Back in the early 1980s, when the Inter-American Dialogue was born, the United States under President Reagan was actively supporting the right-wing government of El Salvador in its bloody war against leftist insurgents, while at the same time secretly funding contras hoping to overthrow Marxist Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.
Meanwhile, the region’s biggest countries — Argentina, Brazil and Mexico — were cash-strapped, debt-ridden and beholden to the IMF; only oil-exporting Venezuela seemed to be doing well. Throughout the hemisphere, anti-American sentiment was rampant, said Michael Shifter, longtime president of the Dialogue, a D.C.-based think tank focused on the Western Hemisphere.
“The main concern was the wars in Central America, but also there was a debt crisis. The ’80s was a lost decade for Latin America,” said Shifter, recalling the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and Great Britain, the rise of Colombia’s FARC insurgency and the collapse of pro-U.S. military dictatorships in both Argentina and Brazil. “There were lots of big changes going on, and tremendous misunderstandings between Latin America and the United States.”
These days, a different Republican is in the White House — and it seems those tremendous misunderstandings have returned with a vengeance.
Donald Trump’s verbal assault against Mexicans as “rapists, criminals and drug dealers,” his insistence on building a border wall and forcing Mexico to somehow pay for it and his unforgiving rush to deport undocumented immigrants — including those with no criminal records — have sparked a groundswell of resentment south of the Río Grande the likes of which have not been seen in a generation.
“Mexico had a prominent role in trying to encourage diplomatic solutions in Central America, which was very much at odds with the Reagan administration’s approach. In some respects, relations now may be even at a lower point [than in the 1980s] because the rhetoric has been so personally offensive and aggressive. It really hits very hard at the visceral level,” Shifter told The Washington Diplomat in a lengthy interview.
“Mexicans, and by extension a lot of Latin Americans, feel this almost as a personal affront,” he continued. “That has really set things back. It’s not so much that Trump has been saying all these things, but that he was saying all these things without any pushback during the Republican primaries. The fact that people are silent in the face of this rhetoric concerns me a great deal.”
Region a ‘Stepchild’ of U.S. Foreign Policy
The collapse of democracy in Venezuela also deeply worries Shifter — along with the drug-fueled violence that today plagues much of Central America’s so-called “Northern Triangle” and the Trump administration’s general lack of interest in the region.
As head of Washington’s leading think tank devoted to Latin American issues, Shifter makes no attempt to hide his frustration.
“I understand that Latin America is not the highest priority. It doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and it’s obviously not the Middle East or North Korea. But that’s the problem,” he told us. “The United States should be able to deal with all regions in a thoughtful and constructive way. Latin America has traditionally been taken for granted because it doesn’t pose a real threat. It’s sort of a stepchild of U.S. foreign policy.”
Shifter, 62, is no newcomer to the region.
Born and raised in East Rockaway, N.Y., he learned Spanish at the age of 14 while living in Mexico on an exchange program. He added Portuguese to his resume in 1972 as a student in Portugal.
“A critical point for me was the time I spent in Colombia, which was my third year of college at Oberlin,” Shifter said. “Back then, in 1975-76, Bogotá was one of the major destinations for U.S. exchange students. What had been more of a cultural interest evolved into a political concern. I had read a lot of [Colombian novelist Gabriel] García Márquez and saw the tremendous inequities. For college students, this was about fighting for social justice.”
Shifter went on to study sociology at Harvard, but always with a focus on Latin America. He taught at Harvard from 1978 to 1982 as a graduate student and spent six months in Venezuela doing consulting work in the city of Barquisimeto.
Shifter also lived in Peru for four years and Chile for two years while representing the Ford Foundation, and he has traveled widely throughout the region in the years since. In fact, the only two Spanish-speaking nations in the Western Hemisphere he hasn’t been to are Honduras and Bolivia.
“Increasingly,” he says of Trump’s trashing of Mexico and the regional backlash it’s caused, “a lot of Latin Americans are justifiably asking, ‘Can we count on the United States for anything?’ What we’ve seen so far has been pretty troubling.”
Cold War Beginnings
The Inter-American Dialogue traces its roots to a 1982 conference at the Wye Plantation in Eastern Maryland. Sol Linowitz chaired the meeting, which was also attended by a leading academic, Abe Lowenthal, and the current president of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
“I was there by coincidence, because I happened to be a research assistant at the Wilson Center and this conference was organized under the framework of the Wilson Center,” said Shifter. In fact, the Dialogue — which began life with only three or four staffers — was part of the Wilson Center, then fell under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for several years. It didn’t become an independent institution until 1990.
“In the late 1980s, with the end of the Cold War and what seemed like an interesting moment for greater cooperation, the Dialogue evolved more into a think tank and started to develop programs and reports. There was a sense that conditions were favorable to generate ideas that could be adopted by senior policy officials to move the relationship forward,” Shifter explained. “At that time, there was a lot of controversy over Reagan’s policy supporting the contras and the government of El Salvador. As you can imagine, every top foreign policy official … came to our meetings. This is where the Cold War was being played out.”
Shifter worked with the Wilson Center until 1984, then started on his own career path. In 1991, the organization appointed economist Richard Feinberg as its first president. Peter Hakim replaced Feinberg at the helm of the Dialogue two years later and served there until April 2010, when Shifter — who joined the Dialogue in 1994 as a program director — became president of the think tank.
Operating on an annual budget of about $4 million, the Dialogue has 25 staffers in Washington. Last July, the Dialogue opened a six-person office in Guatemala City that focuses on remittances and Central American regional development.
“This is a critical time for the Dialogue to open its first office in Latin America, and in no better place,” said Eduardo Stein, a former vice president of Guatemala.
New Headquarters for Dialogue
Four months ago, in another milestone, the Dialogue officially inaugurated its spacious D.C. headquarters in a 7,500-square-foot office that occupies the entire eighth floor of a building at 1155 15th St., NW, next to the Madison Hotel. The think tank’s new conference facilities can comfortably seat up to 150 people — a huge improvement over its rather cramped previous office a few blocks away on Connecticut Avenue.
According to its 2015-16 biennial report, the Dialogue last year hosted 140 events attended by 6,300 participants — and its website generated 629,000 hits from 185 countries. Each year, it also publishes more than 300 editions of the online Latin America Advisor as well as two sister publications.
In the University of Pennsylvania’s “2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report,” issued in late January, the Inter-American Dialogue ranked 34th on its list of the nation’s most influential think tanks, just behind the Center for Global Development and the German Marshall Fund.
“Each group has its own characteristics,” Shifter said, noting that the Atlantic Council, Brookings and Wilson Center all have Latin America programs housed within larger institutions. “The Dialogue is completely focused on Western Hemisphere affairs. I think one of the features that sets us apart is precisely our membership. We have 120 members who come from the region and are sort of ambassadors of the Dialogue in their countries.”
The Dialogue’s co-chairs are former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills. Major corporate donors include BMW, Chevron, Citigroup, ExxonMobil, Mitsubishi, Televisa and Walmart. It also receives funding from the Danish, Japanese and U.S. governments as well as the Inter-American Development Bank, World Bank and Organization of American States (OAS).
High-Profile Speakers, from Fujimori to Fox
Shifter’s think tank regularly partners with other entities on projects of joint interest. Since 1997, the CAF Conference — which the Dialogue co-sponsors with CAF-Development Bank of Latin America and the OAS — has convened in Washington to discuss political, economic and social issues that affect Latin America. The XX CAF Conference, held last September at the Willard Intercontinental hotel, attracted more than 1,400 attendees and opened with a keynote address by Vice President Joe Biden.
“The one distinctive feature of the Inter-American Dialogue, and the reason why I keep coming back, is because the Dialogue is the only place really in the world where the whole of Latin America meets,” said Matias Spektor, an associate professor at Brazil’s Fundação Getulio Vargas, which the University of Pennsylvania ranked as the best think tank in Central and South America.
The Dialogue counts 18 former presidents as members, including Jimmy Carter. Among heads of state who have addressed the Dialogue over the years: Argentina’s Carlos Menem; Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Chile’s Michelle Bachelet; Mexico’s Vicente Fox; Peru’s Alberto Fujimori; and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
“We have had very intense and passionate discussions. Early on, it was possible to get chávistas and opposition leaders in the same room,” Shifter said. “In 1999, Chávez visited Washington, and the only think tank he spoke at was the Inter-American Dialogue. When people say we’re anti-Chávez, I remind them of that.”
By and large, the Dialogue has managed to avoid the conflict-of-interest debates that have entangled much bigger think tanks like the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the Atlantic Council, which have been accused of shaping their agendas around major corporate and foreign donors. Think tanks, in fact, have become big business. In recent years, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have opened new headquarters that cost tens of millions of dollars. Several years ago, the New York Times included the Dialogue in an infographic (but not in the article accompanying the chart) that linked its support of a U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia to the fact that the Dialogue had received $20,000 from the Colombian government.
“There was no basis for that. They never called me to get any kind of comment, and the timing of it was completely off,” said Shifter, pointing out that the FTA had already been signed by the time Colombia made the donation. “We’re acutely aware of the environment in which we live. We’re very careful and professional, and we have a policy about this. We take a lot of pride in our independence and integrity.”
Striving for Balance
On April 27, the Dialogue — along with Brookings and CSIS — co-sponsored a talk with Argentine President Mauricio Macri. On May 5, it staged a roundtable with the six candidates nominated to serve on the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. On May 16, it scheduled a conference on violence in the Caribbean. And about a week before our interview, Shifter briefed the Washington-based ambassadors of 10 Latin American countries, including Cuba, about the Trump administration.
“We certainly strive to be very balanced, very centrist,” said Shifter. “We don’t have events with people who are clearly anti-democratic, but we’re proud of the fact that we have a broad range of perspectives. People try to pigeonhole us, but part of our philosophy is that it’s essential to get lots of different perspectives.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a one-time Jesuit volunteer and fluent Spanish speaker who in the early 1980s preached liberation theology to Honduran campesinos (farmers), was honored in November 2014 at the 10th Sol Linowitz Forum Gala. “The Dialogue is so important in its gathering of the great minds of this hemisphere to grapple with the relationships that have such deep roots but can always be stronger,” said Kaine.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that the Inter-American Dialogue’s work is more important than ever before,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said at the organization’s 2016 gala.
Meltdown in Venezuela
One of the most urgent crises facing Latin America right now is the continuing chaos in Venezuela. Despite the country’s vast oil wealth, its mismanaged economy is in tatters, violence is rampant and Venezuelans struggle to buy staples like milk and toilet paper — all while President Nicolás Maduro desperately clings to power.
Maduro is facing intense criticism both at home and abroad for eroding Venezuela’s democratic institutions. On April 26, following a month of anti-government protests that left over 50 people dead and hundreds injured, Maduro announced his country would pull out of the OAS — the first time such a thing has happened in the organization’s 70-year history. A month earlier, the Supreme Court, which is stacked with Maduro loyalists, ruled to strip the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its powers in a move described by OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro as a “self-inflicted coup” (the court later rolled back the decision following a fierce backlash).
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing to slap sanctions on officials in Maduro’s beleaguered administration while offering $10 million in humanitarian aid to the country. Even Trump has waded into the contentious debate over what to do about Venezuela.
On Feb. 15, Trump called on Maduro to free Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison. That followed a White House meeting with the dissident’s wife, Lilian Tintori, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Earlier that day, Tintori addressed 120 people at the Dialogue about the worsening situation in her country.
“It’s very hard to apply the term ‘democracy’ in a meaningful way to Venezuela,” Shifter observed. “Chávez was always skillful in having the trappings of democracy. Maduro is much more blatant and crude in the way he’s governing. He’s completely eliminated any safeguards or any checks on the executive power. It’s a mistake to underestimate his longevity. Although there are differences in the government, a lot of money and interests are at stake. Any possible risk of collapse and they will close ranks. The armed forces still supports Maduro, the opposition has been divided and weak, and the government has exploited their differences.”
So despite the current upheaval, no one should count the Venezuelan strongman out, says Shifter, whose think tank is planning several major events in June on the continuing crisis.
“The government has been focused on dividing the opposition, co-opting some of them with money and position,” he said. “People are desperate, but they’re also exhausted and trying to get by. That doesn’t translate into popular mobilization to oust the government. It’s an extremely sad and tragic situation that won’t last forever — but I don’t think it’s wise to predict Maduro’s imminent collapse.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.