Latin Americans are embracing globalization and their former colonial masters

June 2

Venezuelan public health workers face riot police during a protest in Caracas on March 10. At least 20 people have died and 300 others have been wounded since protests first erupted, giving President Nicolas Maduro his biggest test since succeeding late leader and leftist icon Hugo Chavez almost a year ago. (JUAN BARRETO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

This is a guest post by Andy Baker, a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of “The Market and the Masses in Latin America” and “Shaping the Developing World.”

Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano recently renounced his 1971 classic, “Open Veins of Latin America,” one of a few books in the Latin American left’s pantheon. In the book, Galeano argued that colonial masters drained Latin America of natural resources for three centuries, Britain took advantage of the region’s underpriced labor and exports via unequal international trade, and the United States violated its southern neighbors’ sovereignty with military incursions and the economic impositions of its multinational corporations and the International Monetary Fund.

As reported in the New York Times, Galeano disavowed these arguments, saying reality has changed. In actuality, Latin American citizens already had disavowed such claims. All evidence shows them to be surprisingly enthusiastic about globalization and incredibly forgiving of their colonial and neo-colonial tormentors.

This is surely unexpected. After all, Latin America is the region that spawned dependency theory, which was the neo-Marxist body of scholarly thought that informed Galeano’s critique of international trade.  Latin America also hosted dozens of leftist guerrilla movements during the Cold War, Fidel Castro, and the countless anti-American and anti-capitalist rants of the late Hugo Chávez, who famously gifted President Obama with a copy of Galeano’s book upon first meeting. However, survey data from the Latinobarómetro Corp., which has interviewed nationwide samples of citizens in 18 Latin American countries almost annually since 1995, and the Pew Global Attitudes surveys show Latin Americans to be embracing globalization and its former colonial masters.

Consider first beliefs about the former colonial master. In the 2007 and 2009, Latinobarómetro surveys, more than two-thirds of respondents in the formerly Spanish colonies said the historical influence of Spain in their country was positive — nearly five times the number who said its influence was negative. And huge majorities, typically in the 80 percent range, had favorable opinions of Spain.

Admittedly, Spain’s colonial domination ended two centuries ago, so perhaps the wounds from the neo-imperialist interventions by the United States are fresher and deeper. Indeed, as a result of Chávez’s diatribes (“The United States is the greatest terrorist in world history”) and other leftist presidents in the region, the perception that Latin America is a hotbed of anti-Americanism is widespread.

Yet survey data shows that nothing could be further from the truth. About three-quarters of Latinobarómetro respondents express favorable opinions of the United States, as I have shown in collaborative work with David Cupery. Even more surprising: The most pro-American countries are those most victimized by U.S. military forays.

For example, the Dominican Republic was invaded and occupied two separate times by the United States in the 20th century, but today 90 percent of Dominicans express pro-American sentiments. A similar share of El Salvador citizens are pro-American, despite the U.S. government’s backing of brutal military dictatorships there during the Cold War. Even a majority of Mexicans, who lost half their territory to the United States in the 1840s and today suffer mightily from the U.S. war on drugs, hold favorable opinions toward the United States.

And what of those multinational corporations? As it turns out, Latin Americans like them. In a 2009 book, I demonstrated that majorities in virtually all countries think that foreign investment is good for the country and should be encouraged. Similarly, between 2002 and 2010 the Pew Global Attitudes survey asked respondents in eight Latin American countries whether they think the influence of large foreign companies is good or bad. Large majorities, including in Venezuela, said “good.” Moreover, both survey projects show international trade to be even more popular than foreign investment in Latin America: More than 70 percent of respondents think free trade has been beneficial.

But wait! Hasn’t there been a wave of voter support for the left in Latin America in recent years, precisely because leftist leaders have tapped into a deep reservoir of longstanding discontent with the United States and globalization? Not really. Americans and other Westerners surely flatter themselves in thinking that Latin Americans are thinking about them when they vote. Matters closer to home, such as the domestic economy, incumbent competence and corruption tend to swing Latin American elections, just as they do in the United States. The left rose much less because of voters’ wholesale rejection of globalization and more because of their desire to slow the pace of other market reforms.

Latin Americans are not wholly uncritical of the United States and globalization. For example, President George W. Bush and the Iraq war were deeply unpopular in the region. Yet when it comes to their economic ills, Latin Americans do not blame the likes of Spain, the IMF, Warren Buffett, or even the U.S. military, as Galeano did in his previous life. Instead, they tend to blame their governments. As is seemingly the case in all democracies, voters in Latin America exact retribution against governments that oversee sluggish economies, and the ham-fisted attempts by Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, to continue blaming Venezuela’s downward spiral on the United States are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

Galeano’s decision to recant his old work in the face of a new reality and new evidence on globalization was intellectually brave and admirable. As it turns out, Latin American citizens were way ahead of him.

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