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 nations
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. Hasnt
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 nations 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 worlds 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. Lets talk about it with our families and friends. Lets encourage our
congressmen and senators to support the idea of a Citizens Diplomatic Corps for Latin
America. And lets challenge our presidential candidates to answer the call.
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