It is quite possible that the only president of Latin American countries most non-Latino Americans can reliably name is Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who died March 5 at the age of 58. The reason for this is two-fold, and significant in terms of where we go from here.
One reason was Chávez’s personality itself. Flamboyant, charismatic, vocal in both friendship and emnity, and over-the-top, Chávez made no bones about his disdain for U.S. administrations — particularly George W. Bush’s — and once famously declared that the devil had been in the same room and left his stink of sulphur, after the U.S. president addressed the U.N. General Assembly in 2006.
Chávez — a president from the emerging classes who first became a public figure when he was an active member of the military — was a leader who thumbed his nose at those he felt slighted him: he was more mestizo than criollo, more populist caudillo than high-born oligarch. When the King of Spain told him to shut up, Chávez’s response was the equivalent of “who do you think you are to say that to me?”
There is a fine line between self-respect and arrogance, and Chávez danced it, every moment of his 14 years in power.
The other reason Americans know Chávez’s name is that, like Fidel Castro, we’ve long considered him a threat. There are hundreds of good reasons for this that go beyond posturing and verbal slings.
Chávez’s hostility to Israel and public anti-Semitism led to massive exodus of the Venezuelan Jewish community — it was reduced to about a third of its size. There have been ongoing human rights concerns during his tenure, and the kinds of suppression of dissent that come from authoritarian regimes whether they are leftist or rightist. (The former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, even urged the U.S. to consider economic sanctions and the Organization of American States to consider punitive actions against Venezuela if the elections in October of 2012 were questionable.)
The United States has long had a complex relationship with Latin America. Although some of the largest consumers of our goods are in that region (Mexico is our third largest trade partner, and Brazil is our eighth) and even though as a nation we are great consumers of Latin American goods (we’re Mexico’s largest trade partner, and we’re a major purchaser of Venezuelan oil) we have treated Latin America as if it was a younger sibling who we’ll trade with, invest in and give advice to (sometimes forcibly), but who we don’t consider on the same footing as our other allies or neighbors.
While “banana republic” and “tin-pot dictator” are no longer commonplace in our language, they remain firmly connected to the American public view of Latin America, thanks to the way our administrations speak (or don’t) about the region. We publicly focus our attention on the region only in negatives: Chávez and Castro are the Latin American leaders most readily recognized by the American public, and most frequently mentioned by U.S. officials. They were the only two specifically mentioned in the foreign policy segment of the presidential campaign debate, for example. But how many times do we hear about Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s president), an astute and pragmatic leader who has managed to keep Brazil’s economy resilient and its contraction rate tiny (0.2 percent) during the global downturn?
Or how many Americans, who commonly think the word “macho” is synonymous with Latino, know that Latin American countries have elected women presidents since the late 1970s, and have had seven as leaders of Brazil, Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, Panama, Nicaragua?
The vitriol of the immigration debate has contributed to a jaundiced American view of Latin America and Latin Americans as well. The focus on extending and fortifying the wall on the southern border in the past decade or so has cemented a pejorative and skewed view. “The countries you came from are sewers,” is one tweet a member of our editorial team received after posting something about the immigration rate from Latin America.
There is no question that our U.S. officials view the fiery and antagonistic Venezuelan leader’s death as an opening to the possibility, eventually, of a better political relationship between the two countries.
But for us it seems an opportunity for more. It is time for a shift in the narrow way we think and talk about Latin America, both officially and unofficially.
It is time for us to acknowledge that the region isn’t full of “younger siblings,” but of partners.
We may have thornier relationships with some of those partners than others, but we all have the same stake: to help the Americas (please note the plural) be a peaceful, just and prosperous place.
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