Latin America, it is safe to say, gets no respect in Washington. Mention the region at a meeting of foreign policy cognoscenti who are not Latin America specialists, and eyes immediately glaze over. There may be a quick discussion of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, but attention will swiftly return to the Middle East, Russia, or China. Back in 1971, Richard Nixon advised the young Donald Rumsfeld, "Latin America doesn't matter. . . . People don't give one damn about Latin America now." Rumsfeld took Nixon's advice on where to focus his career, and the rest is history.
Coverage of Latin America in the mainstream media is little better. It merits attention primarily when it causes trouble for the United States. Thus more ink has been spilled on Chávez over the past few years than on the entire rest of the region combined. The only associations that many in the United States have with Latin America are problems such as drugs, gangs, and illegal immigration.
But Latin America should matter to Americans, and not simply because Latinos have passed African Americans as the United States' largest ethnic minority (15 percent versus 13 percent). The region is home to the world's largest collection of democracies, but it is also a place of huge social inequalities and ugly dictatorships. Consequently, it has been a key battleground of ideas, where competing models of development -- communist, socialist, free-market, mercantilist -- have clashed. The Cold War was fought out in Latin America, from the coup against Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, through the Cuban Revolution and the military dictatorships that arose in reaction to it, to the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s.
The penultimate act of this morality play came in the 1990s, when the region had returned to democracy and weathered the debt crisis of the 1980s. The end of the Cold War seemed to signal an opportunity for a new start. Washington and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank pushed
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