What is a Visionist?

"A visionist is an artist, a creator or an individual that sees beyond what is visible to the eyes and brains of human beings. Visionists are thinkers, they are the recognisable brains in soociety, but most times they are seen as absurd, "nerds" and misfits – they just don't fit into the societies. They are people with great dreams and minds."

The English Wikipedia

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Visionist as Latin Americanist: Part I

One of the causes which motivates me is the restoration of a strong alliance between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean. We have not always had a relationship of equality with the countries to our south, but we have shared a common history and destiny and it seems to me that we should struggle to sustain it.

I keep up a good relationship with colleagues in the State Department on matters concerning Latin America, and in all fairness, often the Department receives too much criticism for ignoring our own neighbors. There is actually a good record of relationships with the hemisphere. The Department has just put out an excellent fact sheet to prove it.

Unfortunately, in the business of foreign policy, perception is just as important as reality, and the perception that is most commonly held is that we are neglecting Latin America. Some in Latin America see that as a blessing, for in the words of a former Mexican leader, his country was "so close to the United States and so far from God." In reality, however, most people in Latin America want to know the United States retains a sincere, and benign but commited interest in its fate and our relationship.

The Americas were born out of conquest, slavery and revolution from colonialism and thus share a common legacy. I was excited to read a recent article that Gov. Bill Richardson wrote for Foreign Service magazine, advocating the development of a "New Alliance for Progress," and hope that his dropping out as President-elect Obama's nominee for Secretary of Commerce does not kill that idea. In my years representing the United States in Latin America, I was always struck by the strong bonds of friendship that unite our peoples and the admiration Latin Americans showed for the United States, its freedoms and its promise. Few Americans understand that one of the most prized possessions in Latin America is a current US visa.
Good relations between our countries were strong due to FDR's benign "Good Neighbor" policy. Latin America was a firm ally of the United States in World War II. The Kennedy years, despite the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, were years when the hemisphere felt a close connection with the United States and its young, dynamic (and Catholic) President. Not only the Alliance for Progress, but also the Peace Corps and such people-to-people exchange programs as the Partners of the Americas flourished. Although the Alliance "lost its way," the people-to-people programs have continued to be vital.
In truth, our narrow focus on economic interests and support for dictators who were "SOBs, but our SOBs" just after the War, and for authoritarian dictatorships during the Cold War during the second part of the 1960s and early 1970s created a legacy of mistrust and resentment that we live under today. What is often forgotten in the hemisphere is that to a major shift in favor of human rights and democracy under Jimmy Carter's Presidency siginficantly promoted a major return to democracy in the region in over the past thirty years. Nevertheless, our adherence to "neo-liberal" economic policies and the "Washington Consensus" did not earn us the love and tenderness that we had obtained during the period of either the New Deal or the New Frontier.
US interests in the hemisphere remain very large. The largest minority group in our country is now its Hispanic population, and its proportion is likely to grow as will our human ties to Latin America. Immigration is a huge issue that has not been successfully addressed. Despite the War on Drugs, the flow of narcotics to our country and the destructive affect of the drug trade both on our own society and on that of Latin America remain major issues. A major reassessment of our narcotics policy around the world by a blue ribbon commisssion would be of value. The current, large scale war among organized drug gangs in Northern Mexico constitutes a "clear and present danger" to the security of both countreis. Immigration and drugs will certainly be addressed by the visit of Mexican President Calderon to Washington this week to meet President-elect Obama.
Something really unfortunate happened in the broad flow of US-Latin relations: at the very moment democracy was triumphing in the hemisphere, a group of populist leaders , wedded to outdated socialist ideologies and an admiration of Fidel Castro and driven by indigenous and class resentments dating back to the Conquest, came into power in the Andes through fair and free elections. A failure by the elites in these countries and of the policy of the United States to address historic issues of socio-economic inequality and representation in the region fueled resentments and scape-goating. Without question, this phenomenon might not have reached this level of criticality, had it not been for the emergence of specific historic leadership figures in these countries. However, the decimation of the middle classes in these countries due to policies of the international economic system contributed to this process.
However, we have some strong partners in the hemisphere, including Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile and most of the countries of Central America and the Caribbean. We need to build on these relationships and gently win back the hearts and minds of the people of the Andes. A strong focus on indigenous rights and development is important. President Obama's participation in upcoming Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April will set an important tone for our relationship in the hemisphere. I worked on the first Summit, know how much goes on to shape those events, and hope that a lot of good work is going into its preparation. A non-event reiterating hackneyed rhetoric would be a lost opportunity.
I believe in a special relationship with Brazil. Brazil is the major nation of Latin America in terms of physical size, population, wealth, democratic vitality, energy and environmental leadership and potential to become a great power. I believe in the importance of "pivotal states," and Brazil certainly qualifies as the pivotal state in Latin America and our most important partner in South America. Brazil is the B in BRIC, a term used originally by Goldman Sachs to identify the emerging economic powerhouses of the globe, including Russia, India and China. Brazil's history and example of multiculturalism and racial tolerance is a strong beacon to the world. Its rich culture has charmed the world.
Brazil's political and cultural elites, however, often bristle at any idea of playing a second fiddle to Uncle Sam's violin. An effort needs to be made by well meaning people on both sides of the relationship to move it in the direction of equality and mutual respect and support. While the US cannot relinquish its relationships on South America, a careful collaboration with Brazil on things South American should be pursued. The US should name a world class Ambassador-statesman to Brazil--hopefully an African-American political leader--to forge a relationship that restores not only the letter but the spirit of the Rio Treaty in our relationship which will spill over to the rest of the hemisphere. Also, President Obama should make an early historic visit to Brazil and other leading countries in the region as soon as possible. The United States should support Brazil's aspirations to become a permanent member (without veto power) of the UN Security Council (as it has publicly supported that of Japan) in the context of UN Security Council reform. We should help Brazil to overcome resistance and resentment to this proposal on the part of some of Brazil's own hemispheric brother and sister countries.
Despite the ideas mentioned here, there is no single silver bullet for restoring our relationships in the hemisphere, but the advent of the Obama administration with its fresh face and promise of change offers the basis for creative diplomacy and the promotion of a common focus on democracy, human rights, social equality, civil society promotion, environmental custodianship and cultural and educational exchange and an intense effort to bring about successful conclusion of hemispheric and global trade negotiations. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of strong leadership and a talented, experienced diplomatic team under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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