Twenty years ago I had my first real encounter with Latin America. At the time I was working on an employment law project that had a Latin American angle, and I received some funding that enabled me to travel to Quito in Ecuador and spend some time there. For anyone who has not been to Quito, it is not easy to describe it in a way that does real justice to the atmosphere. It is an extraordinary city, that really has three different parts. There is the Spanish old city, which is beyond incredible. Not all of it was in what you might call good repair, but you could see the almost overwhelming grandeur of it everywhere, including the church La Compania, with its however-many tons of gold spread along its interior walls, the extraordinarily atmospheric San Francisco monastery, or the Plaza de la Independencia with the presidential palace. Amidst this often faded grandeur there were huge crowds of people, and even when I was mugged there I could not lose my sense of wonder and amazement at it all. The second part was the business district, a modern neighbourhood with high rise apartments and offices that could have been anywhere. And the third the shantytowns, some of them rising above the city along the Andes. I shall never forget Quito.
When I first came there I was not sure exactly what to expect, but somehow imagined that it would be a mixture of Spanish and (US) American, with the latter dominating. It was much more complex than that. Yes, there were signs of American influence: the road signs were all in the US style, as were the modern buildings, the shopping malls and the fast food. But then again, to my surprise very few people (including taxi drivers) spoke English. I had expected to get by perfectly in English, but found myself having to learn Spanish quickly – and mercifully Latin American Spanish is much easier and more intuitive to pronounce than the rather guttural (and to my ears not so attractive) European Spanish. But when you spoke with the local people, even when they didn’t speak English their cultural compass was set to ‘El Norte’.
This sometimes tricky but strong link to the United States was further developed when some years later (in 2000) Ecuador adopted the US Dollar as its currency.
The complexity of this North-South relationship was everywhere to be seen in Latin America – certainly so in the other countries I visited, Colombia and Venezuela. More recently two of these countries, Venezuela and Ecuador itself, became part of what some thought was to be a wider movement of socialist and US-sceptic nations. They (and Bolivia, and to some extent Brazil) elected left-wing presidents who took a more jaundiced view of United States influence and who looked around for other allies and friends. As Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in particular sought out allies in places such as Cuba and Iran the stage seemed set for growing hostility between these countries and the United States.
And yet as so often, it’s not that easy to assess what is happening. In particular some of the easy assumptions were thrown over by the election of Barack Obama and his adoption of a rather different approach to relations with Latin America. It became clear fairly quickly that Chavez was finding it difficult to maintain a consistent approach to the US – sometimes indicating that the Obama presidency could change things, only then to call him an ‘ignoramus’. Just this week all this has been thrown into relief at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. A handshake between Chavez and Obama, and the Venezuelan President’s website is talking about an historic moment with the capacity to change US-Latin American relations. The White House website has also published President Obama’s speech at the summit, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in a rather quirky exchange with journalists talks about the possibility of a conversation between Obama and Chavez. And of course the US President has also raised the prospect of a new relationship with Cuba.
In fact, the dramatic fall in the oil price over the past months has seriously dented the capacity of Latin America’s new left to pursue its agenda (much of which is funded by oil exports), and this may be leaving them more receptive to Barack Obama’s overtures. The new US administration in turn seems to want a different relationship with Latin America. And the combination of these things may produce a significant thaw, notwithstanding the somewhat mercurial nature of the key Latin American politicians at this time.
In fact, Latin America deserves a break, both from the sometimes very unenlightened policies in the past of its powerful Northern neighbour and from what has too often been the appalling record of its own politicians of the left and right. I grew very fond of Ecuador all those years ago, and I still am, and it has been a painful sight to observe the political theatre there over the years, and the major financial problems encountered more recently. I hope that a new era is dawning.