(Editor’s Note: Delayed one day due to my travel schedule, here’s this week’s guest post from Kahlil Chaar-Pérez. — Ben Alpers)
U.S. president Barack Obama’s much ballyhooed 3-day visit to Mexico and Costa Rica this past week has created quite a buzz in the mainstream news media, particularly around his muted references to immigration reform and border security. With the “Fast and Furious” gun-smuggling scandal still reverberating in the minds of its Latin American neighbors and the Mexican government’s recent decision to limit the power of U.S. anti-drug agents in its territory, Obama’s brief excursion to the south played out as a performance of friendly diplomacy, as a calculated spectacle of “good neighbor” policy emphasizing economic ties. Needless to say, Obama’s overtures to his “amigos,” a word he reiterated throughout his speech on Friday at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, are founded on the reassertion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which continues to create tension for its negative effects on workers both north and south of the border. In an era that has witnessed the diminishing of the U.S.’s political and economic clout in Latin America and the strengthening of regional bonds among Latin American countries (with Brazil at the helm), Obama’s visit was meant to reaffirm, at least symbolically, the United States as a leading actor in Latin American affairs. Not coincidentally, his concluding words to the aforementioned speech were phrased as a reminder: “always remember that your greatest partner—the nation rooting for your success more than anyone else—is your closest neighbor and strongest friend, the United States of America.”
Obama’s short sojourn in Mexico and Costa Rica brings to mind the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, especially how these relations produce conflicting conceptions of the U.S. and Latin America, and, in turn, how these conceptions also affect such relations. I have alluded here before on the growth of U.S. imperialism in Latin America during the nineteenth century, and how U.S. interventionism, articulated through the discourse of Manifest Destiny, and by figures such as William Walker, Henry Clay, and James G. Blaine, shaped ideas of Latin Americanism. In fact, it was against the Pan-American policies of Blaine that José Martí directed his call for the cultural, economic, and political unity of “our America.” As Secretary of State under the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, Blaine organized the First International Congress of the American States (also called the Pan-American Congress), which drew delegates from sixteen Latin American countries to Washington D.C. in 1889 and 1890, and showed them the wares of U.S. modernity through an extravagant railroad trip across the country. Martí covered the Pan-American Congresses for Latin American newspapers, mordantly picturing it as a “parade.” For Martí, Blaine’s promises were merely a dream, “an illusion of progress that is excusable only in a provincial mentality.” Here, the normative idea of being modern is turned upside down. The dream of modernity offered by U.S. economic interventions in Latin America is represented not as part of a cosmopolitan ethos, but as a provincial vision. For Martí, Latin American modernity would be secured through its “second independence,” which for him means the consolidation of economic and political sovereignty as well as cultural autonomy, in continuous dialogue with the other.
Interestingly, Obama’s speech also invokes the “dream” of modernity for his Mexican audience, which was made up mostly of high school and college students. Throughout the speech, he signals the emergence of a “new Mexico,” built through economic progress and democratic values, a discourse not too different than Blaine’s appeal for Pan-American reciprocity. Yet, he signals such emergence through an opposition, referencing contrarian forces, so-called “old attitudes that can stifle progress.” Obama identifies these forces in both the U.S.—“the wish to wall ourselves off”—and in Mexico—“Some Mexicans may think America disrespects Mexico, that we seek to impose ourselves on Mexican sovereignty.” He goes on to dismiss the latter as “distortions” that “can breed myths and misunderstanding.” Modernity, associated with the locus of reason and truth, is thus ascribed to a spirit of cooperation, of making “progress together.” In this way, Obama directs his speech also to Latin Americanist discourses of sovereignty that continue to view U.S. interventions in their territories with critical eyes, if not necessarily as imperial actions.
In performances like Obama’s speech, which he gave in an iconically nationalist space, it is important to take note of local references. His allusions to two canonical figures in Mexico’s cultural pantheon, Mexican writers Amado Nervo and Octavio Paz, illuminate the history of tensions and conflicts Obama has to navigate through in spreading the gospel of reciprocal progress. First, he curiously quotes Paz’s 1990 Noble Literature Prize speech in order to establish his observations on progress: “Modernity,” Paz said, “is not outside us, but within us. It is today and the most ancient antiquity; it is tomorrow and the beginning of the world; it is a thousand years old and yet new born.” As a world-renowned cosmopolitan intellectual committed to liberalism and democracy, Paz would seem to be a sensible choice for Obama to quote. Yet, Paz’s quote actually complicates the lineal, progressive conception of modernity that Obama espouses in his speech. In fact, the words of Paz appear to echo Martí’s: the search for the modern should not be outside Latin America, but within it. Ironically, Paz also criticized the United States in earlier texts, spreading the very “distortions” Obama seeks to dispel in his speech. Meanwhile, Obama’s invocation of a “Mexican dream” (referencing implicitly the idea of an “American dream”) is articulated through the figure of Nervo, in particular as an allusion to the poem “Raza de bronce” (1902), where the ghost of the liberal president Benito Juárez, one of Mexico’s “founding fathers”, surprises the poet, preaching love to the nation. Obama’s speech conjures a historical episode that seems to reiterate his dream of fraternal love and progress between Mexico and the U.S.: Juárez successfully fought off the French invasion in the 1860s with economic help from the United States. Yet, in this historical episode, sovereignty also plays a key role: it represents a celebrated moment of Mexican self-affirmation against a foreign threat. Indeed, beyond his liberal democratic trappings and his gestures to mexicanidad, for many of his southern neighbors Obama’s overtures to Latin America will conjure the ghosts of foreign intervention and the struggle for the construction of “our America.”