Earlier this year, one of the best-known figures of early 21st century Latin America passed away. Hugo Chavez left his mark on the international political scene and was perhaps the most vocal critic of the United States since Fidel Castro, the former leader of Cuba for decades.

On Sunday, the Venezuelan people went to the polls to choose Chavez’s successor between the acting president and man who most likely would have been his choice, Nicolas Maduro, and Governor Henrique Capriles from the state of Miranda. The latter lost to Chavez in last October’s elections.

Chavez can easily be described as a controversial figure. He has drawn praise and resentment from multiple world leaders, many of them not endearing to the public. He made no secret of his close ties to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran and also recently departed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

The question that many Americans who are following the events in South America is probably how this election and its outcome will affect the United States and its relationship with Latin America. The answer is unclear. Maduro, if he tries to please the same voter base that supported Chavez, would most likely try to maintain the cold peace that has existed between Venezuela and the United States for the past decade. On the other hand, Capriles has said that he would try to re-establish closer ties with America.

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But the latter position should not be confused with crawling on shattered glass to beg for Uncle Sam’s forgiveness. Latin America has gone through vast changes in the past few decades. The Monroe Doctrine from the 1820s, the manifesto on which the United States based its interventionist policies in Latin America for generations, is an impossible fantasy. As the world observed in 2003, the United States can no longer invade other countries at will without drawing international fury. To add on to that, several Latin American countries are strong nations in their own right, and they would not tolerate being treated as inferiors.

While Chavez is not responsible for the economic ascendance of Latin America, he did succeed in breaking the illusion that many Americans had that the interests of this region and its people couldn’t be taken seriously. Even if one is not a Chavez supporter, he would not have gotten into power on a leftist and anti-American agenda if the United States did not give the people of Venezuela something to be anti-American about. The election and presidency of Chavez made the Untied States hear that loud and clear.

This is not the Cuban Missile Crisis Part Two; the United States and Latin America are not sworn enemies for all time. However, the people and nations of Latin America have sent the United States a message: we are perfectly willing to do business with you, but as equals, not as pseudo-colonies.

As it should with any country or region, the United States should try to make the most of what international trade and ties have to offer, but it has to understand that the old way of doing things is over.

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