Let’s face it: Most Americans almost never think about South America. Oh, there are a few exceptions, such as when the World Cup comes around and we are reminded how many great soccer football teams there are “down there.” Also, when Carnival Time in Rio comes close. Also, when we keep hearing about how the forests of the Amazon are gradually being clear-cut.
I think this is a fundamental flaw about being the world’s Number One military power. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), here are the world’s top ten for 2013:
- United States – $682.0 billion
- People’s Republic of China – $166.0 billion
- Russia – $90.7 billion
- United Kingdom – $60.8 billion
- Japan – $59.3 billion
- France – $58.9 billion
- Saudi Arabia – $56.7 billion
- India – $46.1 billion
- Germany – $45.8 billion
- Italy – $34.0 billion
Note that there are no South American countries in the list, though Brazil comes in at 11th place with $33.1 billion. (When was the last time they fought a war?) In other words, there are no major military players in South America. So we don’t have to worry about them, right? And that is the fundamental flaw about being Number One: You tend not to think about smaller countries because they simply don’t impinge on your way of life. In other words, you lay yourself open for a big unpleasant surprise.
I actually remember my first such unpleasant South America surprise. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President from 1952 to 1960. On May 13, 1958, he sent Vice President Nixon to Caracas, where his motorcade was attacked by an angry mob. As a 13-year-old in Cleveland, I was outraged that a no-name country like Venezuela had the nerve to insult the United States. This plus the subsequent insurgency in Cuba and takeover by Castro led to the creation of the Alliance for Progress during the Kennedy Administration. (But we had to undergo a baptism by fire at the Bay of Pigs first.)
Then there was more bad news to come. We were being inundated by cocaine being smuggled in from Colombia and other nearby countries. Then there was this matter of the FARC insurgency in Colombia and the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru. The whole continent appeared to be unraveling like a cheap suit. The Tupamaros in Uruguay and the disappearances in Argentina under Videla didn’t help either, nor did Pinochet in Chile.
At a certain point along the way, a certain positive influence from Argentina turned my life around. It was my discovery of the writer Jorge Luis Borges. Once I started reading his works, I began to see the world through his eyes. There was this battle called Junin that was fought in Peru. Then there were the Unitarios and Federalistas in Argentina. I began to get more interested, and then I actually went to Argentina in 2006 (only to break my shoulder by falling in a blizzard in Tierra Del Fuego) and 2011. Now I want to go to Peru in 2014, if I can swing it financially.
And, of course, I have been reading ever so much more about South America—so much so, in fact, that I look at the globe in an entirely different light. Perhaps South America will gain by all these years of benign neglect. Perhaps not. We still enforce the Monroe Doctrine after a fashion to keep Europe out, but we pretty much leave the continent alone unless our multinational corporations want to cut down their trees or extract their mineral wealth. Eventually, I see the nations down there nationalizing those industries and, with luck, putting the skids on some of the worst abuses. Until then, our corporations will be a stench in their nostrils.