Commentary

Washington Tries a Better-Neighbor Policy


By Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations, University of Southern California
This opinion article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on December 24, 1999

Three recent events, entirely separate yet of a piece, vividly illustrate both how difficult and how necessary it is for the United States to overcome 19th century habits as the 20th century draws to a close.

The symbolic transfer of the Panama Canal to the government of Panama, the Pentagon’s agreement to phase out the use of the Puerto Rico island of Vieques as a firing range, and the Department of Justice’s decision to follow established procedures in the case of Elian Gonzalez - the 6-year old Cuban boy rescued from the waters off Florida after his mother and others drowned trying to reach the U.S. from Cuba - are all events that reflect the tension between bold patterns and new realities.

In transferring the Panama Canal Zone, Washington faithfully implemented the Carter-Torrijos treaty of 1977. By doing so, the U.S., despite fierce public opposition in some quarters, recognized Panama’s sovereignty over its national territory, including the 51-mile long Panama Canal Zone where the United States had been acting as if it were sovereign since 1903.

Although some in the U.S. still believe that the canal and the Canal Zone should be run forever by Americans, the U.S. government, by transferring all its installations and authority to Panama, has eliminated a colonial vestige that had for years soured inter-American relations.

In Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s east coast, it took the accidental death of civilian security guard David Sanes Rodriguez to mobilize strong Puerto Rican opposition to the U.S. Navy’s continuing use of the inhabited island as a live-ammunition firing range. Increasingly vocal Puerto Rican sentiment on the matter finally got Washington’s attention, forcing the Pentagon to look for alternative ways of training U.S. forces.

In the case of Elian Gonzalez, the U.S. government has resisted the political and emotional instinct to grant the boy immediate asylum in Florida and thereby placate the exile community there, instead relying on established procedures and precedents to determine the boy’s fate. No solution of this heart-rending case seems satisfactory, but at least the U.S. is not asserting a right to override national and international laws and agreements to score points against Fidel Castro or because of assumptions that Americans would best know what is in Elian’s interests.

All these episodes have been difficult for the American body politic, however. In Panama, President Bill Clinton not only declined to attend the transfer ceremony, but he also allowed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to beg off, snubbing Panama and minimizing an important international event in order to avoid potential domestic criticism.

In Vieques, it took presidential intervention to push the U.S. Navy into recognizing the strength and breadth of Puerto Rican opposition to the daily shelling of their territory. The whole incident, moreover, highlights the continuing anomaly of Puerto Rico’s “commonwealth status,” which requires taxation and many other obligations without representation in the U.S. Congress.

In the Elian Gonzalez case, the first instinct of U.S. officials was to assert the right of the U.S. to separate the boy from his father in violation of family law and of relevant U.S.-Cuba migration accords. It has taken political and bureaucratic courage to apply the law, and the case is still subject to extraordinary pressures.

What unites the three cases is the need for U.S. policymakers to overcome attitudes fashioned a century ago, when the U.S. first became a major player on the world stage precisely by projecting its growing power in the Caribbean Basin and Central America. It has been more than 100 years since the Spanish-American War, but the patterns of U.S. relations with the small countries south of its border has been hard to break. Countless times the United States has intervened using armed force, covert manipulation, financial leverage, or political guidance. The U.S. Marines landed most often in these lands during the 1920s, but even in the past 50 years there has been repeated U.S. interventionism in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

Many American officials and many in the American public still think of the Caribbean Basin as falling under the U.S. sphere of influence, where Washington alone should set the rules, determine the course it think best and act accordingly.

The decisions to transfer control of the Panama Canal, to end the shelling of Vieques, and to apply the law to the case of Elian Gonzalez are small but perhaps significant signs that the U.S. may be ready to deal with other countries on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation, not by imposition, fiat or force. If so, the U.S. should be better able to face the complex challenges of the 21st century.

A high level of international cooperation will be needed to deal with such issues as trade, the environment, terrorism, narcotics, infectious diseases, weapons proliferation, the protection of cyberspace, and the preservation of natural resources. By overcoming outmoded habits, the U.S. will be much more likely to succeed.

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