Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

POLITICS: Latin American Elites More Doubtful of U.S.

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jan 8 2007 (IPS) - Elites in the major countries of Latin America are increasingly bullish about their nations’ economies and increasingly alienated from the United States, according to a new survey by Zogby International and released this week by Newsweek magazine.

The poll of 603 prominent Latin Americans – divided roughly equally among politicians, businesspeople, academics and media figures, virtually all of them with university degrees – suggests that Washington looms less important for these leaders than in the past and has become increasingly unpopular under President George W. Bush.

Indeed, 86 percent of respondents, including 81 percent who identified their political views as being right of centre, characterised Washington’s handling of relations with Latin America as being either “fair” (48 percent) or “poor” (38 percent), compared to the mere 13 percent who called them “good” and one percent who said they were “excellent”.

Anti-U.S. opinion was particularly pronounced in Mexico where nearly two out of three respondents described relations with Washington as “poor”. Even in Colombia, by far the largest recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America, only less than one in four respondents characterised ties with the U.S. as “good”, while more than three in four said they were either “fair” (46 percent) or “poor” (31 percent).

And while the United States is still considered by Latin elites to be the single country that will prove “most important” to Latin America’s future, China and the European Union (EU) are also seen as major players, particularly for the region’s economy.

Thus, while 58 percent of respondents said trade agreements with the U.S. were either “important” (26 percent) or “extremely important” (32.5 percent) to the region’s economy, that fell well short of the 80 percent who described such ties with the EU and the 70 percent who cited trade ties with China in the same ways.

Similarly, nearly 27 percent of respondents described China as the country that is most important to Latin America’s future, just behind the United States, which was cited by 30.5 percent.

The new survey, which was similar to one conducted by Zogby in 2002, covered between 80 and 100 leaders in each of seven countries – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela, as well as Mexico and Colombia. Respondents were interviewed in November and early December.

Compared to 2002, Latin American elites are showing much greater optimism, particularly regarding prospects for their economies. Thus, five years ago, only seven percent of respondents described the health of their national economies as “good” or “excellent”. That share has risen to 43 percent, according to the latest poll, which also found that a whopping 81 percent expect improvement in the coming years.

The most positive attitudes were found in Argentina, Chile, Peru and Venezuela, particularly about the countries’ prospects over the next two years. By far the most pessimistic, on the other hand, were the Mexicans, 83 percent of whom described economic conditions there as “fair” or poor”, and one-third said the situation is apt to worsen.

Brazilians, on the other hand, were the most optimistic, with nearly nine in 10 forecasting improvement.

Elite respondents also voiced optimism about the general direction of the region as a whole. A majority of nearly 53 percent said they thought Latin America was on the “right track”; one in three said it was on the “wrong track.” Peruvians, Brazilians, and Venezuelans were the most optimistic; Mexicans and Chileans were the least, according to the survey, which was co-sponsored by the University of Miami in Florida.

Asked which of Latin America’s current government leaders represented the best models, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet was chosen by nearly 28 percent of respondents, followed closely by Lula da Silva at 26.4 percent. Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe came in third, boosted by the votes of 34 percent of his country’s respondents.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez placed fourth with nine percent, followed closely by Argentina’s Nestor Kirchner at 8.5 percent. Like Uribe, Chavez received 39 percent of the votes by his compatriots. He also received the highest rating of all Latin America leaders among the youngest respondents, those aged between 18 and 24 who, however, made up only two percent of the total sample.

Among those respondents who described themselves as left or left-leaning (4 or 5 on a 1-5 right-left spectrum), Lula and Bachelet topped the list with just over 50 percent each, while Chavez ranked third at 45 percent. About one in three respondents described themselves as 4s or 5s, and, among those who gave themselves 5, Chavez was the most popular by far.

At the same time, only 28.4 percent of all respondents described Chavez’s influence on Latin America as “positive”, while 62 percent said it was “negative”. Highest positive ratings were found in Venezuela (45 percent), Argentina (36 percent), and Mexico (31 percent). The most negative ratings were found in Peru, at a whopping 91.3 percent).

Just over one in four respondents described themselves as right (1) or right-leaning (2). Of those, 62 percent said Uribe was the best model of leadership for the continent. He was followed by Bachelet and Lula, respectively.

In contrast to the negative views of the U.S. under Bush, China’s emergence as an economic power was seen by the elites in a mainly positive light. Just under half of all respondents described Beijing as an “economic partner” as opposed to a “serious” (7.1 percent) or “potential threat” (12.6 percent).

Another 6.6 percent said it constituted “no threat”. The most favourable attitudes were found in Venezuela, Chile, and Peru, while Mexican leaders were the most leery, probably as a result of Chinese competition for U.S. markets.

By margins of two to one, respondents in both Chile and Argentina considered China to be more important to Latin America’s future than the United States, while respondents in Peru were split on the question. The U.S. was considered more important in the other four countries.

Still, the survey found strong support for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that would include the United States. Overall, nearly two out of three respondents supported such a pact. The FTAA was particularly popular among elites in Peru (92.5 percent support), Chile (84 percent), and Colombia (77.5 percent). Opposition, on the other hand, was strongest in Argentina (51.9 percent), Venezuela (a plurality of 41 percent), and Brazil (a minority of 41 percent).

Asked whether they thought it was more important for their country’s economy to be integrated with the U.S. or with other Latin American countries, however, only one in three chose the former, while 59 percent – including a majority in each country – opted for the region.

Support for regional integration was highest in Argentina (72 percent), Brazil (64 percent), and Colombia (62.5 percent). Support for integration with the U.S. was highest in Peru (41 percent), Mexico (37 percent), and Brazil (35 percent).

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