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Adapted from a speech given by Carlos Fuentes in May 1988 at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Fuentes’s latest novel, VLAD, will be published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in July. He died on May 15, 2012.

As the United States inaugurates a new president, this is a good time to look back on mistakes and lost opportunities in Latin America, so as not to repeat the former and so as to recapture the latter.

The primary reason for these recent failures is the United States’ unique obsession with events in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua. The last administration—despite eight years of feverish activity, rattling rhetoric, and millions of dollars spent—failed to overthrow the government in Managua. The administration also failed to defeat the rebels in El Salvador. Moreover, the Reagan approach failed to bend the independent will of President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica or to pressure him into abandoning either his own territories or his policies favoring the use of diplomacy over the use of force. It should be noted, too, that all the rhetoric and military spending failed to prevent violent outbreaks against the U.S. presence in Honduras; and in Panama, the Reagan administration put forth a blundering policy which, instead of overthrowing General Noriega, has overthrown the Panamanian economy.

General Noriega would now be out of power if the United States had respected the diplomatic initiatives of November 1987 by the former presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, and Costa Rica. Noriega had agreed to leave in May of 1988, without losing face and without U.S. pressure. But the United States decided that it, and not Latin America, should appear to be the determining factor in Noriega’s departure. The Bush administration must seriously ask itself what it wants in Latin America: peace through security arrangements, diplomacy, and cooperation with independent governments; or war through proxy armies, subservient governments, and alienated populations. And it must ask with whom it is most likely to achieve what it wants.

We share a hemisphere of enormous contrasts and vast inequalities—not the least of which is the asymmetry of power between Latin America and the United States. This is why we in Latin America have sought mightily to arrive at diplomatic arrangements that would equalize our relationships with other countries and limit the power of the United States within mutually acceptable bounds. Each country in Central America is struggling to define its own national identity and its own strategies of problem solving. Change is the name of the game, and there is more to come. We are not your enemies; we simply know the ground better than you do; we remember more than you do.

We live in a Latin America of paradox and crisis. A region of simultaneous stagnation and unchecked growth; one where reforms are no sooner initiated than they are postponed. But despite this crisis we are moving toward a new Latin America that looks beyond the tripod of Iberian conquest, a society dominated by church, army, and oligarchy. We are moving toward a new economics and a new politics—a democracy, but one drawn from Iberian, not Anglo-Saxon, traditions. New institutions wrought not just through elections but through revolution and evolution, through mass movements and insurgency. Our crisis has spawned a new model of development and, along with that, a new approach to our international relationships.

All of this marks the present reality of Latin America. Latin America is becoming at once more independent and more unified—in spite of economic crisis, political change, and an erosion of inter-American relations—as our role in the world diversifies and the influence of the United States shrinks in our region.

The United States, for example, now accounts for only one-quarter of all foreign investment in Latin America, down from three-quarters thirty years ago. And U.S. aid is proportionally down from 70 percent twenty years ago to 30 percent today, while investment and aid from Japan and Western Europe are growing exponentially. Trade between Japan and Latin America has increased by a factor of twenty since the late 1960s, and Japanese capital is fueling the development of Mexico’s industrial ports, its Pacific resorts, its industries, and its debt-for-equity schemes. We are preparing to enter the Pacific Basin community, and upper- and middle-class Mexicans now send their children to learn not French or English but Japanese in our high schools. Today more than half of the world’s trade is transacted in the Pacific. Latin America hopes to participate in this great commercial expansion.

We are also looking toward Western Europe. Speaking at Harvard University recently, the Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe Gonzalez, reminded his audience that the New World, whose quincentenary we will be celebrating in 1992, was first the Iberian New World. Only later did it also become the Anglo-Saxon New World; but in any case, no other region of the world outside Europe resembles Europe so much as the Americas. Gonzalez proposed that Western Europe join both Americas, Ibero-America and Anglo-America, in a trilateral partnership, whereby we would cooperate more closely, cushion our hemispheric differences through European mediation, and pool our resources.

This leads me to the question of Latin America’s place in the world, and its place alongside the United States, in cooperation, not subjugation. Today multilateralism shapes our international outlook. It is imperative that we strengthen international organizations and insist on adherence to the rule of law in international relations.

We, in Latin America, know that our best shield against the excessive power of the United States has always been the law. Our problem is getting the United States to join us, the weaker neighbors, in respecting the laws, treaties, and institutions that we’ve mutually agreed upon. We have done it before, we can do it again.

In fact, this has been the only successful hemispheric policy. The Good Neighbor Policy guided your actions when your presidents were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman; your secretaries of state, Dean Acheson and George Marshall; your under-secretary of state, Sumner Welles; and your coordinator of inter-American affairs, Nelson Rockefeller. These kind of men exist today. They are simply not being employed. Or, if brought to government, they are chased out by ideology triumphant, which will not tolerate reason, compromise, and shared objectives. The ideologue banks on force; he achieves weakness. He demands dogmatic purity; he ends up with political measles. He prophesies disaster, and the prophecy is fulfilled.

The United States is no longer sovereign in this hemisphere. Latin America invites the United States to join in developing the legal, diplomatic, economic, and political relations appropriate to a new era in world affairs; and to give full attention to the key issues on which the future depends: debt, drugs, and migration. Debt is stunting growth, depriving new Latin democracies of legitimacy, and eroding the social fabric. Everyone in Latin America is convinced that as currently structured, the debt will not be paid. Nevertheless, intelligent solutions must be found, but this will happen only if we come together seriously and decide to pardon debt selectively, to lower interest rates, or to fix a multiyear target of external financing with an overall plan of internal reforms for each Latin American government. The purpose of such a plan would be to restore an economic growth rate of 5 percent regionally, avoid political crisis, renew public confidence in democratic governments, and move toward social justice.

Another task is the fight against drugs. Here we must redistribute responsibility so we can begin to focus on not only supply but demand.

And we must find a program to deal with the waves of migrants moving from south to north. This dilemma can be addressed only by acknowledging the interests of all countries involved and, above all, the interests of the migrants themselves.

We have lost a great deal of time recently that we must now recoup. What we’re really entering is the world of the twenty-first century. In this world, Latin America expects to lead itself in Latin American affairs. We believe that the United States has more options in our region than simply either capitulating or going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

We do not ask of you abstention or intervention—but rather cooperation, your civilized presence, your great moral and intellectual values, your essential adherence to systems of justice and human rights, your great economic resources, and above all, the capacity and value of your human capital.

Apply all of this to the reconstruction of our battered hemispheric system. We must all create a new policy based on rationality, consultation, mutual respect, mutual concessions, and the essential quid pro quo of inter-American relations. You give us non-intervention, we give you security assurances: we cooperate with each other.

How is it you can find so many solutions to your own internal conflicts through negotiation, patience, respect for the law, and an understanding of the other’s point of view, and yet withhold these virtues when you deal with Latin America? Why can you so rapidly find solutions to conflicts with your enemies when they are strong and with your rivals when they are daring, but find it so difficult to reach agreement with your friends in this hemisphere? Your friends, not your satellites. Our hemisphere, no one’s backyard, everyone’s front entrance, the home of every man, woman, and child in the New World.

© Carlos Fuentes

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