Latin America

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U.S. Public Diplomacy In Latin America: Beyond the Narrative of “America First,” “Bad Hombres” and “Nasty Women”

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Photo credit: Agencia Prensa Rural. “Generación de la paz.” June 20, 2016. Acceded from Flickr.

Latin America: The trends beyond the headlines

You wouldn’t know it from President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but Latin America is an immensely important economic and security partner for the United States. Increasingly open and engaged, the region has seen a dramatic shift in the last twenty years away from insecurity and protectionism and toward international cooperation, with deep impacts for the United States. Opening doors for U.S. investments in Argentina, President Mauricio Macri has enacted outward-looking economic and trade policies following decades of protectionist economics. Bringing revenue to U.S. farmers, the North American Free Trade Agreement has more than doubled United States agricultural exports to Mexico, making the country the United States’ third largest agricultural market. Securing peace in the Western Hemisphere after 52 years of conflict, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have taken steps to reconcile polarization and to reach a renewed peace agreement following the national plebiscite. Far beyond the picture of illegal immigration Donald Trump paints, Latin America has benefited the United States and will continue to do so. The region has cleaned up its act. If the next U.S. administration wants to continue its strategic and beneficial partnership with its neighbors to the South, it may want to clean up its rhetoric. Public diplomacy can help.

The gaps, the new global players, and PD

In the weeks following the election of a presidential candidate that espoused a vision of isolationism and “America first,” engagement with Latin America has come under fire. In fact, if President-elect Trump sticks by his promises, U.S. bilateral and free trade agreements with countries in Latin America may be rolled back, cultural engagement may wane and investments may suffer. With countries like China and Russia increasingly present in Latin America, gaps may widen that allow for these nations to predominantly influence the political, cultural and economic conversation and realities in the region with potentially far-reaching consequences for the United States.

Whether or not a Trump-led pivot inward becomes a reality, at a time of deep misunderstanding and polarization, U.S. public diplomacy is imperative. Having long sustained relationships, public diplomacy has the potential to not only highlight the plethora of benefits engagement has brought to the United States and to countries in the region, but also assure the United States is seen as more than Donald Trump makes it out to be. Public diplomacy’s ongoing and long-term nature can thus help counter negative perceptions to facilitate the continuation of U.S. ties with the region. If nothing else, public diplomacy must go on.

Rhetoric’s consequences: America alone in the world?

During the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States, Latin American governments and publics bristled at the anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant and anti-trade narrative the Republican candidate adopted. As a result, weeks after the election, it has been suggested America’s soft power may be a casualty of that toxic narrative. Shashi Tharoor, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, suggests that while America’s domestic narrative has in the past made up for its foreign policy mishaps, Trump’s narrative of Mexico as a hub of illegal immigration, his suggestion that a Muslim registry be enacted and his overall comments against NAFTA and trade may now lead countries to associate America with “xenophobia,” “misogyny,” “pessimism,” and “selfishness.”

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore. “Donald Trump.” Accessed on Flickr.

In lieu of the future President’s campaign promises, United States diplomats will have the tough job of shaping a narrative in a world replete with uncertainties. Because candidates tend to act on the promises they make on the campaign trail, the United States is likely to turn inward and to prioritize little about foreign policy with Latin America other than immigration and border security. Consequently, at the end of four years, the United States may no longer be seen as the country of the American dream. From a security standpoint, it may no longer have the influence it wishes to have.

The role of public diplomacy in strengthening ties

Realistically, it is too soon to say just how United States foreign policy and alliances will change when President-elect Trump comes into office.

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U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson speaks on U.S. engagement with Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

But, in Latin America, U.S. public diplomats can capitalize on shared interests and general positive public opinion of the United States to enhance a public diplomacy strategy that emphasizes the political processes, the strength of civil societies and businesses, and the freedom of speech and press — pillars of North American and Latin American democracies. United States personnel on the ground will surely encounter challenges in creating mutual understanding with Latin America because a say-do gap will inevitably exist. That said, vast sectors of the United States already actively engage with the region: businesses are investing, universities and research institutions have ongoing student, scientific and professional exchange programs, and NGOs already have a robust presence on the ground. In other words, public diplomacy is being conducted by other parties, whether or not we want to call it by that name. The foundation for collaboration is in place. Realistically, that foundation and those shared interests will not disappear overnight.

All of this is to say that as the new President prepares to enter the White House, U.S. public diplomacy should be more committed than ever to mitigating alienation of foreign audiences and sustaining open-minded two-way conversations. Latin America is moving away from populism at a time when the rest of the world moves toward it. U.S. public diplomacy is ripe to simultaneously reconcile a United States history of interventionism and foster long-term relationships by emphasizing shared interests, by sticking to active sectors of public diplomacy, and by sharing with the world the diversity of viewpoints that exist in the United States. This country has an interest in fostering mutual understanding, maintaining engagement, and sustaining its long-standing partnerships in the region. Beyond the narrative that comprises “America first,” “bad hombres,” and “nasty women,” U.S. public diplomacy remains alive and has the potential to mitigate negative perceptions over the long haul. At a moment of worldwide uncertainty—wars in the Middle East, a debilitating refugee crisis, increasing Russian and Chinese influence, and Britain’s exit from the European Union—Latin America is not only a region at peace but one that is quickly growing. It falls on U.S. public diplomats to bridge divisive narratives fueled by Donald Trump to assure engagement efforts are sustained. This will help guarantee the United States continues to reap the mutually prosperous benefits of collaboration with Latin America.

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University. 

Brazil’s Public Diplomacy Ahead of the World Cup

Dilma Rousseff (left) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter (right) with the World Cup trophy. Source: AP

Dilma Rousseff (left) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter (right) with the World Cup trophy. Source: AP

With only a day until the 2014 FIFA World Cup, international press appear to have a singular focus on all that is going wrong in Brazil and its state of preparation (or lack there of). They are not entirely without merit – eight people have died in the construction and restoration of stadiums, of which delays have been widely reported; protests around the country are unrelenting and increasingly violent, to say nothing of the security in the favelas surrounding São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that police forces still struggle to control.

Given this, what has Brazil done from a public diplomacy standpoint to counter the perception that it is not quite ready to host the Cup? Not much, it seems. To the extent that virtually every major global news outlet – CNN, the BBC, even their own O Globo newspaper – focuses on the singular narrative of unpreparedness, Brazilians appear to be in accord with that narrative: not only are they unprepared, but they firmly believe that hosting the cup will actually hurt Brazil’s image abroad, according to a recent Pew survey. On Twitter, users are using the hashtag ‘#imaginanacopa’, or ‘imagine the cup’, in tweets to allude the pending “doom” Brazilians predict World Cup will have on their country.

Even President Dilma Rousseff, who is largely defensive to this reaction, is inadvertently focused on the looming chaos as evidenced by her call for increasing funds to security and police forces and admitting to foreign journalists just days before the opening ceremony that things are indeed being done at the last minute:

“Everywhere in the world these big engineering projects always go down to the wire,” she said from a dinner with foreign journalists – her first before the World Cup – at Alvorada Palace in Brasilia. “Those who want to protest will be allowed to do so 100%,” adding that the vast majority of Brazilians will be supporting the Cup and protesters “will not be allowed to interfere or disrupt the tournament.” BBC.com, June 4

She has also taken the step of not speaking at the opening ceremony on Thursday, but largely at the behest of FIFA, which has also received a fair amount of backlash from the Brazilian public. Though the move is probably wise, it is not likely to be enough for Brazil’s public diplomacy to advance as it faces mounting doubt and weariness from both within and outside the country. Perhaps this reflects Rousseff’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude that once the games begin, all will be forgotten. She may have a point: in the 2010 World Cup, reports leading up to the event shed a similar light on the state of security in South Africa. The only legacy it has now is the buzzing sound of vuvuzelas.

Overall, however, Brazil has done a poor job of using a valuable soft power tool like the World Cup to promote its public diplomacy. There are a few opportunities for redemption: 1. The month-long event passes without any major disasters or deaths resulting from the dubious transportation systems, or 2. If Brazil wins the Cup, which, despite being the heavy favorite, some analysts warn that it is not as much as it should be for a home team. Otherwise, Rousseff may have to spend the rest of the year answering the question “Was it worth it?” rather than focusing on economic and foreign policies during her re-election in October. One can only hope that if she does win, public diplomacy lessons learned from managing the World Cup can be applied to the execution of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Venezuela: Public Diplomacy Implications & the US

Thousands of people gathered in central Caracas to protest against the government of Nicolas Maduro. Source: yalibnan.com

Thousands of people gathered in central Caracas to protest against the government of Nicolas Maduro. Source: yalibnan.com

On February 12, multiple peaceful-turned-violent protests erupted in the major cities of Venezuela. These rallies conducted by university students have snowballed into a national conflict between the state and its citizens. The students were pacifically voicing their discontent against the government for the innumerable injustices currently plaguing Venezuela. The mandate to arrest these students turned highly controversial and thus incited the monumental manifestations, teeming with violence, that have taken place over the past few weeks. The nation’s president, Nicolas Maduro, commanded militarized police authorities to inhibit the protests, which has regrettably resulted in many injuries and deaths.

These incidents simply add further lines to the long list of mistreatments of citizens by the Venezuelan Government. Although international media has been scant as the crisis unfolds internally, manifestations and pleas for support have now reached a worldwide audience.

However, as we know there are always two sides of the story. Instead of addressing or planning to resolve the issues tormenting Venezuelan citizens, President Maduro’s tactics included a massive campaign to portray his government, at least attempt to, as victims of a conspiracy plan to overthrow their regime.

Venezuela’s public diplomacy abroad

This week, President Maduro’s administration began strategic movements to diffuse their two important messages: first, that information reaching international audiences regarding the situation in the country has been manipulated and exaggerated by media agents; second, to convince the international public’s opinion that the United States is partly to blame for the instability in the country due to their intervention with internal affairs through supporting the opposition.

These approaches have been used both domestically and internationally. Within Venezuela, it has been easier to manipulate due to the government’s ownership over the majority of communication outlets, and the immense oppression of information over private or international ones.

One of the main global venues used to broadcast these messages are Venezuelan embassies throughout the world; mostly through their social media pages. Additionally, just this week the Venezuelan Chancellor for external affairs, Elias Jaua, has commenced a global tour in search for support of the current government and more broadly the continuation of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Have their public outreach efforts been effective?

The problem with Venezuela’s credibility is the shocking and inspiring number of demonstrations taking place in the country, as well as the increasing momentum gathering world-wide denouncing the events and actions taken by the government. What is being protested against President Maduro’s administration transcends above local needs; citizens demand fundamental democratic principles.

For instance, 1) media repression and the current control of information and media outlets, 2) Oppressing freedom of assembly by using militarized security force against protesters, and 3) jailing his opponents such as the incarceration of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These tactics, historically used by authoritarian regimes, have made it difficult for President Maduro to hide violations and defend his so-called democracy.

The social, political, and economic conditions in Venezuela are favorable to the development and continuation of large-scale protests and discontent with the government. However, it is the hope all Venezuelans to see their government actively working towards the amelioration of the country’s conditions, rather than actively seeking international approval and support of their 15-year failed socialist revolution.

The United States’ role

The structural conflict that has allowed for institutionalized state violence is due in part because all opposition groups or organization voicing the smallest criticism against the Venezuelan government are silenced, rebutted, punished, or censored by the government or its supporters. Thereunto, the United States government is indirectly forced to opt for ambiguous remarks and denunciations against Venezuela; carefully wording its discontent against the actions and the situation as a way to avoid accusations of “invading in internal affairs.”

Yet, even when President Obama’s administration is selective in its statements, Venezuela’s government will take any hint of criticism as a window of opportunity to rally up “anti-imperialistic” sentiments among its supporters and the region. For example on February 17, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made his remarks about the situation evolving in Venezuela, President Maduro expelled three U.S. diplomats from the country, claiming they were associated with and supported the opposition’s plot. Evidently, the United States responded with the same method. It is worth reminding the reader that the countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010, proving the dire diplomatic relationships between the two governments.

The United States’ public diplomacy goals in this complicated situation should focus on defending its image among Venezuelans. Through this, the ultimate long term objective is the improvement of America’s reputation among Latin America’s left-wing countries.

Oriana Piña is a graduate student at the George Washington University pursuing a M.A. in Global Communications, with a concentration in Latin American Studies. She is passionate about democracy, diplomacy, cultural understanding and international affairs. Follow her at @OrianaIntl.

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