A tragedy in three acts
The third debate between Barack Obama and John McCain converged to free trade. The elephant in the room was NAFTA. In spite of being the largest and most successful such agreement, the presidential contenders failed to acknowledge either Canada or Mexico as important trade partners. In this light, to McCain the strongest ally of the United States in the Americas is Colombia. To Obama, it seems that Peru, with improved trade union and environmental policies, could make an ideal partner. Either way, there are reasons to fear a tragedy in three acts.
Act one: The enemy of my enemy is my enemy
Shortly after 9/11, a Muslim woman was walking down the street in an affluent Mexico City neighborhood. A group of construction workers shouted at her ‘terrorist’ and some other unflattering terms. Noting their ‘unjustifiable ignorance’, quote, a businessman came to the rescue. Similar popular reactions were reported in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Sao Paulo, and other Latin American metropolis. Building on shared expectations that the administration of George W. Bush would work to strengthen the political and economic foundations of the emerging democracies in the region, Latin Americans rallied behind the US. Eight years down the road, the opposite turned out to be the case: Bush discontinued the Latin American project. Feeding on popular disappointment and the debacles of the Iraq war, Marxist agitators have partly filled the gap left by the departure of the US from what used to be considered its natural sphere of influence.
McCain might choose to downplay Canada and Mexico as important free-trade markets in favor of Colombia, but Obama’s policies undermine development and security aspirations south of the border altogether. Moreover, Obama’s protectionist policies are like music to the ears of the rising Marxist-oriented elites. He criticizes the capitalist model in a manner that echoes in and enhances their cause.
Act two: Common sense becomes the antithesis
Certain father, let us call him Joe Sr., worked hard to send Joe Jr. to the best university he could afford. Five years later, Joe Jr. told dad what he learned: there appears to be a correlation between development and security. “But son”, Joe Sr. muted as not to offend young Joe, “we have known that all along. They key is finding a way to get there.” Joe Sr., busy working on his pluming business to pay for the tuition fees, was unaware that development discourse found a new lease of life when theorists and practitioners, finally, started to link economic well being with raising levels of security (or the mirror image linking underdevelopment to insecurity, if the reader prefers). Careers were launched, countless books written, international programs engineered, emerging democracies embraced free trade, and Joe Jr. attained his degree on development studies.
McCain was shy to straight talk the common sense of free trade familiar to Joe Sr., who sees it as an opportunity to tackle the current economic downturn. Joe Jr. was bewildered too. He knows that jobs lost in America have gone to China and other countries in Asia opting for circumventing trade agreements. The two Joes are therefore unable to understand why Obama is making NAFTA a centerpiece of his attacks.
Act three: Free trade as a forgone conclusion
Chronic corruption continues to affect Latin American constabularies, hence undermining the development and security aspirations of countless communities. Nevertheless, due in part to the diminished engagement of the US in the region, the problem has been exacerbated over the last few years. This, at the same time, has lent momentum to a dangerous shift to the left. Marxist-oriented leadership, higher levels of corruption, and the spread of violence associated with the drug trade appear not to make strange bedfellows. In this respect, some of the latest tactics employed by Hugo Chavez followers, including the use of grenades against the civilian population, can only be characterized as acts of terrorism.
In addressing all these connection, there is hope McCain would reassert the importance of Latin America for the longer-term strategic interests of the US. He might wake up one day thinking about the implications of free trade (or the absence of it) for the development and security of the region. We stress 'hope' and 'might' because, although security is his strong suit and he has held meetings with the presidents of Colombia and Mexico, his campaign lost direction the moment Sarah Palin walked in. If Obama is elected president, on the other hand, he is only likely to disengage further from Latin America, a place he has never set foot. Besides that China for sure will step in, do not doubt for a second the trinity of Marxist leadership, corruption, and narco violence would only strengthen and inevitably create a feedback effect in the US.
Epilogue: the Africanization and Iraqization of violence
The reader might ask where private security is here. The answer is simple. In the absence of law and order in the manner known to advanced democracies, development and free trade in Latin America have progressed with a private security cover attached to them. We will wait for the outcome of the election before properly exploring the likely implications of ‘free trade as a forgone conclusion’ for the security industry. Alongside the possibility that parts of the continent (and the security industry) would be Africanized, narco forces are already posing a bigger challenge by modeling themselves on al-Qaeda. While Obama has been discussing the option of effectively terminating NAFTA and McCain the success of the surge in Iraq, severed heads have been rolling down Mexico’s badlands.
October 15, 2008