Latin America: Land of Opportunity

America treats Latin America like it’s still the Cold War. Canada should take advantage, writes Jennifer Jeffs.

By: /
22 March, 2012
By: Jennifer Jeffs

Past President of the Canadian International Council (CIC).

The U.S. State Department’s agenda for Latin America is better suited for an economic development agency than the State Department. For the time being, so, too, is Canada’s. It is time for this to change.

Chris Sabatini’s piece in the current edition of Foreign Affairs points out that the U.S. narrative on Latin America seems stuck in a 1980s time capsule. His assertion that Cold War thinking still dominates U.S. policymaker attitudes toward the region indicates that U.S. thinking is stuck in a completely different geopolitical reality than the one that we live in today. Social movements, electoral trends, and democratic development give little insight into the important relations between states in the region, and between the newly emerged states both within the region and outside it.

The rise of Brazil as a global power is promoting Colombia’s regional influence. The Chinese appetite for natural resources that are found in abundance in the hemisphere, and their gifts of bridges and soccer stadiums to several Latin American countries, are trends that U.S. students and policymakers should be watching and pondering, as should Canadians. Given the substantial investment that Canadian mining companies – and at least one major Canadian bank – have made in the region, on top of the Canadian government’s recent focus on the hemisphere via its “Americas Strategy,” the short-sightedness of U.S. policymakers that Sabatini laments is, in fact, an opportunity for Canada.

As Sabatini points out, while the U.S. lacks sufficient interest in, and understanding of, the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics of Latin America, Canada can fill that void by taking seriously the actions of Latin America’s increasingly potent (and competitive) regional and global players. Informed Canadian engagement with countries in the region will be mutually beneficial, and could also influence U.S. policymakers, encouraging them to think about Latin America in terms of 2012 geopolitical realities.

The recent Republican  debates in the U.S. have demonstrated a staggering lack of understanding of Latin America. While fears of criminal networks becoming sufficiently internationalized to encompass and accommodate the jihadist threat are understandable in a post-9/11 world, the strong historic economic and social ties between Latin America and the United States should surely translate into a deeper understanding – and support – of the trends developing in these vibrant and often resource-rich countries. As Sabatini points out, “A little realism would go a long way.” But perhaps the historic legacy of U.S. activity in the region is too strong, and resentments too enduring.

Meanwhile, Canada is ideally positioned to deepen its relations with its hemispheric neighbours. Canada’s  experience of democratic institution-building – including its support for the development of judicial, educational, and policing systems in the region – and, in contrast to the U.S., its historical record of no military intervention in the region, show potential for mutually beneficial exchange and engagement with Latin American countries. Collaboration with Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, for example, in the development of fossil fuels and biofuels as alternative energy sources would further integrate the hemisphere’s economy while de-emphasizing the importance of Venezuela’s oil. While Mexico’s security threats are an obvious concern, Canada could take the lead in partnering with Mexican researchers in areas that would provide entry for Mexico’s massive youth population into the knowledge-based economy. (In addition to clean energy, this could include areas such as biotechnology, aerospace, and health care for developing regions.) By fostering these relations, Canada would pave the way for other hemispheric partnerships, setting an example for the U.S. in its efforts to tackle governance, resource management, and environmental issues through regional investment and partnerships.

Given the U.S.’s preoccupation with security, transnational crime and its potential links to the jihadist threat might be a good place to start. But security is only one aspect of the global challenges facing the hemisphere, and cannot be addressed in isolation. Latin America needs partnerships in its natural-resource and associated sectors, in education and health-care research initiatives, and in bracing for climate change. Canada should fill that need, engaging with Latin America in a spectrum of areas that the U.S. and China have largely neglected.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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