Opinion

America is losing influence in Latin America — and that's great news

It's time for the Western Hemisphere's heavyweight to stop micromanaging the politics of its southern neighbors

Is Bolivian President Evo Morales a despot, despite the fact that he just won a free and fair election? So argues The New York Times editorial board, calling him a caudillo because he might try to change the Bolivian constitution to run again in 2020.

Let's set aside the absurdity of smearing someone as an authoritarian based on speculations about future events. The real gripe of the Times board can be seen toward the bottom of the piece (well spotted by Glenn Greenwald): "This regional dynamic has been dismal for Washington’s influence in the region."

This is not just rank hypocrisy, as Greenwald demonstrates. (You almost never see pieces lamenting the fact that Saudi Arabia is an abusive tyranny; perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Saudis take U.S. orders.) The woe-is-us stance also has it completely backward. The decline of American influence in Latin America is long overdue and great news to boot, for two major reasons.

The first is the direct effects of policy. I've written before about how U.S. influence in Latin America has been almost totally malignant: a bloody history of imperialist theft, coups, civil wars, a catastrophic drug policy, and much more. The U.S. has spent a lot of time brutally stamping on our neighbors to the south in a strategy of imperialism by proxy and often hasn't even had anything to show for it.

The second is the indirect effects that imperialist policy has on its victims. One of the less-appreciated aspects of the horror that was colonialism is how it facilitated tyranny and corruption long after the occupiers were driven out. After the end of Europe's subjugation of Africa, for instance, every country across the continent suffered a collapse of democracy of one kind or another (save one, though that may end soon).

The reason is that colonial powers built oppressive, anti-democratic institutions. Imperial powers also usually denied education and training to the oppressed majority, thereby leaving few people with much leadership experience after independence. After the Belgians fled the Congo in a panic in 1960, for instance, there were only a few dozen university graduates left to administer a nation four times larger than France.

Latin America had a different experience with colonialism, starting with the fact that something like 90 percent of the indigenous American population died through disease and war after contact with the Europeans. But there are similarities, with most Latin American countries struggling with relapses into military dictatorships rooted in Spanish-era government.

Latin America's history of direct colonization by Spain and Portugal ended far before Africa's did. But these effects linger on for a long time, and the United States has exacerbated them by inflicting its fumble-fingered brand of indirect imperialism for much of the last century.

A critical part of encouraging the development of firm democratic institutions throughout the world is to refrain from imperialist meddling. This is especially true for countries that are already holding fair elections. The reason Venezuela's Hugo Chávez got so much mileage out of anti-American propaganda is because of America's long history of monstrous policy in Latin America — including supporting a coup attempt in Venezuela as recently as 2002 (lauded at the time by the Times editorial board, naturally). The first step to taking the wind out of the anti-American sails is to stop blowing on them like mad.

Evo Morales may well try to hang on to power indefinitely — it wouldn't be the first time a populist leader has done so. But there's little the U.S. can do about that but make it worse. It's time we left Latin America to manage its own internal politics.

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