Met by crowds inspired by both adoration (for the Pope) and indignation (towards their government), the visit of Pope Francis to Brazil provides valuable insights for how the United States can better approach its Latin American neighbors.
The pronouncements of Pope Francis, a Pope of many firsts (first Jesuit, first from the Western Hemisphere), reflect a new Catholic evangelization based around human rights, social justice, and basic dignity. His austere lifestyle, stretching back to his days as a Jesuit priest in Buenos Aires, reflect his desire to refocus the Catholic Church towards its social mission of providing both physical and spiritual nourishment to the masses.
The message he sent to tens of thousands of Brazilians and pilgrims from all over the world was one that sought to balance the pressures of rapid growth in both economic and geopolitical heft with the abject poverty in which many reside. Not far from gleaming high rises and the sandy stretches of Copacabana, he spoke to the favelas where many feel that the economic boom of the past decade has left them behind.
While his message was to those gathered in Rio, it resonates in Caracas, La Paz, Managua, Quito, and beyond. For those steering U.S. policy in the region, it hopefully resonates there as well.
Similar to the Catholic Church, United States foreign policy has been inconsistent and episodic concerning Latin America. Distracted by the continued turmoil in the Middle East and the complexities of the "pivot" towards Asia, we have only furthered a belief that U.S. policy towards Latin America remains unchanged since the days of the Cold War. As the joke often goes, "there are only two real differences in U.S. Latin America policy: whether it is based in the 1960's or the 1980's."
Without understanding the broader dynamics of the region we will continue to view the region solely through the lenses of counternarcotic operations, illegal immigration, and competition with China. Just as the Pope has taken the message of the Catholic Church directly to the people of Latin America, we must also show how the interests of the United States align with those of the people of Latin America.
While the anti-American leaders in the region certainly have mastered the use of the democratic process, albeit at times under suspicious circumstances, and deploy vigorous anti-American rhetoric, the coalitions they muster are not inspired by a "struggle against the yanqui, the enemy of mankind." Instead, as all politics are local, these anti-American leaders are leveraging a public eager for greater economic and social equality and opportunity.
Despite the poor performance of these leaders (ask any Venezuelan about their access to basic staples such as cooking oil and toilet paper), the U.S. lacks a counter narrative to those espousing socialist or Bolivarian ideologies.
Just as the Pope said that "no one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world," U.S. policy must better reflect how we can assist the people of Latin America and better encourage partnerships based on equitable growth and shared interests. While we have strong ties with the globalized elites of these nations, we must also reach out to those left behind.
Again, the church provides the model in the various social and educational missions conducted by Jesuits, Franciscans, and countless other religious orders. These are the type of programs that provide real benefits to Latin Americans, and they can improve both perceptions of the United States and regional stability.
The United States can focus on aid programs that encourage bottom-up development and reduce the corruption inherent in top-down projects. We can provide assistance to promote better policing and social services, in many ways supporting the spread of innovative indigenous programs that ensure social welfare.
We can nurture investment in the people instead of capital assets, and pursue projects that support open and fair economic competition, and equal and transparent enforcement of the law. Through improved access to U.S. markets, we can empower small business owners and entrepreneurs and show that the benefits of economic growth can be equitably distributed. Finally, we can demonstrate through deeds, not words, how the U.S. investments in the region stand in stark contrast to the exploitative, mercantilist approach of China's state-owned industries.
In listening to the Pope's message, we can build our own 21st century approach towards a region that can no longer afford neglect.