Regional Tendencies Rooted in Challenges of the Past: An Interview with John H. Coatsworth

Article excerpt

John H. Coatsworth, a leading scholar of Latin American economic and international history, explains current trends in Latin America and offers a glimpse into the region's future trajectory based on its modern history. He identifies certain legacies, such as the European subjugation of indigenous populations to explain Latin America's continuing struggle with inequality and its tendency to support leftist governments. According to Coatsworth, many Latin American countries will continue to follow the promises of left-leaning reformist governments at least until the need to overcome past legacies of failure diminishes. Coatsworth also forecasts a Latin America freer to pursue its own social agendas, as U.S. political influence declines and other international partners gain prominence in the region. In an interview with the Journal's editor in chief, Jon Grosh, Professor Coatsworth offers a broad analysis of Latin America--a neighbor and close partner to the United States and an embodiment of inherited challenges and failed solutions.

Journal of International Affairs: What do you anticipate will be the effect on Venezuelan politics now that Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has passed away? Do you think it will continue along the same course as did Cuba after Fidel Castro stepped down?

John Coatsworth: The differences between Cuba and Venezuela are probably more important than the similarities. Venezuela is not a one-party state. It has open political competition, however much the government under Chavez tried to exploit the advantages of incumbency. Venezuela still has a vibrant press despite constraints the government has sought to impose on it. And perhaps most important of all, Venezuela has immense oil resources, which give whoever leads the country a considerable cushion to fall back on. My guess is that the short-term prospect for a dramatic change in Venezuela is quite minimal.

Journal: Will Chavez's death have a significant impact on U.S.-Venezuelan relations?

Coatsworth: Probably not. The United States pursued a sensible policy toward Chavez in the last four years. It did not emphasize points of disagreement. It has not responded to Chavez's frequent criticism of the United States. It avoided denouncing the Chavez government as part of a cabal of left wing regimes that the Bush administration tended to lump together with Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and sometimes others. Instead, the United States attempted to work with the Chavez government pragmatically to find ways of cooperating in areas of concern to the United States--for example, on drug smuggling. For these reasons, U.S.-Venezuelan relations are in reasonable shape. Both sides realize that there is nothing to be gained from confrontation. Venezuela still exports most of its oil to the United States and the United States would like to continue importing it.

Journal: Is Latin America entering an era of post-U.S. hegemony?

Coatsworth: That's an interesting question, because if you look at the economic trends of the past two decades, it is becoming increasingly evident that American economic preeminence has shrunk a great deal and is now roughly where you might have expected to find it a century ago. The United States is still the principle trading partner and supplier of capital and technology to Mexico, Central America, and most of the Caribbean, but it is far less influential in economic terms than in the past half century in the rest of South America. Country after country has developed trade relationships with Western Europe and East Asia, and the relative weight of the United States as a trading partner and supplier of capital and technology has diminished. Countries such as Chile--that used to export 80 percent of their principle exports to the United States--now export about a third of their products to the United States, a third to East Asia, and a third to Western Europe. The economic influence of the United States has diminished, so the leverage of the United States in those political systems has also diminished. …