Elite Perceptions of the US

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America believes and promotes itself as the standard bearer of democratic values, which is hard to live up to

GUATEMALA ACADEMIA AND THINK-TANK 01

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  • People and culture
  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Perceived arrogance

My vision of the United States is that of a country with great qualities but also with as many vices. I love its people, for they not only believe in fairness, but most are inherently fair. As I read what I am writing I am baffled, for just last week the scandal of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man in South Carolina hit the news. Still, I do believe what I state above is true: most Americans are fair.

They may screw up royally, but they do air the screw up unabashedly and judge themselves in open channels, which is something I cannot say occurs so openly in other countries where I have lived.

One of the biggest gripes I have with the US is how they exert power and implement foreign policy without due diligence. As ‘the only empire’ in the world, exerting political influence is expected. The problem, however, is how they do it. In effect, America believes and promotes itself as the standard bearer of democratic values, which is hard to live up to. And the image they transmit to the rest of the world is tarnished due to the cavalier manner in which they implement their foreign policy.

When President Obama was elected, I actually cried for I thought that was the greatest example of democratic play at work - a black politician from humble origins becomes president of the ‘greatest nation on earth.’ Not only did the story have a true Hollywood appeal, but I also genuinely believed Obama when he proclaimed: ‘Yes we can.’ Although Obama’s two terms have not been as abysmal as George W Bush, he has fallen well short of the expectations he raised.

US rhetoric is so vested in exporting the US as the caring, compassionate moral compass of the world, heirs to the democratic values of Western civilization, and the ‘good’ military guardians to everyone else (very much in the guise of the iconic Star Wars image used to name one of their military space programmes) that whenever they fall short, we are all devastated.

Before I lived and worked as an academic in the US, I was genuinely in love with the American way of life. In contrast to Guatemala, the US appeared from afar to be a happy place, a harmonious society invested in democratizing the world.

During the tumultuous 1980s in Guatemala, I genuinely believed the US had Latin America’s best interests at heart

During the tumultuous 1980s in Guatemala, I genuinely believed the US had Latin America’s best interests at heart. They stopped the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and helped stabilize the region by calling for democratic elections in the rest of Central America. But living in the United States shattered my faith in the country.

I realized American academics seem to have a complete lack of understanding of Latin America - even those who are supposedly Latin-Americanists (my academic field) have no first-hand knowledge. Most speak poor Spanish, and their knowledge of the region comes from questionable sources. US policy-makers often resort to these academics and, as a result, the foreign policy of the US regarding Latin America has ranged from extreme military and political meddling to complete indifference.

Recently, Guatemala wanted a seat on the UN Security Council and the US was delighted (as the alternative was an anti-American country) so they offered wholehearted support. The support of the US in the mostly anti-American UN was akin to political suicide, and Guatemala would have been better off without such enthusiastic open support. Even when they genuinely want to help, their way of helping is more hindrance.

However, unlike other countries I have lived in or know intimately, I do believe that the system of checks and balances in the US appears to work. Although sometimes hijacked by new age Republicans, or the Tea Party warmongers, there are old school Republicans and Democrats genuinely interested in the welfare of their people and of the rest of the world.

I firmly believe that Americans do believe in democracy and they strive to live up to the expectation that they are a fair society. They believe in merit and they reward it. I entered US academic life with a visa for extraordinary aliens (the genius visa), the US answer to poaching the best individuals in other countries. In the case of my other two countries, Guatemala and Spain, they do nothing to keep their brightest - on the contrary, both have been known to thrive on mediocrity.

Americans believe in hard work and they are incredible smart, entrepreneurial and innovative. While working at my American university, I founded two academic journals. Not only did my bosses encourage this, they showed their appreciation enthusiastically. In the United States, an entrepreneurial attitude is ingrained in the culture.

The US is in decline but I hope that their people wake up from the complacent lies they are fed by the media and by their own congressmen and senators and change things. After all, in a country where segregation was a reality only fifty years ago, they elected a black president to office not so long ago.