These are dizzying times in Latin America by any standard. Across the continent, voters have elected left-leaning governments that are trimming back free-market policies, bolstering regional economic alliances and reawakening a concern for social justice. Leaders like Néstor Kirchner (Argentina), Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) represent a significant political shift in the region–but they have distinct origins and cannot be generalized into a single phenomenon. Yet in their portrayals of events south of the border, the mainstream American media have tended to mirror the Bush Administration’s simplistic, knee-jerk responses to this wave of change.
The dramatic shift leftward can be seen as an entirely predictable response to years of economic failure, political corruption and unpopular US policies, especially the neoliberal economic model so associated with American-style capitalism it has been dubbed the Washington Consensus. Yet mainstream US media coverage has mostly reflected, rather than investigated, the failure of policy-makers to understand changes in the region. (There have been some notable exceptions, like a November 2005 article in Time, “Why Latin America Bashes Bush,” that actually tried to answer the question suggested by its title, and a Los Angeles Times editorial from the same month, “Respecting Latin America,” urging Washington not to overreact to regional change in ways reminiscent of the cold war.)
One recent example of US media bias involved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which Congress approved in an agonizingly close vote last year. This was a controversial initiative from the start, yet the major papers did a remarkably poor job of analyzing the yeas and nays. Their editorial boards echoed the rhetoric of politicians who argued that rejecting CAFTA would condemn Central Americans to further impoverishment, undermine fledgling democracies and spur illegal immigration to the United States. The Washington Post editorial board took issue with critics who warned that CAFTA could hurt the poor, arguing that its defeat “would help not anti-poverty movements but anti-American demagogues.” This line of reasoning was summarized by President Bush at the agreement’s White House signing ceremony last August. CAFTA “is more than a trade bill; it is a commitment among freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the region,” he said. “By strengthening the democracies in the region, [it] will enhance our nation’s security.”
In fact, most analysts agree that CAFTA’s economic benefits are likely to be modest at best. Still, the New York Times editorial board tried hard to pump them up, arguing that the agreement would create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Such rosy projections disguised the clearly differentiated effects of trade liberalization, particularly its negative impacts on already vulnerable groups like small farmers, indigenous people and the urban poor. The media also virtually ignored the track record of the agreement’s direct predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement. More than a decade after NAFTA’s passage, its economic record is mixed–in terms of manufacturing job loss in the United States as well as its devastating effect on Mexican farmers. Unfortunately, few newspapers saw fit to question the comments of Representative Jim Kolbe, who cited the positive example of NAFTA as a reason to approve CAFTA–in direct contradiction of evidence that the earlier agreement led to more rural poverty and migration in Mexico, not less.