Magazine article Insight on the News

Falcoff: Latin America Dreams Face Reality

Magazine article Insight on the News

Falcoff: Latin America Dreams Face Reality

Article excerpt

Scholar Mark Falcoff says nations South of the Border are lining up for preferential treatment from the United States 2 years after U.S. influence in Latin affairs was perceived as in decline.

American ignorance about Latin America is nothing new to Mark Falcoff, the resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "You can tell people pink elephants fly over Latin America every night and people are ready to believe it. They simply don't know," he tells Insight.

And what's available to know tends to tilt toward the left, because it's the left that reads books about the area. "It's very difficult to sell books on Latin America that aren't written from a left-wing point of view. There's no one out there to buy them," Falcoff says.

But then there are the books and many articles of Falcoff whose no-nonsense, often acerbic, but nonetheless balanced views come as a breath of fresh air. Falcoff celebrates the rule of law and individual social and economic responsibility as essential for any takeoff South of the Border and he is pleased to report that "the socialist idea in Latin America is as dead as a doornail." Falcoff is author of the recently published Panama's Canal: What Happens When the United States Gives a Small Country What It Wants.

Insight: Well, what does happen when the United States gives a small country what it wants?

Mark Falcoff: History is full of little odd twists and turns, and something rather interesting has happened in the case of the Panama Canal. The world was a very different place in the 1970s when we were seen as being on the run: Not only on the run from the Soviet Union, but on the run from the Third World, which was surrounding us in the United Nations.

The particular moment in which the Carter administration negotiated those treaties was a moment when the United States looked like it was on the way out as a great power. Countries like Panama that united in the nonaligned movement in the OAS [Organization of American States] were going to be the wave of the future.

Well, 20 years later, ha ha ha, it turns out there's no Soviet Union and the Latin American countries are all scrambling over one another to get preferential treatment from the United States.

What's happened was perfectly obvious in 1978 and could have been predicted: The canal itself never had any potential of making any money for Panama. That is to say it was a facility run at a loss, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer. It was not the great kind of cornucopia or golden egg-laying goose that Panamanian politicians had told their people that it was.

It's an old canal and it requires serious maintenance and modernization, and that in turn requires a lot of international financial confidence in the quality of government in Panama -- a quality which never has been very high.

So the joke's on Panama. They got what they wanted, and now they're stuck with it. Maybe that's what I should have said as the subtitle to the book. Insight: Some Panamanians would like to have us back, isn't that right?

MF: In the course of the last 10 years, the Panamanian public has increasingly shown a desire to have a residual U.S. military presence. The Panamanian government has hoped to use this as a means for shaking us down for big bucks for base rent.

Once they realized they were not going to negotiate a base-rent deal, they then came up with the idea of a multilateral, antinarcotics center, which the Clinton administration has been interested in for a number of reasons. It would presumably allow them to have their cake and eat it too. They'd be able to say, "There's no American military base on Panamanian territory. What there is is a civilian center!"

That center may have 80 percent American military personnel in it, but it is flying the Panamanian flag. The Clinton administration would like to sign an executive agreement. …

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