Detrimental to US Interests...Look Who's Talking

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Last weekend, when the Latin American Studies Association met in Montreal, I suppose some member of the Bush administration was celebrating somewhere, one of the emptiest political victories this crowd has ever tried to ring up.

However small, this incident reminds us of the declining state of our diplomacy, our loss of influence in the Americas, and a loss of intellectual imagination that afflicts both sides of the political divide here in the United States.

Here's the back story.

The Latin American Studies Association, or "LASA," is the largest professional association for individuals and institutions involved in the study of Latin America. A quarter of its members live outside the United States. Its scholars study everything from democracy and civil society in Mexico, to Chile's use of memorials to heal its society after Pinochet, to the region's increasing rejection of the free market policies that Washington has championed.

Through much of its history, LASA has had its massive conferences here in the United States. Our government welcomed this; not only do conventions attracting thousands of participants spend good money, but academic exchanges are properly understood as expressions and instruments of diplomacy. Good scholars and research help us unlock the mysteries and menaces we see from afar. This has been received wisdom, until recently.

Since 2003, the Bush administration has been systematically excluding scholars from Cuba and preventing them from attending the LASA conferences. In 2003, only about half of the Cuban academics who sought to attend the Dallas conference actually received visas. The following year, none were allowed to go, and this pattern of exclusion has persisted.

LASA finally decided that if the Cubans couldn't attend the conference in the United States that they would stop meeting here. So, it pulled out of an agreement with the City of Boston and moved its thousands of participants and eleven-hundred workshops to Montreal.

When the American Association of University Teachers asked the State Department why it wouldn't allow the Cubans to attend, they were told that Cuban participation "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States."

So there you have it. It's detrimental to our interests for Cuban scholars to attend a meeting of the most important Latin American studies institution if it occurs on U.S. soil. Who are they kidding?

And what abject hypocrisy!

Look at what the U.S. State Department said, in its 2006 Human Rights report, about the status of academic freedom in Cuba:

The government restricted academic freedom and continued to emphasize the importance of reinforcing revolutionary ideology and discipline. Academics were prohibited from meeting with some diplomats without prior government approval.

I guess it's okay if we do it, huh?

But hypocrisy alone isn't the issue. The Bush folks have the world wrong. They don’t talk to governments with whom they disagree. They scorn intellectuals, academics, and research. They imagine a region that can be divided between supporters of Castro and Chávez and supporters of the U.S. and President Bush. And they can be strikingly disengaged from the declining currency of American power and the waning support for our policies and ideas.

The LASA conference was titled "After the Washington Consensus," and what better emblem of our disengagement than to see such a vibrant academic exchange taking place in Canada, because our policy of excluding Cubans forced LASA to meet elsewhere.

And so a conversation -- no, a thousand conversations -- that should have occurred inside the United States was instead exiled to Canada. Boy did that serve Fidel Castro and the Cubans right! (I hope the author of the visa policy got the laugh he wanted.)

The day after I got home from Canada, the Financial Times ran a scolding column by Nancy Soderberg, our former U.N. Ambassador and a Clinton-era security advisor, and it was a reminder to me that the Bush administration has no monopoly on this kind of foolishness.

The column was addressed to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina's first lady, and the leading candidate to succeed her husband as their nation’s president after the balloting that will occur on October 28th. Among Ms. Soderberg's demands were that Argentina reject Hugo Chávez and pay more respect to the kinds of economic policies that are denounced by opponents of neo-liberalism and the Washington consensus.

It might have been nice to let the Argentine people vote first. But assuming the front-running Senator Fernandez does win the election, Ms. Soderberg's advice, premature and presumptuous, was still wrong, for two compelling reasons.

It's simple and straightforward to divide the region into "responsible" and "irresponsible" camps, between Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro adherents and haters. But Latin America, like life and reality, is far more complicated than that.

The countries of the region negotiate separate trade arrangements with each other, they have agreements and arguments with each other, and they pursue their own national interests completely outside the false framework (you're either for us or against us) that President Bush has constructed and which Ms. Soderberg adopted as her own. Argentina will undoubtedly follow its own course, and it should.

Second, who in the region does she think is actually listening to us? US policymakers can shout themselves hoarse telling governments what to do and telling publics who to elect, and we have seen how fruitless this advice can be.

Regional governments, especially those with active lefts, cannot afford to be viewed as "lackeys" of Washington, and citizens are largely indifferent to admonitions from the outside, as voters have proved in the last several years in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Nicaragua, when they took opposite tacks from those advocated by President Chávez or the US Department of State. In other words, they are acting like democracies, something we should applaud and not discourage.

It was discouraging to see a prominent Democratic security expert parroting the administration's view of the region. Small wonder that admirers of the United States like former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark openly talk, as he did at the LASA meeting in Montreal, about our country's declining credentials in the hemisphere.

LASA got the message. They're apparently expecting no big changes in our government's policy of rejecting Cuban scholars for visas no matter who gets elected President. Their next meeting, scheduled for June 2009, will take place in Rio de Janeiro. Good for Brazil, but detrimental to American interests, I think.

--Sarah Stephens