IHT: The Incredible Shrinking State Department by Francisco Toro

July 7, 2012 1:12 pmComments OffViews:

Montreal — The controversial impeachment of Paraguay’s president, Fernando Lugo, is quickly turning into a kind of Rorschach test of Latin American politics: the reactions to it say more than the event does itself.

Within hours of the rushed ouster on June 22, the diplomatic wheels were turning throughout the continent. The region’s new breed of leftwing leaders decried a “parliamentary coup” and moved to isolate Paraguay’s new, more conservative, government. Paraguay was soon suspended from Mercosur, the free-trade area with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Venezuela took its place.

Pressure came from all parts of the hemisphere except for one: notably, Washington more or less sat out the crisis, issuing just a few noncommittal remarks.

How times have changed. It used to be that when a political crisis broke out anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, the only reactions that really mattered were the ones out of the 202 area code. During the Cold War, Latin America was fertile territory for proxy battles between Washington and Moscow, and insurgencies led by ragtag Central American peasants often became transcendent concerns for American geostrategy.

These days, even as the United States struggles with a recession and it has shifted its foreign policy attention toward Asia and the Middle East, a cadre of leaders from the fast-growing economies of the Southern Cone are becoming far less deferential to American power. The center of diplomatic gravity on the continent has shifted decidedly south.

This becomes apparent when crises hit. What shaped diplomatic responses to the Lugo impeachment were phone calls among Brasilia, Caracas, Montevideo and Buenos Aires, not with Foggy Bottom or Langley. Brazil’s interest in obtaining better access to the Venezuelan market for its exports informed its using the occasion of Paraguay’s booting from Mercosur to get Venezuela into the trade bloc. Uruguay, which had long acted in tandem with Paraguay — also an agro-exporter with limited industrial sectors — to counterbalance Mercosur’s two larger and more advanced economies, feared the move would marginalize it and demanded a clear timetable for re-including Paraguay. Argentina traded its initial interest in imposing sanctions on Paraguay for greater tariff protection for its manufacturing sector, which has been hard-hit by cheap Asian imports.

In short, the complex crosscutting relationships that increasingly hold South America together have rearranged themselves largely on their own, with the U.S. government little more than a bystander.

Oddly, the shift doesn’t seem to please the more radical governments of the region, even as obsessed as they are with the specter of U.S. imperialism. Anti-U.S. posturing has become so central to their legitimation strategies that a passive and distracted Washington undercuts their reason for being.

Venezuela and Ecuador, in particular, would have loved to be able to point to an actively meddling U.S. State Department to justify their aggressive intervention in the Lugo crisis. Because even as Paraguay’s senate was debating the articles of impeachment against the president, the Venezuelan foreign minister, Nicolás Maduro, and Ecuador’s ambassador to Paraguay were busy trying to talk Paraguay’s military high command into rebelling against the move and putting tanks on the streets if need be.

It was the kind of rank, direct intervention in another country’s affairs for which Venezuela, as well as close allies like Ecuador and Cuba, has been railing against Washington for years. It clearly would have suited its purposes to be able to pitch its position in anti-imperialist terms.

With the United States largely disengaged from the crisis, however, the move had no plausible ideological cover: it’s just another case of a regional power meddling in the affairs of a weaker neighbor in pursuit of its own interests. And now that the United States out of the picture, all this is in full view.

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