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Latin America and Summit Security on the Eve of the G20

As Mexico prepares to host the first Latin American G20 summit, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez discusses current regional attitudes toward the United States in the Age of Obama.

By Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez


As this year’s G20 summit in Cabo, Mexico, marks the first time a Latin American country has hosted the G20, it is perhaps timely to look at the particular local blend of anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism that continues to thrive within the popular political discourse in a region that once famously attempted to stone Richard Nixon. This deep-seated popular ambivalence, taken together with the current worldwide trend toward dynamic popular manifestations exemplified in the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, could result in something of a perfect storm for popular disruption as the world’s leaders prepare to descend upon Cabo.

Since 2008, every G20 summit has become a focal point for organized protest, often reflecting local flavors of suspicion toward capitalism in general and American influence in particular. During the 2011 summit in Cannes, approximately 10,000 people gathered to protest the summit, and 12,000 French riot policemen—alongside water cannons and helicopters—were required to contain the unrest.

A government mural visible from the principal freeway in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas, shows a smiling Barack Obama with the left side of his face removed, revealing a threatening robotic skeleton reminiscent of the Terminator franchise. The caption reads “Toy of the Empire: Easy to Use, Totally Manipulable.” This mural, which has remained in place for over two years, says much of the role that anti-American sentiment continues to play in the popular political discourse in the region.

While explicitly anti-American government propaganda is rare outside of openly adversarial regimes like Venezuela’s, underlying political currents can be remarkably similar. Even in “friendly states” such as Mexico and Brazil, these issues often boil to the surface at all levels of popular and governmental leadership. At the 2008 G20 summit, which took place at the height of the economic crisis, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s popular “soft-left” president, could not help but engage in the following bit of public schadenfreude: “[W]hen Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia were in trouble, a group of ‘gringos’ landed every time to tell us what to do. […] Now it’s our turn for them to listen to us.” Lula’s remarks were widely quoted and lauded in regional media.

In Mexico, particularly, popular feelings toward “el Norte” are likewise intrinsically tied to perceived historical wrongs, such as the crushing of the Santa Ana Rebellion, the Texan independence movement, and the Mexican-American War (between  the three of which Mexico lost more than 35 percent of her sovereign territory), as well as more contemporary political realities, including the current U.S. federal immigration policies and perceived destabilizing effects of the war on drugs. More recently, highly publicized and racially tinged domestic policies in border states, such as Arizona, and vocal discussions as to building a wall across the U.S.-Mexican border have been particularly contentious. As Porfirio Díaz, a former Mexican dictator, famously put it: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

Perhaps as a result of this, Emiliano Zapata remains a cultural hero to many in Mexico, and the United States continues to be seen by many as a leading obstacle to prioritized popular concerns, including indigenous rights, food security, and wealth redistribution. It is worth noting that, during the most recent presidential election in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a far-left candidate backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was defeated by moderate Felipe Calderón by a margin of less than 1 percent of the popular vote.

Of course, it can be argued that the personal popularity of President Obama in the region might have already served to soften the underlying causes of public dissidence that may arise during the G20. Former President George W.  Bush’s personal image often lent itself to increased showings of popular Anti-Americanism in a country where the idea of ‘the Texan’ is often perceived as synonymous with racism; pugnacity; imperialism; and the rhetoric of class oppression, which, in Latin America, is intrinsically intertwined with matters of race and nepotism. But President Obama—a black man with an African/Muslim name from a working class family—does not fit neatly within the archetypal image of the ‘Gringo oppressor.’

A 2009 LatinoBarometro study published in The Economist showed that, among the 18 Latin countries polled (including those of the “Latin Left”), Obama was the most beloved head of state in the region, scoring a 7 out of 10. (Lula, in second place, scored a 6.4). Comparatively, hard leftists did not fare as well: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa scored a 5, Evo Morales and the Kirchners a 4.8, and Hugo Chávez a 3.9. On a more anecdotal level, I was able to spend a great deal of time in the slums of Caracas in 2009-2010, when I directed entrepreneurial development for the Sucre Municipal Government. Throughout that time I was surprised to find that tee shirts bearing Obama’s face were nearly as ubiquitous as those depicting Che Guevara or even Chávez himself.

The extent to which this change in leadership may have wiped the slate clean, however, is easy to overstate. There have recently been signs that the president’s personal popularity in the region may be waning: A Gallup poll released on April 12 of this year reports that only 24 percent of Latin Americans surveyed—down from 43 percent in 2009—believe that Obama is able to strengthen ties with the region.

The aforementioned LatinoBarometro study showed that, as of 2009, 92 percent of Latin Americans and over 90 percent of Mexicans agreed with this statement: “[M]arches, protests, and street protests are normal in a democracy.” As such, it should not be surprising that the last time Mexico hosted a major summit for an international organization—the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun—thousands of Mexican protesters gathered for a heavily-charged display of social and political dissent, replete with loudspeakers, costumes, and burning American flags. The issue of economic inequality is a good deal more divisive today than was climate change in 2010, and the perception of the G20 as a club built around transnational elites—a phenomenon which to many in the developing world overlaps with concerns over U.S. hegemony—is likewise greater than it is for the United Nations.

In conclusion, these factors point to a very real possibility that showings of public dissidence through protests, and potentially through violence, at the upcoming G20 summit in Mexico may prove considerably more dramatic than during previous summits of its kind. To an extent, the Mexican Government’s choice of hosting the summit in Cabo—a resort town geographically located at a remote tip of the Baja Peninsula and surrounded by water on three sides—reflects these concerns, and the government has made clear its plans to further limit the area’s accessibility. Whether these steps will prove sufficient, given currently charged public attitudes regarding inequality and the aforementioned regional umbrage towards the United States, remains an important question. Northern Mexico is not a safe place, and a great deal of attention must be paid to regional activity and enhancing security protocols and protections prior to the opening of the Summit in June.

Over the last ten years, much of Latin America has come into its own in terms of development and economic growth. This change should be celebrated. Hopefully, the 2012 G20 meetings will be a positive reflection of this hard-earned and well-deserved global prominence. It would be tragic for this message to be lost or undermined by chaotic displays of public anger and those tired, regional platitudes that will hopefully continue to become less relevant with each passing year.