Listen to Latin America

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Developments of the past few weeks between the United States and various Latin American countries raise the question, "What is their problem with us?"

First, there was the eager willingness of at least three countries -- Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela -- to offer asylum to the U.S. government's current No. 1 villain, Edward Snowden (leaker, traitor, human rights activist ... take your pick), if he can figure out some way to get out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Those three countries would probably be joined by a fourth, Ecuador, if it didn't already have on its plate the problem of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, another American favorite, lodged in Ecuador's embassy in London since June of last year.

The saga of a possible Latin American exile for Mr. Snowden included an incident this month when the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, after leaving Moscow, landed in Austria to refuel and was searched on suspicion that the American leaker was on board, bound for Bolivia. He wasn't, which no doubt doubled the fury of Mr. Morales.

The latest Latin American country to stick its finger in Washington's eye is normally quiescent Panama. The CIA branch chief in Milan, Italy, Robert Seldon Lady, was convicted with 25 of his colleagues in an Italian court in 2008 of having carried out the rendition -- a CIA euphemism for kidnapping -- of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr in Milan in 2003. Mr. Lady and his colleagues had long since bailed out of Italy so the Italian government, following normal practice among nations, asked Interpol to issue an international warrant for their arrests.

Panama chose to honor the Interpol warrant and arrested Mr. Lady at the Panama-Costa Rica border, though it has since allowed him to return to the United States. Normal practice would have been to turn him over to the Italian authorities to serve the nine-year prison term to which he was sentenced. It should be recalled that the United States invaded Panama in 1989 and took its then president, Manuel Noriega, off to a U.S. prison to serve a 15-year term.

Now, there was a time when Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela played ball relatively cheerfully with the United States on matters of this sort, particularly ones involving intelligence or political sensitivity. When did such cooperation go off the rails? And why?

First of all, there is a perception in Latin America that the United States is to some degree a helpless, dysfunctional giant, full of vulnerabilities, short on capacity. That assessment is validated by the so-called war on drugs. The fact that the United States continues to focus on trying to suppress drug traffic at its Latin American source, which manifestly doesn't work, reaps only contempt from the Latin Americans. America is a drug addict. Who respects a drug addict who won't even try to kick his habit?

The slaughter that goes on in Mexico, the second most important country in Latin America after Brazil, is both Mexico's and America's fault, but the causal relationship is clear. Where would the Zeta and Sinaloa cartels be without American customers for their drugs and American suppliers of their weapons?

Another issue that poisons U.S.-Latin relations, no matter how fine the speeches President Barack Obama might read from a teleprompter, is American political treatment of immigration reform. I know, people from Latin America don't have to come here, but none of us should ever forget how it must feel to be seen and treated as some sort of parasitical blight on the American body politic.

How must it feel to Americans of Latin origin to be considered "a problem" -- a barrier to education in American schools, for instance? I do believe English should be strenuously taught in U.S. schools to give immigrant children a shot at achieving what is left of the American dream, but there is no reason to focus on them as a particular problem, throwing out the window the rich cultural heritage they bring with them when they come north with their inherited language. North Americans have no reason to imagine that Latin Americans are not fully aware of the ignorant attitudes that many "purer" -- i.e., longer-time resident -- North Americans have toward them.

The rise in the percentage of Hispanic-American voters points up clearly just how absurd this approach is. Given the interdependence, including trade, between the United States and Latin America, the whole thing just becomes laughable. How many cultures have gone into the rich stew that American culture has evolved into over the centuries?

In the meantime, the immigration issue must be resolved, with the debate as free as possible of racist rhetoric. We can do without commentary about how expensive it is to offer bilingual education in the early grades. The parents of the kids who need it are, for the most part, hardworking, religious, taxpaying aspirants to middle-class status.

The drug thing also needs a fresh look. What we're doing enrages, insults and damages, as well as enriches, the Latin American countries where supplies are grown or transported. Couldn't Mr. Obama host a summit meeting on the subject and pay attention to what people like Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Bolivia's Mr. Morales have to say about it in private? Latin American leaders have ideas, and it might improve their relationships with the United States to be asked respectfully by our president what those are.

This is to leave out, with respect to Mr. Snowden and Mr. Assange, the feelings that Latin Americans may have about the U.S. government's heavy surveillance of its own people, and of efforts to make the American people aware of what is being done in their name, in Latin America and elsewhere, without their knowledge.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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