Banana Republics No More

    Banana Republics No More

    Hasn’t the time come for serious new initiatives to ameliorate
    past suspicions and foster mutual understanding between the US
    and Latin America? It’s time for a Citizens Diplomatic Corps for the region.
    By Philip Miszewski

    Little things sometimes get our attention in peculiar ways. Periodically, while on one
    of my visits to Brazil, I would pass by the branch of a bank from Boston. I found that
    peculiar, because I couldn’t make the connection between a bank in Boston and tropical
    Brazil. Then one day I thought to do a little light reading. I happened to pick up a copy
    of the 960-page Thy Will Be Done; The Conquest of the Amazon by Gerard Colby with
    Charlotte Dennett. Many strands were woven into the fabric of this exposé on
    socioeconomic assault and political subversion in Latin America. One strand focused on the
    attempts of a Guatemalan president to redistribute land in the 1950s. According to the
    book’s author(s), Jacobo Arbenz "initiated his land-redistribution plan against
    foreign-owned United Fruit" in 1951.

    The story wasn’t new to me. United Fruit owned so much property that the "more
    than 400,000 acres" of "fallow landholdings" Colby says
    Guatemala expropriated from them represented "one-seventh of the country’s arable
    land". It’s a matter of record that, after "intensive lobbying among
    Latin American diplomats failed" to force Arbenz to reconsider agrarian reform,
    the CIA interceded to destabilize his government. Arbenz fled into exile and power fell
    into the hands of a Guatemalan army general sympathetic to North American business
    interests. "All lands (previously) distributed to the peasantry were
    returned to their former owners". Guatemala thus became the first "Banana
    Republic", a circumstance that gave birth to a misperception that Latin American
    countries were incapable of establishing democracies.

    But the book offered some interesting new insights. It described, for instance, one of
    the "last acts" of CIA operative E. Howard Hunt "before leaving
    Guatemala". He released from prison a young physician named Ernesto Guevara,
    "perhaps because he had applied for a job with United Fruit, or because he came
    from a respected family in Argentina". Ernesto, of course went on to become known
    as "Che", and Hunt gained notoriety for his involvement in the CIA’s Bay of Pigs
    operation, and the Watergate break-in. I guess it really is a small world after all. But I
    also discovered that the First National Bank of Boston had "long (been) the
    financial bulwark of United Fruit and Boston’s investors in Latin American sugar, coffee
    and railroads". And more than that, it had, by that time, already become "the
    first bank with head offices in American republics outside of Brazil, to operate in Brazil".
    That explained my "Boston bank sightings" in Brazil and redirected my thinking
    to foreign relations.

    In international relations there seem to be no real friends and few real enemies.
    Clearly, there can be allies and alliances. Initiative is principally guided by
    self-interest, with the nation in the most advantageous position wielding the most
    influence. Positive relations begin with a common perception that cooperation and/or
    consideration is in the interest of all parties. Negative relations can result from
    differing perceptions between nations as to their own best interests. A nation’s
    interests may be short, intermediate or long-term. And when a nation holds significantly
    greater advantage than all other parties, that nation can be expected to exercise its
    “influence”. Influence is the ability to impose will. Whether advantage is
    exercised in the interest of short, intermediate or long-term interest will depend upon
    the judgment of decision-makers. It follows then, that judgment is a critical determinant
    in relations between nations.

    The interests of any nation need to be balanced so that decisions made today do not
    reap a harvest of ill will tomorrow. In the 21st century every nation should be mature
    enough to realize that heavy-handed opportunism is simply “out of order”. This
    US presidential election year represents an opportunity for the two major political
    parties to declare unequivocal commitment to constructive socioeconomic engagement between
    nations. This is particularly true in the case of Latin America.

    Until recently, North American media seemed conditioned to represent Latin America in
    superficial ways, or only to focus on nations south of the border when the news was bad.
    The caricatured film roles of Carmen Miranda may have reflected North American perceptions
    that even Brazil was not to be taken seriously, or the fact that provincial North America
    was unprepared to understand the full breadth of Latin American sociopolitical and
    cultural dimensions. And, particularly after the Arbenz incident, virtually all news
    coming out of Latin America was negative.

    We all remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the excesses of Peron in Argentina, the
    “disappeared-ones” of Chile, and Iran-Contra with its connections to conflicts
    in El Salvador and Nicaragua. And then there was “shining path” in Peru, Jim
    Jones in Guyana, the drug lords of Columbia, corruption in Mexico, runaway inflation in
    Brazil, Noriega in Panama and Venezuelan support for the OPEC oil embargo. There was bad
    news in Europe and Asia too, but reporting of events in Europe and Asia was more balanced.
    Ancestral origins, two World Wars and direct economic competition had galvanized North
    American attentions to the west and to the east.
    The shifting sands of immigration and economic development are demanding that we, North
    Americans, redirect our gaze with a new sense of reference. The largest single ethnic
    group in the United States is projected to be Latin American by the year 2050. Now is the
    time for the United States and its citizens to turn their attentions toward their long
    neglected hemispheric partners. Note the word partners. The Democratic and Republican
    parties, and most particularly their presidential candidates, should without further delay
    issue clear public statements affirming that Latin America will be given no less attention
    and/or consideration than other regions of the world. Brazil, representing half the
    territory and population of South America, should get much of that attention. Hasn’t
    the time come for serious new initiatives to ameliorate past suspicions and foster mutual

    Not since the founding of the Peace Corps have US citizens applied their generous
    spirit to formalize and sustain large scale international “constructive social
    engagement”. The two major party presidential candidates, George Bush and Al Gore,
    should each consider establishing a “Citizens Diplomatic Corps for Latin
    America”. Goodwill between nations ultimately depends on understanding; and ownership
    of understanding cannot be reliably secured without participation. Ownership of
    understanding is any nation’s best defense against racism, bigotry and associated

    The next administration, whether Democratic or Republican, should be urged to enter
    office with a plan for sending citizens to, or exchanging citizens with, receptive other
    nations in the Western Hemisphere. If government can allocate taxpayer dollars to fund
    congressional “junkets”, then surely there are funds enough to subsidize the
    annual participation of 200 good citizens, 4 from each state, to begin cementing better
    relations between the United States and Latin America. A transformation of relations
    between the world’s industrial leader and its developing cousins is long overdue.

    The fundamental key to transformation involving multiple parties is cooperation. Let us
    all resolve between nations of the New World to begin to work together now for a better
    future. Let’s talk about it with our families and friends. Let’s encourage our
    congressmen and senators to support the idea of a Citizens Diplomatic Corps for Latin
    America. And let’s challenge our presidential candidates to answer the call.

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