Sitting in a taxi cab not long ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, I struck up a conversation with my driver, who then showed off his impressive knowledge of the American Southwest. Guessing the answer, I nonetheless asked him how he knew so much about the United States. He replied scornfully, switching to English: “Oh, I lived for years in the Promised Land!”
Clearly, he was being sarcastic. Yet, just as clearly, he had no personal animosity to me as a “gringo”. As our conversation progressed, he expressed many views that could be considered anti-American, and yet it was clear that he distinguished the people (or at least me), from the US government, even as I expressed no views one way or the other.
This is a common phenomenon. The Pew Research Center, in tracking attitudes in Latin America’s two biggest economies, found that in 2012 69% of people in both Brazil and Mexico had a favorable attitude to American music, movies, and television. But when it comes to how Americans “do business”, only 43% of Mexicans and 45% of Brazilians had a favorable view. By contrast, the most recent data indicate that favorable views of the United States have experienced a significant boost: 73% for Brazilians (up from 61% in 2012), and 66% for Mexicans (up from 56% in 2012).
“You can see the change in U.S. favorability ratings in Mexico in our 2013 report,” Molly Rohal of the Pew Research Center tells Nearshore Americas. “We also have trend data in the Global Indicators Database.”
The trend is your friend
Specific to Latin America, the trend data is cause for optimism, given that Latin America is a young continent, and younger people have a more positive view of the U.S. In Brazil, for example, 78% of those between 18 to 29 years of age, and 72% of those between 30 to 49, had a positive view of US popular culture. In Mexico, the percentages were 79% and 70% respectively. And for those over 50 years of age? Only 55% of Brazilians had a positive view, and 57% of Mexicans.
But Latin America is more than Mexico and Brazil, and the greater region is experiencing an ideological divide between populist left leaning governments (Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, and Nicaragua) and neo-liberal regimes embracing market reforms (Colombia, Chile, and most of Central America). The populist governments like to ratchet up the anti-US rhetoric, echoing the Cold War divide when the United States supported many repressive right wing dictatorships.
The irony is that the overall perceptions are not that bad, and that the lower the economic engagement with the United States, the less favorable the view. This is interesting in that “business” scores low, suggesting that there is a more general challenge faced by the private sector, and not one that is specific to U.S. businesses. In fact, when U.S. business is involved, the populace tends to have a positive view.
Consequently, high-contact and business friendly governments like Chile and El Salvador have favorable views, at 68% and 79%, respectively. By comparison, 55% of Bolivians see the U.S. in a favorable light. In Argentina – a country that makes a habit of rounding out the bottom of positive attitudes to the U.S. – only 41% of the population has a positive view of the U.S.
Other research has revealed that Latin America, as a region, has a more positive view of the United States and her people than any other. The tenth joint report by Americas Quarterly and Efecto Naím, for example, has indicated that popular support for the U.S. exists even in those countries that have populist regimes critical of the United States. And ongoing research from Latinobarómetro has shown that majorities in most Latin American countries have a positive view of the United States.
As with other research, Latinobarómetro has found that close economic and cultural ties build a positive experience. Trade, remittances, and investment – including in technology driven areas that involve a skilled workforce, such as Business Process and IT Outsourcing – can build goodwill.
Beyond the Arizona Border
That said, Mexican attitudes are more highly sensitive to U.S. immigration policy than is the case with other Latin American countries. The Arizona immigration law, for example, had a significant short-term effect on attitudes in Mexico: in 2010 the Mexican favorability numbers for the U.S. dropped from 62% to 48%, but those have since rebounded impressively in 2013 to 66%.
Clearly, a government is not its people. The most recent fiasco with regard to leaks from former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden is such example. Assertions that the U.S. has been intercepting phone calls and emails in Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, have created a flurry of diplomatic activity – but likely won’t have a long-term effect on perception of the U.S. Similarly, over-arching U.S. policies toward Cuba, the war on drugs, and immigration, may be unpopular, but appear to have little lasting impact on attitudes to the United States and her people.
And it would seem that many people in Latin America are suspicious of the efforts by some populist, left-leaning governments to fan the fires of anti-Americanism. For example, Pew Research Center analyst Katie Simmons reports that “worsening ties with America is something the Venezuelan public wants to avoid,” with only 22% of all Venezuelans reporting that they would like their country to establish more distance from the U.S.
Over the years, “America the beautiful” has been represented by the occasional “ugly American”. However, it would seem now that the majority of people in Latin America maintain a positive view of the United States. And when they encounter American business people, more often than not that understanding is reinforced – a good thing for all involved.