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Why U.S. Vaccine Diplomacy In Latin America Makes "Good" Sense

Echoing its cultural diplomacy of the early 20th century, the United States is gifting vaccines to Latin America as part of a renewed "good neighbor'' policy.

Why U.S. Vaccine Diplomacy In Latin America Makes "Good" Sense

Waiting to get the vaccine in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico

Andrea Matallana

-Analysis-

BUENOS AIRES — Just before and during World War II, the United States' Good Neighbor policy proved a very effective strategy to improve ties with Latin America. Initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the policy's main goal was non-interference and non-intervention. The U.S. would instead focus on reciprocal exchanges with their southern neighbors, including through art and cultural diplomacy.


Roosevelt's administration put businessman Nelson Rockefeller — grandson of the U.S. oil magnate and richest person in modern history, John D. Rockefeller — in charge of the Office for Inter-American Affairs. The aim was to conquer the hearts and minds of Latin Americans through exchanges of works of art. In spite of being a dictatorship at the time, Argentina was not excluded, which allowed works like Green-Gray Goblet, by Emilio Pettoruti, or New Chicago Athletic Club by Antonio Berni, to enter the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Argentinian art thus came to prominence at a time when Latin American identity had been primarily associated with the Mexican muralists for over a decade.

Good neighbor policy

None of this was coincidental. The works were paid for from a special U.S. government fund Rockefeller's mother had helped start, and of which he was the treasurer and president. He had previously earned himself a government appointment after public donations totaling $4.5 million.

An example of the utility of such diplomatic strategies is the following case: at one diplomatic reception, the Argentine ambassador was seated at the table next to David Rockefeller (Nelson's brother).

Bringing different viewpoints closer requires experience and guile

The ambassador was aware that David Rockefeller might have had only a scant interest in Argentina, but nevertheless commented on the rising value of his purchases of Argentine and Latin American works of art.

Thus began a conversation that continued for the evening, and repeated itself whenever the two met at a venue. It took time, persistence, and knowledge to institutionalize such exchanges, maintain the conversation on art, and eventually transfer that conversation to other topics. Bringing radically different viewpoints closer together requires experience and guile.

Coronavirus vaccines delivered in Mexico

El Universal/ZUMA

Cultural diplomacy for COVID times

In the last two years, the United States' Good Neighbor policy has focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Its new, soft diplomacy is not about buying pictures and sculptures, but vaccines and COVID-19 tests. Unlike its predecessor, the administration of President Biden has moved fast in this regard, though the Argentinian government's erratic foreign policy initially led it to reject help from the "American friends," before reluctantly accepting the offer.

The soft diplomacy that spoke of aesthetic and cultural exchanges has, in this pandemic, given way to vaccine donations as an effective way of winning friends. Because when the lives of millions are at risk, the beneficiaries will not forget how their North American neighbor gave them a helping hand when things were tough.

*Matallana (PhD, Torcuato di Tella University, Buenos Aires), lectures in sociology at the universities of Buenos Aires and Torcuato di Tella.

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