April 24, 2019

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Diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdés speaks at Columbia SIPA on April 17, 2019.
Juan Gabriel Valdés says 2019 will be an important year for U.S.-Latin American relations.
How the current crisis in Venezuela is addressed in the months ahead will likely determine the relationships in the west hemisphere for years to come. So said the longtime Chilean diplomat Juan Gabriel Valdés, who spoke on “Latin America and the United States: Back to the Future or Ahead to the Past?” at SIPA on April 17.

Valdés, who served as Chile’s minister of foreign affairs and later as the country’s ambassador to the United States, is the George W. Ball Adjunct Professor for spring 2019. In giving this semester’s George Ball Lecture, Valdés reviewed the state of the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America and how polarization and the role of China have made things tense.

Earlier that day, hours before Valdés stood at the lectern, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton had declared the Monroe Doctrine “alive and well.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had just come back from Chile and Peru, where he had pressured them to denounce Chinese presence in their countries. Indeed, in recent weeks President Trump has threatened to cut aid, close borders and attacked the president of Colombia, likely his greatest ally in the region.

Valdés said that Latin America is adjusting to being in the U.S. administration’s spotlight.

“We are overwhelmed by the attention,” he said, to laughs from the crowd.

Offering an overview of recent decades, Valdés suggested that after the Cold War ended, the United States had disengaged from its traditional role in Latin America. As communism faded and competition began to rise in Latin America, free trade opened up with other parts of the world. Latin American nations chased the dream of autonomy by diversifying and opening up to free trade—and China, in particular, took advantage of the opportunity to invest.

“The common trait in the foreign policy of Latin American countries is autonomy—not just national, but also regional,” said Valdés.

Most countries in the region have gained autonomy over the last 20 years, he added. But polarization, the emergence of conservative regimes in the region and in the United States, and the competition between the United States and China has put Latin American in a precarious position.

“China is too important,” said Valdés.

Chinese projects, trade and investments are now critical to the region’s economies, Valdés explained, so American demands that Latin American countries distance themselves from China put them between a rock and a hard place.

But more than the struggle between China and the United States, Valdés said, it is the Venezuelan crisis that will define Latin American relations in the coming years. American threats to send the military would amount to regime change, he said; this possibility has led the Lima Group—which he said is the only functional multilateral organization left in Latin America—to distance itself from the crisis.

Valdés said he worries that if the United States acts in such a manner in Venezuela, efforts at regime change will follow elsewhere—most likely in Nicaragua and Cuba. This would not sit well with Latin American countries seeking more control over their own affairs, setting up a struggle between Latin America and the United States for control over the region.

To avoid this fate, Latin America must take the lead in Venezuela, said Valdés, arguing that whatever the outcome, at least the region will have made the decisions for itself.

The consequences of the American and China struggle for dominance, particularly in technology and trade, and the handling of the Venezuelan crisis will go a long way in determining the region’s relationship with the rest of the world.

That critical moment “for the future of our hemisphere will happen this year,” Valdés concluded.

— Claire Teitelman MPA ’19

photo by Barbara Alper

Latin America and the United States: Back to the Future or Ahead to the Past?