Latin Lovers' Quarrel

Obama may be well-liked by the people of Latin America, but smiling and waving won't clean up the mess the United States leaves on their table.

People who care about Latin America worry that the donnybrook over the Secret Service agents who got caught picking up -- and then refusing to pay for -- prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, has overshadowed the Summit of the Americas, where the agents were tasked with protecting U.S. President Barack Obama. They have it backward: If it weren't for the scandal, most Americans wouldn't even know the summit occurred.

Latin America is not a top-of-the-head subject even for foreign-policy columnists, many of whom -- like me -- have spent a great deal less time there than they have in the conflict zones of the Middle East or the misery zones of Africa (or the wine-and-cheese zones of Europe). The steady growth of democracy and free markets there means that Latin America is not the source of worry it once was, and unlike Asia, where democratic, high-growth states feel menaced by a regional hegemon, Latin America has no China to keep U.S. policymakers awake at night. If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the neglect that Latin America suffers should be seen as a token of regional success.

In fact, the big news out of Cartagena -- outside of the Secret Service wing of the Hotel Caribe, that is -- was the united front that Latin American countries put up against the United States on several big issues. The immediate (and yet seemingly ageless) provocation was the question of whether Cuba should be admitted to the next summit, in 2015, which the United States and Canada opposed and all 30 Latin American countries, both left-wing bastions like Ecuador and traditional U.S. allies like Colombia, favored, thus bringing the meeting to an end without a planned joint declaration. But Latin American countries were equally prepared to stand up to Washington on the far more important question of drug policy, though they differed among themselves on what needed to be done.

The idea of an "American camp" in Latin America has been an anachronism for some while, but this became glaringly clear in Cartagena. "We need them more than they need us," as Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society, puts it. The United States remains the region's largest trading partner, the source of 40 percent of its foreign investment and 90 percent of its remittances. U.S. foreign aid still props up shaky countries like Colombia and Guatemala. But trade with both China and Europe has grown sharply over the last decade. And both big economies like Brazil and Argentina, and smaller ones like Chile and Peru, have experienced solid growth at a time when the United States has faltered. "Most countries of the region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs," as a recent report on U.S.-Latin American relations concluded.

The most neuralgic issues are not, in any case, economic. The one significant breakthrough that came out of the summit was an agreement between Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on labor standards that cleared the final obstacle from a pending free trade agreement between the two countries. The big issues that divide the United States (and let's not forget, Canada) from its Latin American allies are Cuba, drugs, and immigration. On a trip to Latin America last year, in fact, Obama promised Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes that he would push immigration reform through Congress -- an effort he later abandoned. But for all their recent maturation, Latin American countries are affected by U.S. domestic issues in a way that no other region could be. Latin America therefore suffers from the paralysis of U.S. domestic politics as Europe or Asia does not.

The summit showed that even Washington's closest allies in the region have lost patience with U.S. politics, even as they sympathize with Obama's unwillingness to risk reelection in order to help his neighbors. This year, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general elected as a hard-liner, dramatically reversed course and spoke up in favor of drug legalization. This earned him extraordinary visits from both U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. According to Eduardo Stein, the former vice president of Guatemala, Biden said that the United States was eager to discuss drug reform, just not at the summit, while Napolitano reportedly plainly said, "Don't think of raising the issue at the summit." Pérez then went ahead and called a meeting of regional leaders, who could not agree on an alternative set of policies but decided to raise the issue in Cartagena. Pérez later said that drug policy was the only issue discussed at the summit's final closed-door session.

This is, in fact, an important sign of progress. At previous summits, as Sabatini notes, heads of state merely smiled and waved, while donning guayaberas and issuing mind-numbing policy communiqués. This time they argued. And the U.S. president listened -- a skill at which he is uniquely gifted. Obama stayed in Colombia for three days, a record in itself. Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico, was quoted as saying that he had never before seen a U.S. leader sit and listen to other countries. And this really matters in Latin America, where memories are long for U.S. arrogance and condescension.

Of course, Obama thrilled listeners in the Middle East when he came to Cairo in 2009 and promised a new atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. The era of good feelings evaporated when Obama was unable to deliver what his audience really wanted, which was a Palestinian state. In Latin America, Obama remains enormously popular, but he may not have the maneuvering room to deliver on their issues any more than he could in Cairo. "The best he can do is sit there and listen," as Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, puts it.

The Obama administration has made some progress on Cuba, where Americans can now visit relatives and send remittances. But the U.S. embargo of Cuba strikes Latin Americans as an absurd anachronism and a testimony to the political power of Cuban exiles in Florida -- which is exactly what it is. Immigration reform is one of those issues -- one of the many, many issues -- that hopeful souls believe that Obama will address in his wished-for second term. And drugs pose a catastrophic problem for both the United States and its southern neighbors. A former senior U.S. administration official insisted to me that the administration had begun a "paradigm shift on drugs," from a dominant focus on eradication and interdiction to a wider approach stressing alternative development, institution-building and public health.

The Latin American experts I talked to don't see nearly as dramatic a change. Most favor the decriminalization of marijuana, an emphasis on treatment, sharp reductions in drug eradication south of the border, and a narrower focus on gangs and high-level operatives. But they don't expect to see it happen anytime soon.

It's good to have the United States nearby when Americans are buying the cars you assemble and the fruit you grow, but it's bad when Americans are sucking up vast amounts of the cocaine you plant and transport. Guatemala, as Stein puts it, has become a "service station of illegality," its institutions corrupted, its streets terrifying. Guatemala has 41 murders per 100,000 people; the rate in Honduras is double that. (In the United States, it's five.) Whatever progress these countries make is being undermined by an increasingly violent narco trade; they, not the United States, bear the brunt of the United States' endless war on drugs. The weakness and corruption of Central American states is as much to blame as the U.S. appetite, but that's only to say that any solution, or even mitigation, of the problem will require collective decision-making and action.

The heads of state at the summit in Cartagena agreed to refer the problem for further discussion to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Cold War body established by the United States to ward off Soviet influence in the region. The OAS is widely viewed as another relic of a bygone era of U.S. hegemony. The local media, according to Stein, described the move as something like "placing it an armoire with many locks." But things don't stay locked up in Latin America the way they used to. The drug problem, like the immigration problem and the Cuba problem, will keep coming back, and one of these days the United States will have to find a way of dealing with it.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Two Cheers for Malian Democracy

The West African country has a lot going for it, but sadly that's not enough.

It has been extremely gratifying to watch the swift reaction to the coup perpetrated last month against President Amadou Toumani Touré of Mali, a democratically elected figure who had planned to step down after an upcoming election. After barely more than a week, Ecowas, the West African regional organization, closed all borders with Mali, froze the flow of currency, and imposed travel bans on the junior officers who had led the coup. The United States, France, and other Western nations issued sanctions of their own. Angry crowds protested the coup in the streets of Bamako, Mali's capital. And after less than three weeks in power, the junta agreed to disband in favor of an interim civilian government. Hooray for democracy!

I have a soft spot for Mali. When I spent time there in 2007, I was struck by the peaceable atmosphere of Bamako, at least compared to other African capitals I knew. People spoke of cousinage, a sense of consanguinity which promoted an easy familiarity across ethnic lines. Malians seemed disinclined to fight one another; the traffic circles featured statues of animals rather than soldiers. And, for what it's worth, Mali makes beautiful music and lovely textiles. At the time, the country was hosting the biannual meeting of the Community of Democracies; poor as it is, Mali had been holding free and more or less fair elections since 1991. Mali was then, and suddenly has become once again, a reassuring symbol of Africa's commitment to democracy.

But then why the coup? Since successful democracies don't usually experience coups, the events of this past month raise the question of just what kind of a democracy Mali actually is. As the Economist noted, "Graft, increased perceptions of corruption and allegations of government involvement in smuggling drugs and arms mean that few are sad to see the back of Mr. Touré, who had already foiled two earlier coup plots in 2010." Despite those free and almost-fair elections, Mali has the kind of government you get in a very bad neighborhood, where states are easy prey for drug lords transiting cocaine from South America and smugglers ferrying cigarettes and pharmaceuticals across the desert. The cousinage just keeps things calm.

And let's not forget the other half of last month's drama. Captain Amadou Sanogo and his fellow putschists insisted that they had taken action because President Touré had failed to stem an insurgency by Touareg tribesmen and al Qaeda forces in the northern half of the country. In the midst of the coup, those forces overran remote military outposts, seized a vast chunk of desert -- including the provincial capital of Timbuktu -- and proclaimed the sovereignty of "Azawad," an area equal in size to France. Mali's military is helpless to respond, and must look once again to Ecowas, which may deploy its standby force to re-take the region. This democratic darling is looking a little bit like a failed state.

What good is a semi-failed state with elections? One answer is: Better than the alternative. According to Morton Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael Weinstein, the authors of The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, in the 1980s under the strongman rule of Moussa Traoré, Mali "experienced negative growth in eight years out of ten, underwent a 20 percent decline in per capita income to $250 and recorded unending fiscal deficits that doubled the national debt to 98 percent of GDP." After Amadou Toumani Traoré and other officers overthrew Touré and stepped aside for civilian rule -- an example, by the way, of a good coup -- a new president, Alpha Konaré, cut back on patronage, raised taxes, reduced government spending, and decentralized power, in turn encouraging the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make loans and international donors to increase aid. The authors of The Democracy Advantage use Mali as a prime example of their claim that democracies offer more economic benefits than autocracies. For all its weaknesses, democratic Mali is much to be preferred to autocratic Mali.

That's a meaningful answer; but it's all too easy to exaggerate the democratic advantage. The figures which Halperin et al. cite show that from 1960 to 2001, growth rates were about the same in low-income democracies and low-income autocracies, though the democracies do better on "social indicators" such as health and well-being. So that's one cheer for democracy. The high-growth states in Africa tend to have oil, like Nigeria and Angola; governance is beside the point. The few high-growth, low-resource countries include non-democracies like Ethiopia and Rwanda as well as democracies like Ghana. Mali is in the middle of the pack, at about 4.5 percent growth per year, though its population growth rate of around 3 percent has wiped out much of the effect. And now former President Touré -- or ATT, as he is known -- proved a less determined reformer than was Konaré.

Mali is a desperately poor country. The IMF ranks it 156 in the world in GDP per capita, two notches above Haiti. Social indicators, which democratic governments are supposed to boost, are much worse. Most Malians live in small villages without electricity or fresh drinking water or health clinics or schools. As Robert Kaplan recently pointed out, channeling Samuel Huntington, what Africa's weak states lack is not democracy but governance -- a functional state presence extending even into the hinterlands. The modern Malian state, whether elected or not, has never exercised authority in the vast wastelands of the Sahel in which the rebels have proclaimed their new state, any more than, say, the government of Sierra Leone has in the jungle interior. The feebleness of the West African state apparatus creates vacuums which are filled by smugglers, drug lords, or jihadists with global ambitions.

If the regional problem is not so much despotism as frailty, the solution is not so much democracy as capacity. Many Malians might be willing to swap their feckless democracy for, say, Rwanda's version of Prussian bureaucracy. Of course they can't, any more than the Rwandans could trade their murderous ethnic politics for Mali's cousinage. States are shaped by history, geography, and ethnic identity. In West Africa, authoritarianism has typically worn the garb not of the benevolent dictator but of the mutinous officer or the mumbling gerontocrat. Modernization theory, which once purported to explain how democracies develop, posited a phase of authoritarian state-building before nations were "ready" for democracy. There have been very few such cases in Africa. If Mali is ultimately going to build a real state which can provide at least minimal education, health care, and electric power, it will be because democratic leaders succeed in the slow work of forging economic growth and mobilizing citizens around public goals. So really, it's two cheers for democracy.

It is, of course, profoundly in the interest of the West to enhance the capacity of weak states, lest international criminal gangs and terrorists turn their hinterlands into a playground. That's why, for example, the United States agreed in 2006 to spend more than $400 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to help build up Bamako's international airport, and to increase land under irrigation. The MCC is an excellent program -- devised, let us not forget, by the George W. Bush administration -- which requires the recipient to draw up and carry out the development program while the United States retains oversight capacity. But after five years, progress in Mali looks pretty modest: The MCC lists many of the targets as being zero percent fulfilled. "Improving state capacity" is harder than it sounds -- by several orders of magnitude.

Still, it's good news that the people of Mali are still attached to their rickety democracy after 20 years. And it's good news that Ecowas was able to restore that democracy without firing a shot (though re-taking Azawad will prove a much harder job). Mali will probably have an election some time next month. Another free-and-almost-fair one will be nice -- but it won't be enough.