The Disappearance of Latin America

September 8, 2010

All of us are used to reading, thinking, writing and making decisions about “Latin America.” For many purposes, we treat all the countries south of the United States as if they were similar and even united. This is true in business and government, politics and policy, the media, and academia. We develop Latin American strategies and policies, publish Latin America-wide journals and magazines, and foster Latin American studies departments and research institutes.

We have long known, of course, that there are many widely diverse countries in the region we conventionally call Latin America. There are and always have been enormous differences between Argentina and Venezuela, Brazil and Belize, Mexico and Peru, Chile and Colombia. We often make statements about Latin America while making a mental reservation that the statement applies to some but not all the countries thought of as belonging to the region. And in recent years, many noted that there were converging trends in many countries: toward democratic governance, free market economies, policies of macroeconomic balance and regional integration. Many observers thought that Latin American countries were proceeding, albeit at different paces, in the same general direction, and that Chile was leading the way.

In reality, however, “Latin America” may actually be disappearing. Consider the following:

Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean are every year more North American, not Latin American. True, the majority of their citizens speak Spanish (or French or Dutch) rather than English, but so do majorities in southern Florida, southern California, parts of Texas and Quebec. These countries are every year more intertwined with and oriented toward the United States (and to a lesser extent Canada). They export most of their goods to the United States and they take most of their imports as well as tourists and finance from the United States. Large fractions of their work force are employed in the United States, and large percentages of their foreign exchange comes from remittances from their diaspora in the United States. Many use the US dollar as their informal and in some cases even their formal currency. The focus of vision for all classes is far more on the United States than on South America. Despite recurrent official nods at Latin America-wide cooperation, successive Mexican governments revert back to a North American priority.

Brazil, by far the largest country in the region, has never thought of itself as being a Latin American nation. The publisher of Brazil’s largest magazine told me once that the least read section of the publication was the section on “Latin America,” of little interest to most Brazilians. That aloof attitude has been reinforced in recent years as Brazil becomes an important player beyond the Western Hemisphere on a wide range of topics ranging from climate change to trade policy, nuclear non-proliferation to global governance. There are few issues on which it makes sense –in business, government or academia—to think of Brazil in “Latin American” terms.

The troubled countries of the Andean Ridge (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and to some extent Venezuela), together with Guatemala, Paraguay and in some ways southern Mexico are every year more “American” but less “Latin.” That is they are more and more defined by their links to the indigenous pre-Colombian, pre-European components of their heritage. This point is more true in some countries than in others, to be sure, but all these countries have profound issues of identity and governance that stem fundamentally from the history of exclusion to which their indigenous populations have been subject.

This view leaves Argentina, Chile and Uruguay as the only truly Latin American countries today. That is, these countries have a strong European flavor to their population, culture, cuisine and politics as well as to their international orientations. Comments about “Latin America” may perhaps apply in these three cases, but these countries are certainly not regional trendsetters in most respects.

It may well be time to retire or at least rethink the “Latin America” concept before we discover one day that no one responds when we call upon Latin Americans! At the least, we should consciously and carefully think what the countries south of the United States actually do have in common, and how important that is.

This article originally appeared in the Spanish-language magazine America Economia.