by • June 12, 2008 • Cuba, TransitionsComments (0)514

“Latin America and European ‘Soft Power’ Geopolitics,”

Not only will Cuba reinvent itself with a successful post-communist transition, but it can also reinvent the rest of the Hemisphere. Whereas for the past half century the island has been an active and passive propagator of political disease, inspiring and funding countless antisocial networks everywhere, a successful post-communist Cuba could similarly become an example of reform for the rest of Latin America. Chile and Costa Rica need some company as the “good kids” of the Hemisphere. The essay argues that the EU could play its part, since sending the Castro brothers and their “achievements” the way of Nicolae Ceausescu and his equally impressive achievements, it will be directly beneficial for the EU’s democratic and geopolitical cohesion and goals. Galina Fomenchenko, a star of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and now at the European People’s Party, was very kind to invite me to publish this article among those of very renowned people. Yet another case of “one of these things is not like the others.” The Argentine think tank CADAL later translated the article into Spanish.

Una vez liberada, Cuba podrá no solo reinventarse ella sino también al resto del hemisferio. Mientras ya cinco décadas Cuba ha sido un pasivo y activo foco de infección política, al financiar e inspirar a redes antisociales en todo el mundo, la isla igualmente puede convertirse en un ejemplo de reformas exitosas para el resto de Latinoamérica. Después de todo, Chile y Costa Rica necesitan compañía como los “niños buenos” del hemisferio que son. El articulo también sostiene que la Unión Europea puede jugar un rol, ya que despachando a los hermanos Castro y sus “logros” igual que se hizo a otros déspotas y los suyos, llegara a ser benéfico para la cohesión y metas democráticas y geopolíticas del viejo continente. Le agradezco a Galina Fomenchenko, antes líder cívica juvenil en Ucrania y ahora líder juvenil del Partido Popular Europeo, por invitarme a escribir entre tan prestigiosas figuras. Otro caso para la colección de “una de estas cosas, no es como las otras.” CADAL en Argentina publico una versión en español también.

Eur View (2008) 7:7–14
DOI 10.1007/s12290-008-0031-0
Latin America and European ‘soft power’
Fredo Arias-King
Published online: 5 June 2008
Ó Centre for European Studies 2008
Abstract This article argues for the refocusing of EU engagement in Latin America
away from appeasement of the emerging illiberal regimes and towards active support for
liberal forces, consistent with the EU’s founding philosophy, economic goals and geo-
political future.
Keywords Latin America Á Geopolitics Á Kubitschek Á Transition Á Reform Á
Democracy Á Chavismo Á Castrismo Á Illiberalism
In the European Union’s list of political priorities, Latin America probably ranks number
six, coming after the EU itself, the United States, Russia, the Middle East and booming
Asia. Furthermore, the EU and some of its larger Member States have not played an
entirely positive role in the region, instead seemingly continuing to view it as the prize in a
low-intensity geopolitical game with the United States. Underlying this outlook is a belief
that Latin America is genuinely a victim of its powerful northern neighbour, a belief that is
probably a reflection of guilt and paternalism from Europe’s own colonial history.
In addition to the low priority and confused approach, Brussels and the 27 Member
States seem content to subcontract their relations with Latin America to Madrid and maybe
Lisbon, who have mishandled this opportunity.
This is a pity, since a focused and realistic EU could play a crucial role in the Western
hemisphere. This is the one area of the world that could still be susceptible to a positive
influence from the EU—and the European business elites seem to understand this better
than the politicians do. By avoiding paternalistic and ‘great power’ complexes and instead
drawing on its recent history of successful transitions and a relatively high standing with
our elites here, an EU-influenced transformation in Latin America would prove fortuitous
for the long-term success of the EU itself.
F. Arias-King (&)
Mexico City, Mexico
e-mail: [email protected]
F. Arias-King
Ideally, Prague is better equipped than Madrid for this task—given the right political
will—and Cuba could be the main vehicle to achieve this transformation. As with the
campaign to grant the EU Parliament’s Sakharov Prize to Cuba’s main dissident, this effort
could be led by the European People’s Party together with the Conservatives and Liberals
of the EU.
Latin America’s gathering storm
Unlike Eastern Europe and now Russia, the Far East, South Asia and even isolated spots in
the Middle East, which all evidence a strong upward trajectory economically and even
socially, Latin America seems stuck in neutral. There are some bright moments of deci-
siveness and reform, but overall the region is stagnant economically, socially and
politically. To make matters worse, it has once again become a geopolitical battleground,
featuring home-grown strongmen spreading their illiberal model to the rest of the hemi-
sphere, again in alliance and potential alliance with foreign powers seeking to undermine
Western values—and not only those represented by the United States.
Latin America seems to lack the will or the tools to reform itself. While the illiberal
forces have their pan-regional leaders in Havana and Caracas, the democratic forces lack a
leading figure and a model. They even lack friends.
Several regional presidents had pinned their hopes to counter chavismo and castrismo
on Vicente Fox, the charismatic rancher executive who resembled the Mexican movie hero
Jorge Negrete, loved throughout Latin America. But they were disappointed. Fox’s first
visit as president-elect in mid-2000 was to the Cuban embassy to make amends, followed
by a trip to Nicaragua, where he embraced former dictator Daniel Ortega (who used that
encounter in his campaign commercials) and then to Chile, to praise the overthrown leftist
president Salvador Allende at his memorial. Fox surrounded himself almost entirely with
elements of the previous regime, including some alleged criminals. Later, it also surfaced
that his first foreign minister may have worked for Cuban intelligence in the past.
Regrettably, Fox is not the exception. An ongoing study conducted with colleagues in
the rest of the Western hemisphere reveals that only a minority of Latin America’s pres-
idents in the last 100 years could indeed be considered good leaders—the type the EU
countries take for granted—who combine just three basic qualities: honesty, legitimacy and
competence. In our straw poll, only 20% passed the test, with the rest displaying either
incompetence, illegitimacy or corruption, but oftentimes a combination of all three. In
Mexico, for example, only two presidents in the last 100 years combined these three
qualities according to our (admittedly subjective) preliminary study.
Probably the greatest leader ever in Latin America was Juscelino Kubitschek, president
of Brazil in the late 1950s. Though hardly known outside his country, this modest visionary
is fondly recalled as the father of modern Brazil and serves as a unifying figure even today.
Though not exactly a strict fiscal conservative (he increased debt) nor an environmentalist
(his moving the capital to the interior destroyed swathes of the Amazon), the democrat
Kubitschek indeed put the country on the map of industrialised powers, inviting foreign
investors (especially the automotive industry), forging a special relationship with Dwight
Eisenhower’s United States, and later dying as a democracy activist attempting to return
Brazil to the rule of law. He is proof that Latin America could indeed become master of its
fate with good leadership.
But there are others like him, including a string of government leaders in El Salvador,
Chile and Costa Rica, plus the no-nonsense (and highly popular) Alvaro Uribe in
123Latin America and European ‘soft power’ geopolitics
Colombia. With Washington’s help, they are at the forefront of building liberal economies
and are a buffer against the populist contagion. Not surprisingly, these countries are where
European business leaders have chosen to direct their investments.
Venezuelan President Hugo Cha ́vez openly admits to financing subversives else-
where—his country’s national budget includes line items for ‘alternative groups’ in target
countries such as Mexico. However, Mexican President Felipe Caldero ́n made it a priority
to re-establish good relations with Havana and Caracas, refusing to criticise their actions.
Indeed, Mexico (typically for the region) seems unable to understand the implications of
this new trend—instead hoping to appease it.
Caldero ́n should think twice. As in Soviet times, the biggest prize for the illiberal Left is
Mexico—for its size, its northern border and its ‘cultural superpower’ status in the
hemisphere. The Cha ́vez ally narrowly lost the presidential election to Caldero ́n in 2006,
despite the reported millions of dollars of support from his patron. If the illiberal Left does
eventually take over, it is unclear whether Mexico would allow its institutions to be
dismantled or its Congress replaced by a puppet ‘constituent assembly’ as happened in
Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia; or whether a leftist president would step back from such
an effort, as Luiz Ina ́cio ‘Lula’ da Silva did in Brazil. In any case, an agitated and violent
southern neighbour would probably prompt the United States to finally seal its border as
the human waves would likely increase beyond the current yearly flow of 300,000
migrants—as happened in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other nations where similar
governments took over. While Mexico today harbours surprisingly few geopolitical
ambitions, this could easily change with an illiberal leftist and his Cuban and Venezuelan
The EU: between Munich and Maginot
The European Union is a great experiment that has inspired elites and populace alike in
once-barren parts of Europe to reinvent themselves for the sake of joining this prestigious
club. Though its economic value is disputed, few doubt the EU has transformed its
immediate neighbourhood by what Harvard scholar Joseph Nye calls ‘soft power’.
But despite its efforts and resources, the EU has essentially failed to spread its soft
power beyond Europe. Apart from Turkey, there is little evidence that the EU has influ-
enced the Middle East, including North Africa. Russia is actively countering the EU’s soft
power in Serbia and Belarus, and becoming a divisive factor in the EU itself. England’s
soft power from colonial times in India and Hong Kong (whose example served China’s
reformers such as Deng Xiaoping) proved very fortuitous for the destiny of those two
giants and therefore the world, but it’s unlikely that the EU will have much influence on
them in the future.
While some view the EU as a counterweight to the United States, more enlightened
leaders today realise that in a world that includes China, India and ASEAN (Association of
Southeast Asian Nations), the EU should see itself as part of a global family that includes
other liberal democracies in alliance against resurgent challenges. This will likely include
the United States and Canada, plus other members of the ‘political West’ such as India and
Japan. The great landmass that is Latin America could tip the balance one way or another
and it is currently up for grabs—yet one would not guess this by observing the official
policies of the EU and its larger Member States here.
The Treaty of Rome (1957) and the acquis communautaire give the impression that the
EU is broadly aware of responsible political and economic policies. However, these
F. Arias-King
gospels applied so stringently to aspiring Member States don’t seem to be a guide for
relations with Latin America. The policy, if there is one, instead seems a mixture of
patronisation, appeasement, confusion and even encouragement of unacceptable behav-
iour. Brussels ably diagnosed Vladimı ́r Mecˇiar’s and Leonid Kuchma’s regimes, but fails
to do the same across the ocean. Moreover, the behaviour of the chavista axis countries
contradicts more recent EU official policies. The EU Commission states that the main
goals include the fight against corruption and ‘contributing to the development of a stable
and predictable framework to help the Latin American countries attract more European
investment’ [2]. However, according to the Berlin-based Transparency International,
Venezuela is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and European businesses have
stayed away from countries that have fallen under the influence of Venezuelan and Cuban
machinations. Cha ́vez has harassed European companies, even from countries that indulge
While they will not say so openly, Latin American elites (both liberal and traditionalist-
conservative) actually crave an outside figure they can follow, yet that figure has failed to
appear. The only one they have is Washington, which at least has been broadly consistent
(since President Ronald Reagan) in its approach towards the region—unlike Spain or other
potential suitors. Just as the United States proved an important impetus for European
unification after World War II (through the conditions of Marshall Plan aid and other
mechanisms), the EU too can provide that external catalyst and leadership role to an
otherwise mutually distrustful and bickering group of nations.
Needless to say, Latin America shares with Europe the same basic Greco-Roman and
Christian ethos, though without the Enlightenment or Reformation colouring. From
Spanish and Portuguese colonialism and mercantilism to French constitutionalism, to the
Napoleonic wars that ushered in independence, to the immigration of millions of Euro-
peans, to sizeable investments, Latin America’s umbilical connection to Europe is
undeniable. In time, the region can be nudged to reform with the same instruments used in
previously backward parts of Europe. Unlike the usual complexes displayed towards the
United States, Latin American response to European and Canadian advice is welcoming
and open—even if the advice merely mimics that of Washington.
European soft power already enters Latin America through unexpected channels—from
the elites’ exposure to their countries of origin, to International Monetary Fund advice, to
increasing trade. But in the same way as forests were once considered ‘idle land’ by
development economists, the political EU itself fails to appreciate the true value of a
liberal Latin America, judging by its indulgence of demagogues and its almost nil assis-
tance to the actual and potential Kubitscheks.
Take for example election observation missions, the one area where the EU could
directly contribute to frustrating the spread of illiberalism. Instead of tracking and
denouncing the tens of millions of Venezuelan petrodollars supporting leftist agitators in
other countries, or the de-institutionalisation, violence and electoral fraud that follow
their victories, the EU instead has essentially endorsed these takeovers. EU observer
missions in Venezuela and Ecuador came in for criticism [1], but the case of Mexico is
also illustrative.
In a crucial election in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country in July of 2000,
Europe was largely absent (except for warm words from Polish legend Lech Wałe ̨sa from
faraway Gdan ́sk supporting Vicente Fox). In a preparatory gathering of EU ambassadors
and electoral observers, the basic consensus was to turn a blind eye to the expected
electoral fraud which would have put Fox’s opponent—the former secret-police chief and
candidate of the official regime party in power for 70 years—in office. One key EU
123Latin America and European ‘soft power’ geopolitics
ambassador even commented that, fraud and all, that election would be a step forward in
Mexico’s history. The one exception to the blase ́ attitude of these European officials was
the Italian scholar and politician Rocco Buttiglione, who single-handedly forced the EU
machinery to make the signing of the pending EU-Mexico Association Agreement con-
ditional on a clean election—perhaps a factor that compelled President Ernesto Zedillo to
unexpectedly recognise the opposition’s victory. (Typically, the EU failed to capitalise on
this accidental yet non-trivial achievement.)
While the official United States was no better (the Clinton administration and both
presidential candidates also tacitly endorsed the one-party regime in those elections),
Mexico City was teeming with important Americans from both the Republican and
Democratic parties helping the reformers. Despite its lavish official summits and budgets,
the EU is largely absent in this region at crucial moments—in contrast to the United States.
Worse, the few consistently active EU politicians and NGOs flying this way seem to be
committed to rolling back the hard-won progress made towards democracy and rule of law.
Fidel Castro and now Hugo Cha ́vez can count on the ready support of key foreign min-
istries in Europe—namely and quite crucially, that of the Spanish Prime Minister Jose ́ Luis
Rodrı ́guez Zapatero. However, EU forces that sympathise with an alternative model have
hardly mobilised to counterbalance this influence. Aside from Va ́clav Havel and a few
other Cassandras and ‘screamers’ (to use Arthur Koestler’s haunting term), the EU has
projected an image towards Latin America that betrays some of its worst instincts and
traditions. Moreover, the illiberal regimes in Latin America have been quite adept at
dividing not only the EU from the United States, but at leveraging the EU’s internal
divisions as well.
The failure of Rodrı ́guez Zapatero’s (and by extension, the EU’s) approach was evident
during the shouting match between King Juan Carlos de Borbo ́n and Hugo Cha ́vez at a
summit in Santiago. However, the problem should have been noted before Cha ́vez’s
numerous other abuses, including, most tellingly, his openly anti-Semitic remarks and later
his embrace of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).
Rodrı ́guez Zapatero has indicated he would like to restore Spain’s diminishing role in
the region, in which case his natural allies would be the current conservative elites here,
who have a natural affinity for (and ancestry in) the Iberian Peninsula, not Iran, Russia and
China—who are becoming strategic competitors in the hemisphere, not only of the United
States but mainly of Spain and its financial interests. Spain’s self-defeating policy should
convince the rest of the EU to remove it from the driver’s seat of Latin American policy,
lest those relations continue resembling those of two neurotics.
As its main (some would say only) asset is soft power, the EU would be ill advised to
continue pursuing a foreign policy inconsistent with the internal values that glue it toge-
ther. The United States can afford to pursue double standards in its foreign policy. But for
the EU, tolerating and even encouraging despotic behaviour in Moscow or Havana or
Yerevan or Caracas will eventually have a boomerang effect. What if one of its Member
States were to behave this way? How would they handle, say, a Romanian Cha ́vez? Would
Madrid indulge him as well?
Besides a vague notion of global democracy and the common good, the EU should
support the liberal (or, failing that, the conservative or traditionalist) forces in Latin
America for two more realist reasons besides the internal cohesion mentioned above: to
blunt the spread of anti-Western values which also threaten the EU, and to protect the EU’s
financial interests in the region.
It is rarely noticed that Cha ́vez and Castro represent a direct affront to the EU itself—by
their training and funding of insurgencies such as the ‘Polisario’ in northern Africa, their
F. Arias-King
threat to nationalise Spanish banks, their entente with Islamic radicalism and Colombian
narco-terrorists, their support of Alexander Lukashenko with a half-billion dollars and their
open slighting of European democracy. Their support in some key EU circles seems
paradoxical but not too surprising, given the larger Member States’ traditional fetishes for
strongmen. It would not be the first time the EU is called to rise above the pettiness of its
Member States.
From a business standpoint, the EU will increasingly need Latin America in the decades
ahead for several strategic products (such as biofuels). Investment and trade are likely to
flourish, but only if liberal forces and ideas take root in the region. EU politicians would do
well to notice where EU investments are going—towards the liberal regimes.
Industry and investment have traditionally collapsed when the demagogic Left takes
over, due to nationalisation of industry, price controls, export restrictions, corruption and
forced geopolitical reprioritisation. Venezuela today is experiencing a form of de-indus-
trialisation and even food shortages in the middle of the oil boom—all the while creating a
parasitic red oligarchy and destroying the middle class. Even when individual EU countries
or companies negotiate special treatment or assurances with a despot (as with Moscow’s
gas pipelines), the EU as a whole suffers.
In any case, Spain’s perceived right to tutelage may be misplaced. As Spanish thinker
(and a founder of the Liberal International) Salvador de Madariaga would say, Latin
America is not the child of Spain, but instead, Latin America plus today’s Spain are the
offspring of a Spain that has long ago ceased to exist. His grandson, the EU high repre-
sentative Javier Solana, has wisely heeded this advice and shown congruence towards
Latin America—unlike the newer generation of his fellow Spanish Socialists.
Cuba to the rescue?
Paradoxically, but quite realistically, Cuba could become a source of inspiration for Latin
America. But instead of inspiring misguided Rousseauean romantics, corrupt demagogues
and guerrillas, this time the island nation could give hope to those forces attempting to
reform the hemisphere. It could also be the main conduit of European soft power into the
rest of the region.
So far, only Chile has provided (albeit reluctantly) a model for the reformist forces of
the region. Costa Rica is also oftentimes touted as an example of a socially sensitive
democracy—although it’s still basically poor. All the other examples are too deeply flawed
to offer any kind of model.
Cuba could use its pending transition from communism to escape the cultural pathologies
of latinoamericanismo, just as several other nations did with the even more pernicious
‘Central Europeanism’ of interethnic conflict, militarism, poverty and war. The only
democracy east of Switzerland in the interwar period was Toma ́sˇ Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia.
However, today there are over a dozen functioning democracies in the region—countries that
took advantage of good leadership and a social consensus to dramatically reinvent them-
selves. The transition from communism provides this opportunity, if the elites take advantage
of what Leszek Balcerowicz calls the ‘window of opportunity’, before the honeymoon of
extraordinary politics gives way to the restraining humdrum of ordinary politics.
If a post-authoritarian Cuba decides to go further than a mediocre status-quo ante
transition and finds the courage to model itself as a Caribbean Estonia, then the implica-
tions for the rest of the hemisphere will be profound. A Cuba with a Havel or a Mart Laar
as president, that implements administrative reform, lustration, a flat tax, open trade,
123Latin America and European ‘soft power’ geopolitics
rigorous banking reforms, fiscal discipline, low indebtedness, property rights and fair
privatisation, that maybe even joins NATO as a way to reform its bloated military—this
Cuba could see Asian-style growth rates and a dramatically better rank in the UN’s Human
Development Index (as happened with Estonia), thereby catapulting it from pariah to
messiah status in the rest of the hemisphere. This is not to say that only in this exceptional
case can a Latin American country reinvent itself—there are also cases worldwide of
dramatic improvement through ordinary politics, such as Ireland in the 1990s. However,
the type of political figures necessary to achieve something akin to the Irish miracle are
few and far between here. Nevertheless, we should have faith in the domino effect a
Caribbean Estonia could have.
Probably the most constructive EU policy towards Latin America would be to use the
soft power of its successful democratic transitions to train a cadre of dissidents in Cuba and
Venezuela. The decisive economic reforms undertaken by several post-communist coun-
tries will be more relevant than those of Spain, whose reforms were mostly implemented
during Franco.
Member States have already spontaneously formed groups that the EU itself would do well
to support. For example, the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba (ICDC) that
was formed in Prague in 2004 on the initiative of Havel, Jose ́ Marı ́a Aznar and the People in
Need Foundation brings together some of the main transition leaders of the region plus those
of Latin America: Philip Dimitrov of Bulgaria, Patricio Aylwin of Chile, Laar of Estonia,
former leaders from Costa Rica and Uruguay in addition to legendary activists such as Adam
Michnik of Poland and Yelena Bonner of Russia. The Lech Wałe ̨sa Institute in Warsaw and
the Respekt Institute in Prague formed a programme to study Latin America and advise
regional governments on policy—especially that of the Czech Republic, which is scheduled
to chair the EU rotating presidency next year. Indeed, Prague has done far more to deploy
European soft power positively in Latin America than has Madrid as of late. And unlike
Madrid, whose Latin American policy is held hostage to domestic political struggles (even
within the Socialist Party), Prague has been consistent across government coalitions.
Though despotic forces in Latin America will condemn them for ‘racism’ or ‘neo-
colonialism’, the EPP, the Conservatives and the Liberals of the EU could take the ini-
tiative squandered by the Socialist International. They would work not only with their
Latin ideological counterparts, but also with the genuine and healthy Social Democrats of
the region, which the Spanish Socialists and many of their European comrades have
curiously chosen to relegate to the backseat. These include forces represented by figures
such as Ricardo Lagos of Chile, Oscar Arias and Luis Alberto Monge of Costa Rica,
Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, plus their Venezuelan and Cuban counterparts (the
former political prisoners Vladimiro Roca and Huber Matos). Tellingly, Venezuelan Social
Democrats openly favoured the defeat of the Spanish Socialists in the March 2008 elec-
tions, just so that Europe would stop condoning Cha ́vez.
The goal should be to reorient EU policy towards a self-serving, pragmatic, hard-nosed
and realistic strategy for Latin America: support the Kubitscheks. The EU could be the
factor that determines if Latin America evolves from the adolescent of the Western world
to one of its strategic assets. Latin America will change when its values change, and that
takes leadership.
For the sake of the EU and the rest of the political West, Latin America should continue
its exotic traditions in cuisine, folklore and vibrant cultures, but like every good marriage
partner, become refreshingly ‘boring’ in the affairs of everyday life.
F. Arias-King
1. de Castella, T (2008) The truth about European Union election observers in Venezuela. The Sunday
Times 10 February 2008
2. EU Commission. 2005. Press release for European Commission, A stronger partnership between the
European Union and Latin America, COM (2005) 636 final. Online at
relations/la/news/ip05_1555.htm; accessed 8 April 2008
Fredo Arias-King is the founder of the academic quarterly Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet
Democratization, published since 1992 in Washington, DC. He is an analyst with two regional think tanks:
CEON (Miami) and CADAL (Buenos Aires).

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