isn’t Brazil, and Chile isn’t Mexico,” he said. “It isn’t your grandfather’s Latin America.”
One notable achievement in recent years is with the exception of Cuba all of our Western Hemisphere neighbors now have elected governments, which breaks the old pattern of military coups and counter-coups that plagued our grandfathers’ Latin America. But most of these new democracies are imperfect, Davidow noted, and some of them — i.e. Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela — are governed by leftist populists who punish political opponents and blame the U.S. for all of their problems.
Although most countries to our south have adopted free market economies featuring independent central banks, floating exchange rates and an end to government subsidies, Davidow said, economic populism is sapping the strength of several countries including Venezuela, where falling oil prices have created a severe economic crisis. And while poverty has declined in recent years, too many countries still suffer from government waste, corruption and mismanagement of resources.
Davidow opined each new generation of Latin Americans is doing better economically than the preceding generation, a positive trend I observed during a visit to my late wife’s family in Mexico City last month. “There are growing middle classes and increasingly open societies,” Davidow said, and newer generations are demanding honest governments and an end to official corruption. “Corruption is still rampant,” he added, “but it’s a lot better than it was.”
Calling our hemisphere “a zone of peace,” Amb. Davidow stressed Latin America isn’t a threat to U.S. national security. “It is without significant racial, ethnic or religious conflicts and therefore offers attractive opportunities for U.S. trade and investment.” He noted 25 percent of U.S. exports go to Latin America and said we export three times more products to those countries than we export to China. But the U.S. is no longer the leading foreign investor in Latin America; China has taken over the top spot, which should concern American businessmen and policymakers.
Amb. Davidow urged Congress to approve free trade deals with Latin American countries similar to those we have in Asia. Such deals are pending with Chile, Mexico and Peru and negotiations are ongoing with Colombia and Panama.
Finally, the ambassador endorsed President Obama’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba, arguing the 50-year-old trade embargo has outlived its usefulness and normalization is going to spur bilateral trade and tourism. During a recent meeting in Panama, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed to discuss all issues, including human rights, a hopeful sign.
Amb. Davidow continues to promote better U.S.-Latin America relations as a senior counselor for The Cohen Group, a Washington, D.C.-based international business consultancy.
CLARIFICATION: Contrary to a recent assertion by an Appeal letter writer, I’ve never advocated returning all federal lands in Nevada to the state. Instead, I’ve opposed the so-called Cliven Bundy Bill, which would do exactly that, and favor a more moderate, negotiated approach that would return certain carefully selected federal land parcels to the state.
Guy W. Farmer is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who served with Amb. Davidow in Venezuela.