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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Latin Americanisms: Schoolyard Politics

One of the most disheartening things you can say about a country is that it stands alone. Such a concern might very well hearken back to experiences in our not yet fully politicized lives as children (that is, if my interaction with my own overly diplomatic nieces and nephews is any indicator).

In fact, the site of childhood politics, i.e. the playground, can shed some much-needed light on the realm of contemporary “adult” politics.

Much like on the playground, partnerships and coalitions are part and parcel of the international political system we inhabit, and for a very good reason: they lessen the chaotic forces — or at the very least lessen the brunt impact of such forces — inherent in the system itself.

Like a playground bully who might see fit to prey on the less powerful, and lay claim to lunch money tributes, certain states exercise their own brand of schoolyard justice by laying claim to their spheres of influence.

These are childhood renderings of political reality. And while it might seem a debasement of real world politics, you can’t deny that the U.S. is the poster child for bullies with self-esteem issues.

But even a playground hegemon needs allies. The U.S. for example has a longstanding tradition of partnerships with nations who are seen to either share and or contribute to the global perspective which shapes U.S. interests abroad.

The notion of Latin Americanism (an idea which feeds this column both in name and substance) and the advent of a 21st century Pan-Americanism both speak to this very concern. After a 20th century riddled with foreign interference and forceful intervention (e.g. the Guatemalan coup of 1954, the 1973 Chilean coup d’état and ensuing state-terror, the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, foreign-funded death squads in Central America — just to name a few) political leaders in the region called for a reimagining of Latin America. This collaborative exercise — one imbued with the spirit of Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti and Benito Juarez, among others — was spearheaded by a group of rising leftist leaders who had come of age in a Latin America which was by all means puppeteered by Yankee strings.

Pan-Americanism taken within the political context is a movement which seeks to promote relations and regional cooperation between the nations of America (the continent). It is a movement which does not hide its suspicions or historical disdain for the 50-state hegemon. In fact, one of the most striking observations to be made of the Pan-American project is that “Americanism” (once again, of the continental bent) becomes a Latin American articulation of the idea — one grounded in bloody historical reality — that the whole of the continent stands apart from the U.S.

This admittedly divisive approach to diplomacy finds its roots in another political project which has shaped the region for centuries past: the Monroe Doctrine. From its very intellectual inception and all too quick physical manifestation, the Monroe Doctrine was widely rejected, both by governments and the citizens of most Latin American countries, who understood all too well the interests that were behind its formulation.

The problem today lies in the threat of Pan-Americanism slipping once again into dormancy. The death of Hugo Chavez (much like his ascendency into power) marked a watershed moment in the region. His standing as the leading proponent of Bolivarianism — which takes Pan-Americanism to be its ultimate legacy — leaves a vacuum of leadership both in the region and in Venezuela (as evidenced by the recent turmoil facing the Maduro government). Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, while a capable leader, lacks the immediate charisma that graced Lula and which allowed him to be the moderate foil to the more boisterous voices of Chavez, Correa and Morales.

I can’t help but lament the utter irrelevance of my own nation in this continuing schoolyard tragedy. At the height of the Pan-American ethos, Mexico had the no-fun-allowed duo of Vicente Fox and  Felipe Calderon at the helm, two leaders who, rather than join the growing regional bloc, opted instead for BFF status with the U.S. (probably in the hopes of a less severe lunchtime beatdown). And now we find ourselves with Enrique Peña Nieto, a man who, rest assured, took his ball and went home as a child and might prove to do the same as president.

What the future holds for the region and Pan-Americanism as a movement is uncertain. But the present, one no longer tied to the whims of the neighbor up north, is promising.

Borrowing a most cherished U.S. idiom, one thing would seem to hold true: united we stand, divided we fall.

If you feel JORGE JUAREZ is a de facto bully for using his bully pulpit to bully bullies, send your lunch money to jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu.

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