It was José María Torres Caicedo, a Colombian writer, who in 1856 popularised the term “Latin America” which for many readers is synonymous with the Spanish language.  But it is not necessarily the Spanish language that dominates the region; after all, the language of South America’s largest country and biggest economy, Brazil, is Portuguese.   Brazil’s neighbour, Suriname, is Dutch-speaking and whose other immediate neighbours do not have Spanish as the official language either, namely, Guiana (French) and Guyana (English). It is not just the United States of America that can claim the title of melting pot.

Even if Spanish is the official language of 18 republics in Central and South America (including the Caribbean) remember that there are the region’s indigenous languages with each one of them spoken by millions of people.  Quechua is common in the former Inca empire (Perú, Bolivia and Ecuador – in the latter case it is called Quichua); Guaraní is the common tongue of Paraguayans and in Guatemala and parts of southern Mexico a number of Mayan languages are spoken.  Mexico alone can claim over 50 Indian languages, including Náhuatl which was spoken by the Aztecs (more correctly called the Mexica). 

The French immediately warmed to the expression “Latin America” when it was first used because it distinguished the region from the US at a time when France was trying to establish its own sphere of influence.  This eagerness would lead to the disastrous attempt by Louis Napoleon to install Maximilian, a Habsburg prince, as emperor of Mexico. Brazil can relate to France’s 19th-century motives and when reflecting on doctrines of American exceptionalism, one should also think of Brazil; many Brazilians don’t even feel part of Latin America.  This sense of separateness and proud independence has led Brazil to believe that it is entitled to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. To have been selected to host the Olympic Games in 2016 is a triumph that Brazilians will speak about for many years to come. 
The North American Free Trade Agreement signed by Mexico and the US is not seen by Brazil as a unifying step for all of the Americas; quite the opposite and it prefers to encourage unity within South America itself.  That is why back in 2000, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was the Brazilian president, he hosted the first summit of South American presidents.  The inspiration for this was Simón Bolívar, South America’s iconic figure of the 19th century, who fought and conquered the Spanish.  Subsequently, in November, 2004, when 11 South American countries (including Guyana and Suriname) met in Cusco, the former Inca capital in Perú, a South American Community of Nations was proclaimed.  The ultimate goal is to have both a common passport and currency and whether or not this European Union ideal is achieved is not the issue:  it is this declared desire for an independent identity, encouraged by Brazil, that is significant.
Brazil is a natural driving force behind the initiative and its unique position has several strands – besides the fact that, unlike anywhere else in South America, it was a constitutional monarchy for the first seven decades after its independence.  The country, as I say, is the largest on the continent and both its language and geography (the forbidding boundaries being the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal swamps and the powerful Paraná river) serve to reinforce this isolation.  It has, however, a dark (literally) past.  It is thought that out of approximately 8 million Africans who survived the passage to the Americas, well over 3 million were shipped to Brazil in the four centuries to 1850 – much more, in fact, than the number shipped to the US.  Slavery was not abolished until 1888 (the same year as it was in Cuba) and it was that decision, with its purest of intentions, that would lead to the end of the Brazilian monarchy.


The Awkward Squad

 “No nation is fit to sit in judgement upon any other nation”.  US President Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s sentiment is certainly one shared by Brazil.  Reports last year caused a stir outside the country, especially in the US, after Brazil’s central bank and aides to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced that Brazil and China will move towards using their own currencies, rather than the US dollar, in future trade transactions.  There are several reasons why the greenback’s prominence should be questioned, a status that was established from the remnants of the Bretton Woods system created after the Second World War.  Today the dollar isn’t fixed to gold and the US is no longer the world’s largest creditor; there are those who argue that it is an empire that can only maintain the upper hand by military, rather than economic, strength. 

Consequently, Brazil’s attendance at meetings in Yekaterinburg in Russia last June, along with the leaders of the six-nation Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, an alliance which includes Russia and China, should not come as any surprise.  The intention of the gathering was to discuss mutual aid which would lead to trade between the countries being conducted in their own currencies; pointedly, US officials who had wanted to attend as observers were not allowed to.  The latest figures available (2007) at the time of writing show that China’s annual trade with Brazil was US$      29.7 billion.  In 2008, however, China’s total trade with Latin America increased by a significant 40% and reached US$143 billion. 
According to Jorge G. Castañeda, a former Foreign Minister of Mexico, and Stephen Haber, a professor of political science at Stanford University in the US, Latin America (despite pockets of resistance) is entering a phase of unprecedented political and economic stability which is amply illustrated by the degree of progress being made in countries such as Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.  In varying, but nonetheless positive, degrees these countries have pursued good macroeconomic policies that have effectively fought inflation; they have opened their markets and encouraged investments. 

The resulting, and significant, shift towards more economic opportunity, social mobility and political democracy has gone unnoticed in some quarters.  In other words, these countries have broken with the past, whereas the opposite applies in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela where they are still living in the past and have not been able, so far, to break with it.  Not only that, this awkward squad of countries also fosters an elevated level of hostility towards the US.  The argument goes that since the 1950s, and until the election of Barack Obama, every US president since Dwight Eisenhower – other than Jimmy Carter – has interfered, in one way or another, in the domestic affairs of one or more countries in the region. 

So how should one interpret last year’s coup against the Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, who was unceremoniously removed from office last June?  Importantly, it should be understood that the Honduran coup did not originate in a military barracks but was the direct result of a court order issued by a competent judge of the country’s Supreme Court. President Zelaya, a member of the axis of “21st-century socialists” headed by the president of Venezuela, warmed quickly to the idea of extending his presidential mandate, just as Hugo Chávez has done;  President Chávez, however, did so by first holding a Constituent Assembly and changing the constitution.  Mr. Zelaya, on the other hand, and whose ambitions were not shared by parliament, the Supreme Court and even his own Liberal Party, decided to start the ball rolling by holding a referendum to test the waters.  The army refused to distribute the ballot boxes and subsequently the head of the armed forces, General Romeo Vásquez, was sacked by the president and resignations followed from the Defence Minister and the heads of the army, marines and air force.  The Supreme Court had already declared the referendum illegal but the president chose to ignore this.

Perhaps if the president had not been arrested the conflict could have escalated into widespread bloody civil turmoil; that would have been terribly damaging, not just to Honduras, but to the region as a whole.  By the time this article is published I would expect most of the dust to have settled and fresh presidential elections either planned or already held.  In my opinion it is not taking sides to say that the coup is hardly a return to the 1980s with its spate of civil wars across Central America.  Just as the US Supreme Court determined the fate of a presidency in December, 2000, arising, in part, from considerations of judicial power, so the gavel, and not the grenade, was used in Honduras to defend that country’s constitution. 

Geopolitics in Central America and the northern Andes point to Panama – where presidential elections in the middle of last year proceeded, as they have done for almost twenty years, without incident – as Washington’s new Central American listening post, replacing, ironically, Honduras which, back in the 1980s, had played this role during the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.  Certainly, relations between Panama and the US on all levels have improved since Theodore Roosevelt requested a legal justification for his acquisition of the canal in Panama from his Attorney General, Philander C. Knox.  “Oh, Mr. President”, came the response, “do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality”. 

It would appear that in Panama resentment has been replaced by reality which, sadly, is not the case in those few Latin American countries still locked in the past.  Panama’s regional political prominence, as well as its infrastructure (the most developed in Central America), suggests that its regional banking centre will continue to develop and although its government is reluctant to dilute the country’s prized banking secrecy, it will not choose isolation to become the North Korea of offshore banking.  Above all else, as with their canal, reality will always trump resentment for Panamanians.