Trying to figure out who won the Iraq war is a challenging parlour game. Nearly every faction, group and nation has lost. The only evident victors are Iran, the Kurds and a handful of giant American corporations.
It is slowly becoming clear, however, that there is another winner: Latin America. With the United States so totally consumed by the Iraq conflict, it has no time, energy or political capital to crack down on challenges south of the Rio Grande. Sensing their historic chance, many Latin nations have embarked on experiments that the US would in past eras have instantly stepped in to crush.
The independence that many Latin American countries have shown in the last five years borders on outright defiance of US power. Yet to a degree unprecedented in modern history, Washington is allowing them to do as they please.
This week voters in Paraguay elected a left-leaning president who admires Che Guevara and whose three activist brothers were tortured during the long US-sponsored dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner. Although he is likely to be the newest Latin American president to join the club of anti-Yanqui leaders, the US made no concerted effort to prevent his victory.
Just a few days before, it was reported that Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, who as the foreign minister of Sandinista Nicaragua during the 1980s was one of the era’s most virulently anti-American figures, will be the next president of the United Nations General Assembly. Under other circumstances, Washington might well have launched a full-scale campaign to block his candidacy.
The government of Ecuador has announced that it will oppose renewing the American lease on the sprawling military base at Manta, one of the largest US bases in Latin America. The US, which has spent $60m upgrading the base so it can be used by a variety of aircraft including Awacs surveillance planes, is mightily unhappy, but is doing little to stop Ecuadorans from closing it. In no previous era would the US have simply sat quietly and allowed this to happen.
Earlier this year, Colombian soldiers pursued guerrillas into Ecuador, thereby setting off a crisis that briefly seemed about to explode into war. With Colombia ruled by one of the hemisphere’s few remaining pro-US governments, officials in Washington might have been expected to rally ostentatiously to its side. Instead they uttered barely a peep, and the crisis was resolved by Latin Americans without any guidance from “el norte”.This is a radical departure from more than a century of US policy toward Latin America. President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that policy in 1904, in his succinct “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. Its essence was an assertion that the US had assumed “an international police power” and would intervene in any Latin American country that engaged in “chronic wrongdoing” or failed to meet its “obligations”.
In the decades that followed, the United States sponsored dictatorships from Cuba to Brazil, deposed governments from Chile to Guatemala, landed Marines on shores from Panama to Haiti, and thwarted the election of independent-minded leaders from Guyana to the Dominican Republic. Generations of Latin Americans grew up understanding that any challenge to US hegemony in the hemisphere would be crushed swiftly and with all necessary violence.
That has now changed so decisively that this week, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador felt moved to predict the emergence of a “socialist Latin America”. He recently fired his defence minister and chief military commanders on the grounds that had allowed Ecuador’s intelligence apparatus to become “totally infiltrated and subjugated to the CIA”. Not long ago, any politician who spoke like this would have brought the full wrath of the United States down upon himself and his country.
The US has not suddenly become more tolerant of challenges from south of its border. It simply has no resources left to deal with them. The Bush administration has become the geopolitical version of the proverbial simpleton who cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. Overwhelmed by what is happening in and around Iraq, it is paying little attention to other parts of the world. No region has taken more advantage of this felicitous turn of36than Latin America.
Many voters in the US were horrified when senator John McCain suggested that the occupation of Iraq might last for another century. Latin Americans, however, could be forgiven for liking the idea. The last five years have shown them that the more fully the US sinks into its Middle East quagmire, the more freedom they will have to chart their own futures.
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