How have U.S. governments treated their deferential Latin American allies and admiring societies in the past century? A hard look from Bogota.
BOGOTÁ — For more than a century, Colombia has been the most trusted ally of the United States and its regional policies. This is actually surprising, since the 20th century began with Colombia's loss of Panama, a secession backed by this big neighbor to the north in order to implement its canal project.
It is natural however that Latin American countries should in time have sought in an alliance with a formidable country, which in a few decades rose to superpower status as the hardest working, most industrious, innovative and in time, most welcoming nation in the world.
Its light bulbs, cars, home appliances, highways and constant inventiveness changed the way the world has come to live. Its commercial techniques, industry, consumer society, peaceful neighborhoods, and vertical cities that "scrape" the sky have all given human life another direction. U.S. telephony, radio and television, and the dream machine that is its film industry all blossomed from seemingly nowhere, to shape and define our epoch.
And there was also the vision of democracy dreamed of by Walt Whitman, the demented lucidity of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson's reflective solitude and refinement of the senses, Edgar Lee Masters's novels woven of poems or Henry David Thoreau's reasoned romanticism. There was Ralph Waldo Emerson's serene humanism and the poetic rebellion of Ezra Pound and Allen Ginsberg, William Faulkner's torrential labyrinths, Ray Bradbury's galaxy of dreams, Henry Miller's symphonic eroticism and Philip K Dick's visionary paranoia.
But the rulers of that country have been less admirable than the society they govern, and today, after a long century of being their allies and venerators, our countries may ask themselves whether or not the alliance is worth it. Because a good deal of our troubles and the violence affecting our societies are due to the policies occasionally sketched out for us, and much more frequently imposed on us.
The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa recently published his novel Tiempos recios (Hard Times), wherein he questions the moment the United States crushed the democratic project of Guatemala's President Jacobo Árbenz, and scuppered a worthwhile experiment in liberalism, with the pretext of fighting communism. That opened the way for revolutionary radicalism on the continent, because it wasn't just Guatemala. A succession of U.S. governments entrenched themselves in anti-communist hysteria and not only canceled great democratic efforts and aborted liberal reforms, but sponsored coups, backed bloody tyrannies and even taught the continent's armies the practices of repression, torture and kidnapping.
If we seek alliances outside their sphere of influence, they react as if we were violating certain sacred norms.
One only need look at what Latin America has become to understand, that we may not have had the best neighbor. That is not because the United Sates owed us something, but because it came to expect of us unflinching loyalty, or simple obedience to its counsels and an unqualified application of its recipe. In Colombia, it found the most servile of servitors.
While the Cold War is supposed to have ended, U.S. governments still behave as if we were their backyard, and every time our countries seek alliances or collaborations outside their sphere of influence, they react as if we were violating certain sacred norms.
Clearly however, their dictated development theory has subjected us to a state of hopeless subordination. Their ban on drugs and handling of a public health issue as a military problem are what have turned this part of the world into a killing zone, and their neo-liberal consensus policies have ruined our economies. The multinationals take the lion's share of our contracts, but the policies toward the tragedy of migrants show they do not see us as allies, but as invasive and undesirable.
U.S. troops during 1983 invasion of Grenada — Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Bogdanowicz
Daily life and politics force the poor to migrate and become clever, pragmatic and astute. Certainly, precarious education and a total lack of opportunities have not made Latin Americans into silent, courteous neighbors. As Colombia recalls, the banana firms did not exactly treat us with kid gloves, the book México bárbaro (Barbarous Mexico) relates blood-curling happenings, and there are reasons for Cuba's distance from its opportunistic neighbor. Guatemala's Jacobo Árbenz, the Dominican Juan Bosch and Chile's Salvador Allende knew the great power to the north did not hesitate to thwart the wishes of majorities in other countries. Its 1983 invasion of Grenada and dropping parachutists into Panama were not peaceful takeovers.
Certainly we are responsible for our problems, but the policies of a bad neighbor have undoubtedly helped. Many countries on the continent are now reconsidering this alliance, and some are cured of illusions and busy finding themselves new partners. Colombia should probably start to do this too.
Today, when climate change is the world's foremost challenge, when its consequences of calamities, pandemics and mass extinctions are becoming clearer every day, we cannot go on with business as usual. We cannot remain beholden to those who take our riches but raise walls and shut their door when they see us coming in destitution.
There is another hope of course, that people inside the United States should now understand the scale of this threat, and how much is at stake. We can hope that they will not just change their government, but recover the lofty dreams that shaped that great nation.
Then, they may come to respect us again, even as we too must learn to respect ourselves, and understand the value of our world. It was precisely an American woman, the poet Emily Dickinson, who found a great secret of life and death, when she wrote, "Who has not found the heaven below, Will fail of it above."