Transforming U.S.-Latin American Relations

By Shifter, Michael | ReVista (Cambridge), Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Transforming U.S.-Latin American Relations


Shifter, Michael, ReVista (Cambridge)


Transforming U.S.-Latin American Relations

Routledge Handbook of Latin America and the World, edited by Jorge Domínguez and Anna Covarrubias (Routledge: Taylor and Francis Group, 2014, 482 pages)

On December 17, 2014, after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro simultaneously announced the decision to move towards normalizing bilateral relations-after more than half a century of estrangement-there was little backlash. Cubans cheered, and even in Miami's traditionally hardline Cuban American community, criticism was muted. A counterproductive policy, linked to the Cold War and frozen in time, had at last been adapted to the 21st century.

That development, which secured Obama's legacy in Latin America and took away virtually the only U.S. policy stand unifying the entire region against it, came too late to be included in this excellent and impressively wide-ranging volume co-edited by Jorge Domínguez of Harvard University and Anna Covarrubias of El Colegio de Mexico. The book systematically reviews the dramatic changes that have taken place since the Cold War to the present, not only in inter-American affairs but especially in Latin America's global relations. Until now, U.S.-Cuba policy had been an outlier, notably out of sync with most of Washington's other approaches towards the region.

Domínguez and Covarrubias have assembled a diverse and first-rate group of analysts and scholars to illuminate in particular the processes that have rendered Latin America's relationship with the rest of the world barely recognizable from the 1980s. The volume is soundly conceived, conceptually coherent and well-organized.

It begins with a fine overview chapter by Abraham Lowenthal and Hannah Baron highlighting the region's transformations, followed by sections focused on varied theoretical approaches, examinations of five Latin American countries' foreign policies, the role of extraregional actors, the progress-and limits-of integration and multilateral efforts, and thematic studies most germane to Latin America's international relations. There is a lot to track and digest. Although some overlap and unevenness in quality are inevitable-the sheer scope of the material covered results in some unwieldiness-the chapters are generally of very high caliber. Each makes a distinct and valuable contribution to interpreting an enormously complex and constantly evolving landscape. The chapters make clear that Latin America's engagement with the world did not begin with the end of the Cold War-in fact, the region's global links were arguably stronger before that fierce ideological battle emerged- but there is little question that globalization in recent decades has accelerated such a process. In the latter part of the 20th century, the United States was the predominant external actor involved in the region. Vast asymmetries in power defined a complicated and ambivalent relationship, often marked by both cooperation and conflict. Such power differentials naturally gave rise both to a paternalistic attitude in the United States and to suspicions and resentments against the United States in many parts of Latin America. For Washington during that period, anti-communism trumped all other interests. The Cold War years left a lot of baggage that, as a number of the chapters argue, manifests itself to this day. There are signs that the shift in U.S.-Cuba policy has begun to mitigate some of the associated costs.

Several chapters devote attention to what Covarrubias and Domínguez call, in their superb introduction, "the second wave of regionalism (that) took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s." They aptly characterize the 1990s as the "liberal decade," when it appeared to many observers that, with the end of the Cold War and the move from authoritarian to democratic rule, Latin America was converging on three fundamental notions: democratic politics, market economics, and productive cooperation with the United States. …

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