Barack Obama took a deserved victory lap in Latin America last week.
Critics of the president’s opening to Cuba accuse Obama of appeasing the Castro regime, but they missed the historic significance of the trip.
When Obama went on Cuban TV and radio to say that he’d made the visit to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he might as well have been burying the nation’s virulently anti-American regime, not just Washington’s outdated policies.
Obama’s visit did more to spotlight the truly heinous nature of the Castro regime than a half-century of non-engagement ever did. It was moving to watch the American president, at the head of a willing and eager trade delegation, tell Cuba’s trapped youth he hopes they become more connected to the outside world. It was moving to watch how the American president deftly shamed the grumpy elderly Cuban dictator Raúl Castro into addressing reporters’ questions about human rights at what Cuban officials had planned to be a stilted and scripted press conference.
Obama’s words and his very presence in Havana spoke loud and clear to the Cuban people: America is not your enemy, or your problem. But you-know-who is.
For decades, the Castros, along with the right-wing exiles who’ve long insisted on a U.S. embargo, made Washington out to be the perfect scapegoat for the regime’s brutality and poor governance. Obama has said “no más” to that tired script. If Congress follows the president’s lead and lifts the embargo (a failed and foolish departure from America’s belief in the subversive power of engaging other dictatorships around the world), the Communist regime will be deprived of its entire self-justifying narrative.
Obama’s trip to Havana, the historical capital of Latin America’s anti-Americanism, came at a poignant time when that revolutionary leftist worldview is in full retreat across the hemisphere. Venezuela is fast becoming a failed petrostate, where people are turning towards the anti-Chavista opposition and away from dreams of an anti-U.S. Bolivarian South American order. In Bolivia and Ecuador, too, the left is losing its grip on power. And Brazil’s Labor Party is engulfed in an existential political crisis.
Obama’s second stop on his Latin victory lap last week, Buenos Aires, was a full-on celebration of the fact that Argentina voted its leftist Peronists out of office. At his press conference with the new conservative Argentine President Mauricio Macri (a man quite comfortable with taking questions from reporters), Obama could not have been more effusive about the shift in that nation’s orientation. He said Argentina’s historic transition was seeing the country “reassume its historic leadership role in the region,” implicitly bashing the previous Peronist governments that aligned themselves with Cuba and Venezuela and against Washington and free markets. Obama also addressed a Cold War remnant by acknowledging some U.S. complicity in the human rights abuses committed by that nation’s 1970s military dictatorship, and pledging to declassify more U.S. government documents from that era.
What’s most satisfying about this weakening of the destructive Cold War left in Latin America is that it is accompanied, if not enabled, by a widespread rejection of the idea that the United States is the enemy. The levels of distrust and hostility towards the “empire” to the north are at historical lows across the region.
The decline of anti-Americanism is notable in the most important Latin American partner to the United States, the nation across our southern border. Anti-Americanism used to be a staple of Mexican political discourse. But at a recent conference in Mexico City, Gerardo Maldonado of the think tank CIDE cited polls from 2014 in which 49 percent of Mexicans say they “admire” the U.S.; 32 percent are “indifferent”; and only 14 percent view us poorly. The Pew Global Attitudes Survey in 2015, for its part, found that 66 percent of Mexicans had a favorable view of the U.S., compared to 65 percent of respondents in the U.K.
Andrew Paxman, a historian at CIDE, explained that what he calls traditional “gringofobia” in Mexico—a form of xenophobia that demonizes Americans, especially its political and business leaders, as culturally inferior imperialists who can be blamed for most of Mexico’s woes—dates to the 19th century, but has been surprisingly absent from Mexican politics of late. Paxman credits greater cross-border engagement as the demystifying balm. The explosion in bilateral trade post-NAFTA and the constant movement of millions of Mexican workers back and forth across the border, spreading word of what the U.S. is really like, have helped strengthen feelings of trust, understanding, and friendship.
There is a specter clouding this triumphant moment in U.S.-Latin relations, of course, and that is Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. Trump’s xenophobic and bombastic rhetoric is a dream come true for the beleaguered anti-American left in Latin America, whose leaders see in the candidate a fellow authoritarian populist with a recognizable style. Trump’s rambling rallies—with their mix of picaresque humor, vague promises of great things to come, and menacing bullying of media and opponents—are reminiscent of Hugo Chávez at his most entertaining.
For Mexicans, Trump’s hateful anti-Mexican rhetoric poses a real test of their newfound trust in the U.S. Paxman says he is starting to see an uptick in gringophobic language in Internet memes and opinion columns. A couple of weeks ago there was an editorial in Excélsior, a major Mexican daily, entitled “That’s How They See Us in the United States,” which falsely claimed that Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric was shared by most of the candidates.
And Paxman says that it’s already typical among cartoonists to draw Trump with a swastika: “If he’s elected, a common reaction here will be ‘Americans can’t be trusted—they elected a Nazi.’” And that could have a spillover effect in Mexican politics, according to Paxman, giving the leftist perennial presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador an opening in the 2018 elections to attack the current governing consensus for pro-American openness and pro-market reforms. His message, Paxman believes, could well become: “Why are we aligning ourselves with a country that hates us? Why are we letting those who hate us control our oil?”
That would be an appealing message for the desperate left throughout Latin America. Indeed, if Donald Trump wins the election next November, it will be a time for anti-American leaders in the region to take a victory lap, and to thank their lucky stars for their improbable reversal of fortune.