How to Win Friends in Latin America

The U.S. government has won more friends in Latin America by opening diplomatic ties to Cuba than by demonstrating endless belligerence, a lesson little understood in Washington, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Much gets said and written, mostly as rhetoric intended to criticize the Obama administration, about the standing of the United States in the world supposedly having declined. To the extent such rhetoric gets linked to specific policy prescription, it most often amounts to an assertion that respect for the United States derives from throwing its weight around and particularly doing so with military power. But one doesn’t have to look hard for reminders that this is not really the way the world works.

A word is in order about some of the sentiments involved and how they relate to each other.  Respect is not identical with liking, but even in everyday life positive sentiments toward someone else tend to go together, and so do negative ones. It is hard to have respect for an authority figure such as a teacher or parent if one dislikes the person.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2003. (Photo credit: Antonio Milena - ABr)

Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2003. (Photo credit: Antonio Milena – ABr)

Dale Carnegie wrote a bestseller called How to Win Friends and Influence People and gave courses that encompassed both. The clustering of sentiment is at least as true in international relations, where the goal is to influence the behavior of both people and governments. 

Riding roughshod over the sensitivities and concerns of other peoples may engender fear, but does not yield either liking or respect. Moreover, the opportunities for opposing the interests of even a superpower are sufficiently numerous that the weight-throwing approach is not a good strategy for winning influence. 

Positive approaches that exhibit respect for the concerns of even those with whom one has significant disagreements are more likely to buy the sort of influence one wants.  Respect engenders respect.

A reminder of such reality comes from The Economist’s Latin America columnist Bello, who observes a trend in attitudes in the region toward the United States during the years of the Obama administration. Far from relying on the sort of force-reliant bullying that characterized much U.S. policy toward the region over the past two centuries, Mr. Obama’s policies have involved trying to work through partners in the area. 

By far the most conspicuous and significant of the administration’s policy moves in the region has been the opening to Cuba, which as the columnist notes “was applauded by both left and right across Latin America.” The impact on regional attitudes toward the colossus to the north also has been significant. In region-wide polling by Latinobarometro, the number of respondents saying they have a positive view of the United States has risen from 58 percent in 2008, the year Mr. Obama was elected, to 74 percent this year.

Bello notes that there has been a corresponding trend in governments’ attitudes and behavior. Brazil’s new government, for example, “does not place the hopes that its predecessor did in ‘south-south’ ties. Through the region, “many governments are now seeking to draw closer to the United States.”

The knock-on effects go well beyond the diplomatic orientation of incumbent governments. Bello comments that if the opening to Cuba were to be reversed — as Donald Trump has threatened to do — this “could remove any hope that the transition to a post-Castro leadership, which is due to start in 2018, will involve a loosening of political control.”

That’s the way respect and influence work in Latin America, although one would never guess that by listening to those who want to sustain the failed half-century attempt to isolate Cuba. It’s also the way they work elsewhere in the world, although one would never guess that from listening to much other foreign policy debate in the United States. 

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

8 comments for “How to Win Friends in Latin America

  1. Hank
    October 22, 2016 at 14:38

    American political infighting has always led to foreign policy consequences around the world. Cuba is no different in this regard. What candidate over the last 50 years is going to risk being politically put out to pasture buy supporting normal relations with Cuba? Anyone who would do this would be seen and labelled as a “communist sympathizer” or some other not-so-complimentary label! You see, candidates in the USA, especially those in the high rungs of government, would be open to attack if they supported normal relations with Cuba. Times are changing, however, but the heat can be turned back on at anytime, witness the re-institution of a sort of Cold War with Russia! If you are in the most powerful nation on earth, the politics within that nation, as fickle as they are, DO affect events and policies around the world at large! Now, if the American people were adequately versed in REAL FACTUAL history, it would be easier for a politician to make peaceful diplomatic overtures with ANY nation!

  2. Sam
    October 19, 2016 at 20:40

    Both the US and SA can do much better without those “partners” of Obama-Clinton, none other than oligarchs, dictators of the economic domain, aided by US agitprop and propaganda-warfare against both SA and the people of the US. Let them all perish and see both the US and SA prosper.

  3. Jean Ranc
    October 19, 2016 at 15:24

    ¡Muchas gracias, Zachary! I’ll study your extraordinary research closely. Meanwhile, this little news note taken off the “Wire reports”by our local NH-VT Valley News & published 10/18 in a box of “World & Nation Briefs” at the bottom of p. 5: Washington – “Cuba’s top negotiator with the United States called President Obama’s latest set of regulatory changes on trade with Cuba a positive step’ toward the lifting the American embargo and improving relations between the two countries, but said they do not go far enough. The regulatory changes recognize Cuba as a partner and respect its sovereignty, but Josefina Vidal, who heads the U.S. Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said they don’t hide the fact that the United States seeks to change the economic, political and social systems of Cuba. ‘Nor does it hide the intention of continuing to develop in our country interventionist programs that benefit the interests of the United States, ‘Vidal said.”
    This from the brilliant, beautiful Vidal (age maybe late 50’s), whose photo we next-to-never see in the US media…because that would shatter their narrative about the “old, about-to-die crocodiles” who run the country. I was fortunate to meet her when she was with the DC “Cuban Interest Section” in the early 2000’s while I was there lobbying in behalf of normalizing US relations with Cuba. Then we met up again when she was invited to speak at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I was involved in the Duke-UNC Latin American studies program and also studied Cuban History & US-Cuba Relations with Prof. Louis A. Peréz, Jr. who has does his research in both US & Cuban archives over the decades and written a whole shelf of extraordinary books (start with his “War of 1898” to find the template for US Empire-building)…which the US media has never bothered to read either. This, together with my acquaintance with her, travels in Cuba and for 30 years in Mexico plus into Guatemala & Costa Rica, as well as, my “x-ray vision” as a psychologist, give me a distinctive Latin perspective. And most recently, my daily reading of the Lat.Am. edition of Madrid’s El País last winter in Mexico all have helped me try to keep up with the uncanny, non-stop evolution of the US NeoLiberal exploitation of, not only Latin America but every where else around the world that we maintain American Hegemony…in sync with the local elites: creating an almost invisible-seamless mechanism for “regime change” as we’ve witnessed recently in Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil & Peru (not to mention Iraq, Libya, Ukraine & still trying in Syria), “free trade” with its fine print to rig the system & enable hedge fund & other billionaire vampires to “legally” continue sucking the blood and soul out of their people…not to mention out of 99% of Americans, who, they manage to keep mesmerized & distracted with their techie toys, consumer goodies &, not least, media propaganda…as documented here in Consortium News and elsewhere by the “underground” online investigative journalists & professors, former CIA, foreign service pros, etc… of integrity who daily speak/write truth to power. (With special thanks to Parry & his amazing contributors & commenters!) But not to forget…how much it has helped the Global Elite to have a globe-trotting American Ambassador with uniquely eloquent-but-empty rhetorical skills to mau-mau the natives and who with his wife could even tango with the newly-installed Buenos Aires Host & Hostess (after deposing those annoying Kirchners who refused to pay their debts!)…to welcome the Global Free Marketeers! And don’t forget to vote for their next pre-selected, would-be Empress…November 8!
    Hasta luego…

  4. Bill Bodden
    October 19, 2016 at 14:49

    Far from relying on the sort of force-reliant bullying that characterized much U.S. policy toward the region over the past two centuries, Mr. Obama’s policies have involved trying to work through partners in the area.

    Yeah. Just like the people in Honduras’ right wing and its military that overthrew the democratically-elected President Zelaya who had the decency to try to make the onerous lives of poor people in Honduras a little easier.

    As for Cuba, its leaders have forgotten more than we in the US will ever know about US-Cuban relations so they don’t need our advice. Accordingly, I’m sure they are checking the mouth of Obama’s gift horse very carefully.

  5. Zachary Smith
    October 19, 2016 at 11:51

    So far as I can tell, Mr. Pillar’s essay is an exercise of wishful thinking. A quick search found a list from which I’m selecting out SA references and cut/pasting here. They may or may not be all accurate, but demonstrate Obama/Hillary have been busy little beavers in South America.


    Before Hillary: Under President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Argentina’s economy improved and the working class and students prospered.

    After Hillary: After former president Nestor Kirchner’s sudden death in 2010, the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires became a nexus for anti-Kirchner activities, including the fomenting of political and labor protests against the government. Meanwhile, Clinton pressed Argentina hard on its debt obligations to the IMF, also crippling the economy.


    Before Hillary: Bolivia’s progressive president Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous Aymara leader, provided government support to the country’s coca farmers and miners. Morales also committed his government to environmental protection. He kept his country out of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and helped start the Peoples’ Trade Agreement with Venezuela and Cuba.

    After Hillary: Clinton permitted the U.S. embassy in La Paz to stir up separatist revolts in four mostly European-descent Bolivian provinces, as well as foment labor strikes among miners and other workers in the same model used in Venezuela.


    Before Hillary: Brazil’s progressive presidents, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, ushered in a new era for the country, with workers’ and students’ rights at the forefront and environmental protection and economic development for the poor major priorities.

    After Hillary: Clinton’s authorization of massive electronic spying from the US embassy in Brasilia and consulate general in Rio de Janeiro resulted in a “constitutional coup” against Rousseff and the Workers’ Party government, ushering in a right-wing, CIA-supported corrupt government.


    Before Hillary: Ecuador began sharing its oil wealth with the people and the economy and the plight of the nation’s poor improved.

    After Hillary: Clinton authorized a 2010 National Police coup against President Rafael Correa. The economy soon plunged as labor disputes wracked the mining and oil sectors.


    Before Hillary: Under President Alvaro Colom, the nation’s first populist progressive president, the poor received access to health, education, and social security.

    After Hillary: Clinton authorized the U.S. embassy in Guatemala to work against the 2011 election of president Colom’s wife, Sandra Torres. Colom was succeeded by a right-wing corrupt president who resigned for corruption and then was arrested.


    Before Hillary: Haiti was prepared in 2011 to re-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide, forced out of office and into exile in a 2004 CIA coup. The prospects of Artistide’s return to power was a blessing for the slum dwellers of Haiti.

    After Hillary: Clinton refused to allow Aristide to return to Haiti from exile in South Africa until it was too late for him to run in the 2011 election. Under a series of U.S.-installed presidents, all approved by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Haiti is a virtual cash cow for the Clintons. The Clinton Foundation diverted for its own use, international aid to Haiti, and the Clintons ensured that their wealthy friends in the hotel, textile, and construction businesses landed lucrative contracts for Haitian projects, none of which have benefited the Haitian poor and many of which resulted in sweat shops and extremely low wage labor practices.


    Before Hillary: Emergent multi-party democracy with a populist progressive president, Manuel Zelaya. Children received free education, poor children received free school meals, interest rates were reduced, and the poorest families were given free electricity.

    After Hillary: Clinton authorized a military coup d’etat against Zelaya in 2009. Clinton family “fix-it” man Lanny Davis became a public relations flack for the military dictatorship. A fascist dictatorship involved in extrajudicial death squad killings of journalists, politicians, and indigenous leaders followed the “constitutional coup” against Zelaya. During 2012, Clinton ordered U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa to work against the 2013 election of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya as president.


    Before Hillary: The country under Fernando Lugo began lifting out of poverty the nation’s rural campesinos and urban workers. Paraguay also began a steady move toward democratization after years of military dictatorships.

    After Hillary: Clinton’s 2012 “constitutional coup” against Fernando Lugo brought back into power the military-industrial oligarchy with the nation’s campesinos being forced back into poverty and repressive rule.


    Before Hillary: Under Hugo Chavez, the country provided basic social services to its poorest of citizens. Venezuela also provided discounted gasoline to several Caribbean and Central American countries through the PetroCaribe consortium.

    After Hillary: After Clinton allowed the U.S. embassy in Caracas to foment anti-Chavez labor and political protests, the country began to falter economically. After Chavez’s 2012 diagnosis of terminal cancer, the State Department stepped up pressure on Venezuela, crippling the nation’s economy and political system.

    And in particular, this headline about Venezuela: South American Governments Slam Obama Over Venezuela Sanctions

    “South America’s governments aren’t pleased with the Obama administration’s recent characterization of Venezuela as a “national security threat.”

    Yes, Obama actually declared Venezuela as a direct national security threat!! This was literally a 3-minute wonder back earlier in the year. Not at all something the neocon Washington Post or New York Times wanted to keep in the news. It’s my understanding that this declaration had to made in order to legally raise hell in that nation.

    • Bill Bodden
      October 19, 2016 at 13:00

      Great list, Zachary. Thank you for the effort you put into it.

    • jo6pac
      October 19, 2016 at 14:40

      Thanks for time

  6. Hillary
    October 19, 2016 at 11:29

    Donald Trump on Cuba.

    Trump supports the normalizing of relations with Cuba.

    DAILY CALLER:: What do you think of the opening with Cuba? Do you think that is a good policy, or do you oppose America’s opening with Cuba?

    DONALD TRUMP: I think it’s fine. I think it’s fine, but we should have made a better deal. The concept of opening with Cuba-50 years is enough-the concept of opening with Cuba is fine. I think we should have made a stronger deal.

Comments are closed.