It is not uncommon for the commentariat to bemoan the perceived loss of U.S. influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Critics often use outmoded Cold War frameworks to suggest that United States is “losing ground” in the region. Whether it’s alluding to China’s growth in trade and investments or recent diplomatic “inroads” by Russia and Iran, utilizing zero-sum approaches ignores the complexity of hemispheric relations in the twenty-first century. Perhaps most perplexing is when analysts point to the vacuous anti-American rhetoric of increasingly irrelevant Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (Bolivian Alliance for the People of Our Americas—ALBA) or when governments refuse to toe the line on U.S. policy as indicators of erosion.
Worst of all, pundits like to point to the dramatic decline in economic and military aid or the absence of an all-encompassing policy with an exciting moniker such as the Good Neighbor Policy or the Alliance for Progress as proof that the U.S. is ignoring the region and therefore ceding influence to others with a clear anti-American agenda. The desire for some anachronistic overarching policy or catch phrase for the U.S. leadership in the region are misguided—if not out and out facile—indicators for evaluating effective U.S. support and leadership in the region.
So, what are the best ways of gauging the quality and extent of U.S. power in commitment to the region?
Rather than examining trends in U.S. development assistance or the number of times the president or secretary of state visits the region, U.S. influence today is best characterized by the breadth and depth of economic and social ties—engagements that occur via a network of cross-national relationships. Those interactions and relationships occur at a more informal and personal level, through contacts between small and large companies, people to people, and cross- border communication among civil society organizations.
One important tool or predictor for measuring the impact of these contacts is through public opinion polling data. The Pew Global Attitudes Project and AmericasBarometer offer some interesting and useful evidence regarding how U.S. influence and trustworthiness is viewed by citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those findings should provide a useful tool to U.S. policymakers as to how to sustain or gain influence in the region—and a reality check to the self-appointed public intellectuals who love to bemoan lack of U.S. attention or declining U.S. influence.
Recent studies show that high levels of economic exchange, particularly trade and investments, and social connections between people from the U.S. and Latin American and the Caribbean, specifically through migration, remittances and other forms of socio-cultural connectedness, increases the influence in and trust of the United States.
According to AmericasBarometer (2014), when asked of the influence of global powers, a majority of Latin American and Caribbean citizens believe that the U.S. has the most influence—at 57 percent—followed by China with 16.5 percent. Also, 57 percent of Latin American and Caribbean citizens hold positive views of U.S. influence and 55 percent believe the U.S. government to be trustworthy. In a separate Pew study, among nine countries surveyed, mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, the U.S. government is viewed favorably by 65 percent versus 45 percent for China. What’s most remarkable is that despite the conventional wisdom that the U.S. is in decline, in the past three years these positive perceptions of the U.S. have increased or remained stable.
To what can we attribute these positive evaluations of the United States?
Analyses show that proximity and intensity of contact with the U.S. leads to greater support or favorability for the United States. Countries in Central America and the Caribbean, where the U.S. has greater economic and social ties, have a much more favorable view of the United States. There is some variation but U.S. is seen most positively in El Salvador (80 percent ), Panama (79 percent), Dominican Republic (76 percent), Haiti (75 percent), Honduras (71 percent), Nicaragua (71 percent), Costa Rica (66 percent), and Jamaica (62 percent).
Economic exchange remains the most enduring and measurable dimensions of U.S. relations and influence in the region. The U.S. is still the most important economic partner in the region, but in Central America and the Caribbean, where views of U.S. influence are most positive, U.S. trade and investments are by far the most dominant as opposed to South America. In Colombia and Peru, favorable views of the U.S. top 50 percent. In all, the evidence shows a strong correlation between countries with free trade agreements with the U.S. and positive views of U.S. influence among citizens of those countries. The results of DR-CAFTA (and FTAs with Colombia and Peru) confirm the relationship between positive evaluations of the Giant to the North and free trade with the Giant to the North.
In the realm of social-cultural connectedness, Laura Silliman (AmericasBarometer, 2014) and others have noted that immigration and remittances are important predictors of trust in the United States. Her study highlights that Latin American and Caribbean citizens that receive remittances from the north tend to have much more affinity for the United States.
Other forms of social or intellectual remittances such as the flourishing of partnerships between think tanks, cultural associations, churches and universities also help promote positive views of U.S. influence and policies in the region. The greater the intensity of people-to-people contact and resiliency of U.S. national reputation, culture and institutions, the more likely U.S. stock is to rise.
Trade and social remittances and not official development assistance and attention are the true measure of influence. Rather than focusing old time notions of levels of economic and military aid or large inspiring policy declarations, analysts and policymakers should focus their attention where policy and its return (i.e. influence) is most impactful—communication, contact and exchange that improve the daily lives of Latin American and Caribbean citizens.