America and the Americas

During the Bad Old Days of the Cold War, a Latin American country had a few options: you could go it alone, cozy up to Washington, or get friendly with Moscow. All three choices had their problems. The world has transformed over the last 25 years. The Cold War is over, and Latin America is a lot more comfortable with its options.

Looking southward from the State Department, the Hemispheric landscape has also transformed. There are no longer military dictators actively supported or quietly tolerated in order to counter Moscow. There are few allies to be apologized for or explained away for their willingness to jail labor leaders, poets, and land reform advocates. Death squads don't pop up mid-Mass to gun down a troublesome priest or bishop.

And millions of people, from the San Diego-Tijuana border crossing to Tierra del Fuego are getting richer and healthier. Not all at once, not fast enough... but in most places the indicators are moving in the right direction. This week Destination Casa Blanca headed to the U.S. Department of State, to the annual meeting of the Council of the Americas. If you used this meeting for a snapshot of the U.S. relationship with the Hemisphere, it's a pretty good picture.

The gathering, bringing together academics, business people and elected and appointed officials from around the Americas, heard from the Deputy Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, the Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and to close the program Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico. The news from all the speakers was pretty good. Economies are growing. Governments serve with the consent of the governed. Neither the United States nor Russia sponsor armies in the field trying to overthrow an established government.

Sec. Clinton brought the proceedings back down to earth during her talk, when she noted that for all the good news too many countries had too many people mired in poverty, poorly educated, poorly trained, badly nourished and underemployed. Free trade agreements were endorsed by all as a good thing; but Panama, Colombia, and Chile's ability to sell goods into a struggling US market won't make the masses in those countries rich.

Oil rich Venezuela is in economic trouble even with oil over a hundred dollars a barrel. Cuba can't provide all that it's promised to its people, and this year's Communist Party Congress looked hard for ways to cut loose hundreds of thousands of state employees and reduce food subsidies further. The governments that promised more state control of the economy would bring greater equity and security, failed. But globalization and free trade has yet to deliver for millions in Guatemala, Rio de Janeiro and Lima.

For decades, the United States promised countries throughout the Hemisphere that moving to elected government and free market economies were going to bring dignity, freedom and prosperity. That may yet turn out to be true. But, it doesn't work all at once. The people of Latin America are freer, richer and living longer. Elected governments are surrendering their places to their successors when their parties lose, without incident (with the notable, and unfortunate exception of Honduras). China and Brazil are steaming ahead and pulling countries like Chile and Peru with them.

The New World is fully at home in the New World. With hard work, smart leaders and a continuing supply of good luck, Bolivians and Ecuadorans will live as comfortably and well as Chileans do now. And instead of plotting, planning and pressuring... big powers like the United States will have to outbid and out-compete something its used to having in the Western Hemisphere... competitors.