Photo: Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with Encanto songwriter and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2015. Source: Bruce Glikas.
Whether you have children or not, at some point in the past year, you have undoubtedly heard “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s Encanto. In the song, both the Madrigal family and members of the town surrounding their home complain about Bruno—blaming him for their own frustrations and highlighting that, because of their bad history, they don’t talk about Bruno. This particular song captures the general spirit of popular U.S. perceptions of Latin America. Today, the U.S. public pays little attention to its southern neighbors. In the instances that it does, it is largely through a negative and imagined lens, driven by concerns over immigration and media portrayals of corruption, drugs, and violence. If the United States wants to improve relations with the region—a pledge President Biden made during his 2020 campaign—U.S. officials need to build enduring public support for engaging with Latin America.
Engaging the U.S. Public Historically
U.S.-Latin American foreign policy has often oscillated between intervention and neglect. Two key challenges perpetuate this cycle for the United States: first, events in other parts of the world that require U.S. attention, such as the war in Ukraine; and second, a lack of electoral incentives from much of the U.S. populace. If the U.S. government is serious about improving relations with the region, it will need to ensure that any engagement is long-term and intentional—having support from the public can help bolster this approach. Shifting public interest toward the region is critical to long-term engagement with Latin America, as improved visibility can supersede changing leadership.
Within various “golden” eras of U.S.-Latin American relations, officials have embraced popular engagement with the region. In the early nineteenth century, the United States supported its “sister republics” in the south as they launched their own democratic movements. During this period, the United States adopted a more favorable impression of Latin America as officials envisioned an epoch of inter-American cooperation characterized by shared values and democratic ideals. In contrast to war-torn Europe, the public perceived the Western Hemisphere as a united front.
Likewise, under President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, the U.S. government took concrete steps to improve not only perceptions of the United States in Latin America but also perceptions of Latin America amongst the U.S. populace. To this end, the Roosevelt administration created the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA). The CIAA oversaw several projects based on Latin America for U.S. audiences; it even sent Walt Disney on a goodwill tour of the region to boost popular perceptions of the United States while gathering film material.
Following the Cuban Revolution and the subsequent missile crisis, both of which piqued U.S. interest in Latin America, President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress with the goal of improving bilateral relations through people-to-people connections. As part of the program, Kennedy created the Peace Corps, which in its inaugural year, sent approximately twenty-thousand volunteers to South America.
The Partners of the Americas, a nonprofit organization inspired by Kennedy’s actions, focused on promoting closer inter-American ties. Created at a time when U.S.-Cuba relations were particularly tense, the organization operated outside the government, establishing community chapters in countries across Latin America and in the majority of U.S. states. At the behest of Kennedy, David Rockefeller later established the predecessors to the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) as a means to encourage business and cultural cooperation.
Each of these examples highlights the importance of engaging with U.S. domestic audiences as a means to positively shift U.S.-Latin American foreign policy. To be sure, each period was also marked by a degree of changing U.S. foreign policy. However, maintaining public support was critical to ensuring the success of these policies. Today should be no different. While the Biden administration announced several new policies intended to improve relations across the Americas at the IX Summit of the Americas, U.S. officials have done little so far to boost perceptions of Latin America in the United States or build domestic support for Summit initiatives. There are, however, ways in which the United States can, and should, leverage pop culture and education to build buy-in for improved hemispheric affairs.
Power of Pop Culture
Perhaps a less visible avenue of cooperation is Latin music, which is growing in popularity among Americans. Latin singers like singers J Balvin, Maluma, and Bad Bunny have released some of the world’s top hits and have often collaborated with American pop artists. The rise of reggaeton among U.S. listeners is a potential way to increase cooperation and shift perceptions of the region, much as Bossa Nova did for Brazil in the 1960s. Seen as the music of the “new” Latin America, reggaeton is reshaping how people talk about and address misconceptions of the region. Beyond its cultural implications, reggaeton can also be political.
Another potential agent of change is the film industry. Given the growing popularity and success of Latin American directors, the U.S. government may find partners that can help paint a more holistic and positive image of the region while also highlighting shared experiences. But while the prevalence of Hispanic and Latino culture in the media is something to applaud, representation is still limited and relies on stereotypes. For example, the television show Narcos has dramatized actual events in Colombia whilst boiling the country down to a land of drugs and violence.
Despite the sometimes simplistic, and often negative, representations of Latin America, there are opportunities for the U.S. government to partner with Hollywood and improve public perceptions of the region while respecting the diverse cultures of the Americas. Like Disney’s work during the Good Neighbor Policy, the studio has again played a role in promoting more positive images of the region and its national differences to children through recent films such as Coco and Encanto. Despite some criticism, both films were overall well received by citizens of Mexico and Colombia. Yet, unlike the earlier Disney experience, these films were not directly supported by the U.S. government, nor used to promote a Pan-American identity that resonated with citizens in the United States or across the region.
Teaching About Latin America in the U.S.
Beyond pop culture, educational reforms and incentives could also help improve hemispheric relations. Fearing the global spread of communism, the U.S. government in 1958 passed Title VI of the National Defense Education Act and subsequently incorporated it into the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI provided funding for the establishment of area studies centers—including Latin American Studies centers in several universities across the country—designed to promote the development of regional expertise. While Title VI funding still exists—supporting 17 national resource centers for Latin America in 2022—the amount of money allocated to such centers has decreased since the end of the Cold War. Increasing funding for Latin American Studies centers could help boost interest among university-level students and faculty.
In addition to promoting the study of Latin America within higher education, the United States should work to boost interest in and understanding of the region among primary and secondary school-age children. While Advanced Placement (AP) courses already exist for U.S., European, and World history, such programs do not exist for Africa or Latin America. In many instances, U.S. history cannot be understood without exploring Latin America. By offering more specialized classes such as AP Inter-American History or even more diverse language courses (to include Indigenous languages), students will develop their interest in the region, which they could then continue to pursue in higher education. Should global issues occur that involve the region, it will be more likely that future generations will have the skills and knowledge to be proactive rather than reactive in their response.
It’s Now Time to Talk About LAC
Without public buy-in, it will be difficult for U.S.-Latin American relations to endure changing administrations or the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Connecting U.S. public support and business interests through government action can create avenues for long-lasting policy. This requires moving beyond Narcos and public misperceptions to engage with the region—both through education and recognition of the cultural connections shared by the Hemisphere.
Adam Ratzlaff is an analyst and editor with Diplomatic Courier and the World in 2050, specializing in Inter-American Affairs. His work has also been featured in Global Americans, The National Interest, and Charged Affairs, among other sites. Ratzlaff has consulted for the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, a BA from Tulane University, and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree.
Diana Roy is a writer and editor covering Latin America and immigration issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. She received her BA from American University in Washington, DC. Her global affairs work has previously been featured in International Policy Digest, the Center for International Policy, and the Inter-American Dialogue. The views expressed herein are strictly her own.