Elite Perceptions of the US

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Positive or not, Washington’s influence is strong

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A couple of decades ago I gave a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution on US stereotypes in Latin America. While writing that lecture I discovered that many negative Latin American views, true or not, about the US had originated in the US itself. From the nineteenth century onwards, the derogative perceptions held by southern Confederate States about their northern rivals were borrowed, in a more radical form, by us latinos and, for 150 years, America was perceived by some as the complete opposite of Latin American values.

In contrast to such a ‘Nuestra América’ stance, my feelings towards the US are generally very positive. This is probably because I not only consider Washington’s foreign policy or commercial interests, where I can be very critical, but also take into consideration areas of society and academia more familiar to me.

When I think of the US government, it is with a ‘consciousness of empire’, a reference to the virtues and defects of a new Rome. As Zbigniew Brzezinski noted a couple of decades ago, the Roman comparison taps into an overextended superpower struggling to keep its act together. I share the view of the US as a slowly declining superpower in a multipolar world, and I believe that this means the weakening of many values worth defending in many areas of public and private life.

While the US has had a positive influence in Peru for the past 15 years or so, this hasn’t always been the case. And even though it is hard to overlook a self-serving attitude in world affairs, lately Washington has often been on the correct side of many conflicts. But positive or not, Washington’s influence is strong. While it has lost some ground in terms of economic influence and is no longer the number one trading partner or investor, it has replaced the cultural clout that France and England once wielded. Although US influence tends to spread as popular culture rather than high culture.

I probably always had this ‘simpatico’ approach, but my perception is clearly split by cultural geography: I have great sympathy for the New England area and for a few big cities elsewhere - such as San Francisco, which I know, and Seattle, which I have yet to visit - but I am indifferent towards less cosmopolitan places.

Perhaps what truly defines my approach is my belief that Americans have a very free attitude, and are generally a people of rights and duties. In fact, I perceive US society as being more left-leaning than most societies south of the border. This reminds me of a quote from Mao, who supposedly said in the 1950s that if the Chinese could manage to become as free as the Americans, China could reach true communism in 50 years.

While the US has had a positive influence in Peru for the past 15 years or so, this hasn’t always been the case

As an immigrant to Peru, the fact that the US is a land of assimilated immigrants is particularly important to me, as are stories of Latino immigrants achieving success in the US and making the most of opportunities not easily found at home.

But there is also a negative aspect to my perceptions of the US. For instance, I believe the US will do everything in its power to impose its will and interests on a smaller country like Peru, and that this has to be resisted. This requires knowledge of the US government and all things American. For better or worse, US interests affect Peru and those who follow Peruvian public affairs always have to keep an eye on US events, no matter how local they may seem. Call it informed suspicion, if you will. However, keeping the US at bay is not, and has rarely been, a popular nationalist issue in Peru.

In terms of US politics I tend to sympathize with the Democratic party, although Peru seems to have always done better with Republicans in government. As a journalist, I am an avid reader of American press. Following US news, cultural debates and the arts has resulted in a familiarity I do not feel with other countries. Being an outside observer of the US means being exposed to both good and downright reprehensible events, but being an observer and not a participant also implies a limitation - one is always interested but rarely committed.

While some people in Peru share my relationship with the US, the majority does not. Peru is neither pro- nor anti-US but rather indifferent. The role of the US is in Peru overshadowed by a historic grudge and modern competition with its savvy southern neighbour, Chile - the stronger, menacing country in Peruvian imagination. The US, meanwhile, has always been the top destination for Peruvian emigrants, a playground for its vacationers, a source of affordable technology and a global cop.

My generally positive view of the US does not always make me a defender of the country against its enemies. Throughout the Cold War I was clearly pro-Washington, and while there is no question about my US sympathies in the war against fundamentalist terrorism, I was not convinced by the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.