Bob Graham has led his public life at the gateway to Latin America.
As a former governor and United States senator from Florida, a state with more than 2 million Hispanics, Graham’s work constantly intersected with his state’s neighbors to the south.
From that interaction, he developed a deep interest in Latin American affairs and U.S. foreign policy, and, in retirement, established the BobGrahamCenter for Public Service at the University of Florida (with a special focus on Latin American studies.
Graham was in Costa Rica recently to tour the country with a group of University of Florida law students and participate in discussions about water law and other public policies.
However, his interests are much broader than just environmental initiatives: As a democratic governor of Florida (1979-1987) and then three-term senator(1987-2005), Graham was at the front lines of developing and negotiating trade agreements, as well as introducing healthcare legislation and education reforms.
Over a bowl of cereal at San José’s Hotel Jade, Graham spoke to The Tico Times about the United States’ future role in the Americas, past hiccups in diplomatic relations and what the U.S. could learn from countries like Costa Rica.
TT: How has the United States relationship with Latin American countries fallen short in the past?
BG: The tendency of Americans is to look at Latin America as a homogenized milk bottle. In that, from Costa Rica to the tip of Chile, it’s all one place. In the United States, if a person is from Peru, you tend to call them an Hispanic. This is unlike (our view of) Europe, where we are very aware of the nationalities. You would not speak of a Greek in the United States as being a European. You would call him a Greek.
Our (U.S.) foreign policy should be respectful, and part of that respect is recognizing individual societies and nations and their differences…We have to put aside our Chicago School beliefs and approach the countries of Latin America with more individuality, preparing ourselves to think about new ways to approach economic development and the equitable distribution of economic amenities.
I also think our stance has to be less the “my way or the highway” kind of attitude. We have done things in the recent past, such as punishing countries because they didn’t agree with our Iraq policy. The reality is (that) as soon as Americans understood what the policy was, half of them didn’t support it.
Many U.S. presidents say that Latin America is a top priority on the campaign trail, only to let it slide below other priorities once they get in office. Why is that?
It’s primarily because Latin America has been relatively quiet compared to places like Europe, Asia and the Middle East, which has taken most of the foreign policy attention.
Do you foresee that changing in the administration of President Barak Obama?
Clearly, Latin America is not one of the top priorities for the …administration right now. But, coming from someone who is deeply interested in Latin America, I couldn’t criticize that fact because the president has got an enormous economic challenge, the most serious financial recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
What impression do you get of President Obama and his potential in Latin America?
I think Barack Obama brings some favorable personal attributes. His own history – having been born to an African father and a Kansan mother, (having) lived a lot of his childhood in Indonesia – has made him especially open to the world. He has certainly been well-received.
He is a pragmatist. I think (the root of) a lot of the problems we have gotten into with Latin America is that we have attempted to impose a common ideology on a very diverse set of nations. As an example, with the free trade agreements…The idea that you can have the same basic trade agreement for Peru, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia sort of defies the reality that those are each different countries that require more specialized attention.
I think Obama will be more pragmatic and not attempt to impose an ideology.
How would you address the inequalities here?
Democracy and education are important components of a more prosperous society and components that would equitably allocate the rewards of that prosperous society. But it is also going to take some specific national economic policies and it’s going to take some investment in the institutions that support economics.
My own priority is education. I think almost every country that has made a leap from poverty to middle class has done so on the backs of an educated population or through the reins of an education population.
What suggestions do you have for leaders here or in other Latin American countries?
I don’t think we ought to be telling people in Costa Rica what they ought to do. I have been coming to Costa Rica for about 30 years, and I have been impressed with the consistent quality of people I have met people in academics, in business communities and in the political arena. Like every other society, there is going to be an occasional bad apple.
On the whole, they are very patriotic people, they are hardworking people, and they want to do the best they can for their country. I think we should respect that.
Can the U.S. learn anything from Latin America about public policy?
I think it can learn a lot of things from Latin America. I saw a recent survey in which Costa Rica was identified as being the happiest county in the world. (North) Americans tend to be driven people, and sometimes that drive obscures the question, “What is life about?” …In our greatest documents, we talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as being the purpose of government.
And I think we can learn something from Latin American countries about how, as a society, we can be happier.
Another thing we could learn…is how to become more appreciative of other cultures…I am so impressed by the multi-language fluency of the people here in Costa Rica.
In the United States, we have long had an attitude that people who come to the United States should give up their previous cultures, their languages, their customs, etc., and become “Americans” that we have managed to eradicate what should be a great national asset – and that is knowledge of languages and cultures of other countries. I think that the Hispanic population in the United States is leading the way in reversing that attitude.
They say, “I can be a very good American and still be interested in my country of ancestry and speak its language at a high level of articulation.”
What is your opinion of the situation evolving with Honduras?
I think that the Organization of American States and the United States have handled the situation very well. It would be very easy to have overreacted and made this the United States versus many of the countries in Latin America. Or, if we under-reacted, we may have sent a signal that we are ready to go back to the era of military coups, which, for many years, was the norm in Latin America. I think the balance we struck was exactly right.