Latin Lessons: How South America Stopped Listening to the United States and Started Prospering critically examines the long-term effects of colonialism, imperialism, and extractive activities in the Latin world. The author, Hal Weitzman, proposes strategies to ameliorate current diplomatic relations between the United States and Latin America in order to protect U.S. interests. In twelve chapters, Weitzman probes the War on Drugs, the Cuba embargo, the expansion of free trade, and other issues that govern the relationship between the two regions.
Latin Lessons suggests that the War on Drugs is more effective at fueling Latin American resentment than at decreasing drug-related crime and mortality. Weitzman explains that coca leaves, the precursor to cocaine, are often cultivated to make tea, which in South American culture is analogous to wine in European culture. He proposes that the United States abandon its injunctions against the export of coca leaves, and focus instead on decreasing U.S. demand for cocaine. Weitzman raises excellent points, but his argument is tenuous. It is unlikely that the drug trade, which is closely intertwined with arms trafficking and homicide, would be significantly weakened by the legalization of coca growth. Rather, there may be a redistribution of wealth. If the world supply of coca leaves significantly increased, the mechanics of the trade might change, but the cocaine industry would most likely boom. One should consider the case of prescription opioids.
The book defines the Cuba embargo as a Cold War relic. Latin Lessons is correct in asking why we continue to punish a country that poses almost no threat to us. Weitzman persuasively argues why Latin America regards Cuba’s relationship to the United States as that of David and Goliath. He notes that in 2008, Cuba sustained $5 billion worth of hurricane-related damage, and the Cuban president asked the United States to lift the embargo so Cuba could buy reconstruction materials. The embargo was never lifted, and Cuba never received U.S. aid, provoking more hostilities at the height of the recent U.S. economic downturn. It is unsurprising that government bailouts of AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, in addition to the buyout of General Motors, inspired President Hugo Chávez to joke, “’Fidel, careful or we are going to end up to [Obama’s] right.”[i]
Throughout the book, Weitzman describes the United States’ dogged pursuit of expanded trade in South America, driven by U.S. demand for Latin American commodities and dependence on Venezuelan oil. In the last chapter, the author notes that Bolivia has 70 percent of the global supply of lithium, a mineral used to make batteries for electric cars. He posits that the U.S. search for alternative technologies may be fruitless if our goal is to avoid relying on leftwing, anti-American Latin American leaders. Here, Weitzman makes a compelling case.
Latin Lessons also thoughtfully examines the social aspects of Evo Morales’ administration in Bolivia. He explores how Morales bartered oil for a ready-made social welfare system from Cuba. Morales imported approximately 30,000 Cuban medical staff and teachers to improve the situation of the poor.
Although Weitzman praises charismatic leaders like Chávez, Morales, and Correa for portraying themselves as common people and for implementing measures to alleviate poverty, he criticizes their methods. Chávez tightened foreign exchange controls, devalued the currency, and imposed price controls, leading to unmitigated inflation and transforming the climate in Venezuela to “an unexpected orgy of consumerism.”[ii]
Weitzman makes convincing arguments for why Latin America is infuriated with its “Good Neighbor.”[iii] In 2006, Washington restored diplomatic relations with Libya and its dictator, Gaddafi, while simultaneously adding Venezuela, a country with a democratically-elected leader and a large supply of oil, to its list of terrorist states.[iv] Latin Lessons argues that the United States should partner with Latin America for national security, since Hamas, Hezbollah, and Chinese crime syndicates may be locally active. However, it is unclear whether the United States and South America have the same definition of partnership. Given the United States’ checkered past of propping up corrupt dictators in the region, it is unlikely that Latin America would solicit U.S. input.
The author’s engaging writing style is the highlight of the text. He is able to skillfully intertwine his wit and personality into an analysis of somber economic and political issues. This is most apparent in his description of Hugo Chávez, the Latin American leader who won the presidency by defeating the Venezuelan establishment’s candidate: a thirty-six-year-old former Miss Universe. Weitzman characterizes the election as a choice between “beauty and the beast.”[v] Latin Lessons fascinatingly describes Chávez as a charismatic leader who carried out his revolution through his talk show, “Alo Presidente,” where he alternated between interrogating and firing public officials and revealing information about his two failed marriages. Perhaps Weitzman could have carried his point farther and declared Chávez the most media-savvy of all world leaders, communicating directly with his people and sardonically tweeting under the name @Chavezcandanga, or “naughty Chávez.”[vi]
Latin Lessons is a thought-provoking text that would be of interest to anyone familiar with U.S. diplomatic relations. The text offers little historical context for the current situation in Latin America and often meanders between complex topics, so it is more appropriate for informed readers well versed in Latin American issues. Weitzman is an expert in the field and a talented writer who guides his audience through a myriad of controversies. Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness is its title. It is unclear who the Latin Lessons are instructing—is it policymakers in the United States or developing nations across the globe?