Finally, a swing to reasonableness, it appears, about how the U.S. is perceived in the region. A recent study completed by LatinBarometer (LatinoBarómetro) 2010 based in Santiago, Chile indicated that 64% of Latin Americans believe that the United States has a positive influence in the region. I do not know how long this sentiment will last, but I hope it is not transitory. Frankly, I am bored of the more than occasional trite, Leftist-woe-is-us discourse proffered by many Latin Americans about how the U.S. is the Grinch and for 200 years has consistently stolen their Christmas. I am not blind to past errors or even the over-reaching, but let’s have a rational discussion. (For an eloquent book describing and debunking the populist counter-productive line of thought and the people that get hooked on it, an easy read is Guide to the Perfect Latin American Idiot.)

The survey indicates also that only 34% of Latin Americans believe that Venezuela has a positive influence in the region. Only in the Dominican Republic (66%) and in Venezuela (54%) do majorities believe that the current Venezuelan administration maintains a beneficial influence. It is surprising to read that the Dominican Republic, not generally a Marxist-Socialist leaning populace, would envision the Chavez administration in that positive light. A bit more surprising is that they polled higher than the Venezuelans with that premise. Venezuelan citizens should normally rank their country high for the sake of national pride, even though many people are suffering through the administration’s poor economic and political policies. Or maybe the hard truth is finally settling in for our Bolivarian amigos?

Returning to the end of the spectrum favoring the U.S.: only two countries polled in the majority saying that the U.S. does not have a positive influence in the region – Argentina (no surprise due to the anti-U.S. bias of the Kirchners) and Paraguay. All the other countries declared between 50% to 88% majorities that the U.S. has a beneficial influence. The Dominican Republic stated by 88% that the U.S. has a positive influence; this is a bit surprising since they voted highly for Venezuela. Perhaps, they are just good natured people toward everyone. Not so surprisingly for those that know Mexico, only 57% of our southern NAFTA brethren rated the U.S. as a positive influence for the region (a late 18th Century Mexican president posited a now well known comment – Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S. This may sum up how some Mexicans feel about their relationship with their northern neighbor.) Ecuador, whose president is an announced friend of Hugo Chavez and also likes to take verbal populist pot shots at the U.S., polled with only 50% of their populace believing the U.S. has a good influence.

The article goes on to note that even Hugo Chavez and his political counterparts’ constant haranguing of the U.S. during the last 10 years has had little negative effect in the region and, perhaps, even in Venezuela. There, 60% of its citizens have a positive opinion of the U.S. and believe that it treats their country with respect. However, pragmatically, only 32% of its people believe that the U.S. and Venezuela currently enjoy good bilateral relations.

The survey titled “Latin America’s Look at the World” was compiled through more than 20,000 face-to-face interviews in 18 countries between September 21 and October 26, 2009, with a margin of error of approximately 3%. Given the fact that there are more than 500 million inhabitants of Latin America, that is a microscopic sample – .00004%. However, as someone who travels constantly in Latin America, I believe that I can vouch for the overall positive tone of the survey as it pertains to Uncle Sam.

Strikingly, when the participants were asked to rank the U.S. amongst eight foreign powers, the U.S. was in first place with 74% approval, followed by Spain (65%), Japan and the EU (63%), Canada and China (58%), and Cuba (41%). The positive image of the U.S. increased 17% from 2008 to 2009 during the first year of Obama’s administration, to whom LatinBarometer gives the credit for the increase in positive sentiment.

Regarding runners up to the U.S., Spain, the second highest ranked in favorability among the Latin Americans in the poll, saw its public image improve also. It is not perceived so much as the country that conquered, colonised and pillaged a large part of the region. The inhabitants are “creating a contemporary opinion and are not relying on the past so much to colour their perceptions. The fact that many Latin American countries will be celebrating this year the bicentennial of their Independence from Spain may have something to do with this.”

I was a little surprised to see that Cuba’s image should be rated so high amongst the respondents of the survey. I am aware that there is a small contingent of hard left or hard left sympathetic people in the region, but I did not think that the survey would reflect a 41% beneficial image level. An official of LatinBarometer opines that this high percentage may be due to the fact that the press in the last few years has been granted freedom to print positive news about the country. I do not know if I accept that as a reason. Cuba has definitely not been a positive influence in the region, unless you happen to appreciate despotic dictators, malnourished people and constant human rights abuses. That same official adds that “…the perception of Latin Americans about Cuba and Venezuela toward the U.S. are examples that now, in reality, personal opinions about countries are not subject as much as in the past to the influence of their governments’ “ position or propaganda.

A statistic that I found particularly interesting is regarding foreign remittances; the largest single group (20%) that receives them in the region are people that have received a higher education! The lowest socioeconomic group is actually the smallest group in percentile (14%) to receive remittances. This is the reverse of common perception and is a much lower number than anticipated for the poorest strata. To cap this topic off, overall in the region only 14% of Latin Americans (70 million – still a big number) receive remittances from foreign countries, however, there are some notable examples that divert from that average. In the Dominican Republic and El Salvador the percentage jumps to 33% of the population and in Argentina and Uruguay it drops to 4%. Since I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that a large part of those remittances come from the U.S., this could simply be due to the fact that Argentina and Uruguay are at the other end of the continent so it is harder for their people to make the trek.

Another notable statistic is that inhabitants of the region (71%) seem much more inclined to economic integration than in the past, however, that is tempered with a lower interest in political integration (59%). So, it means we won’t see any time soon a LatAm Common Market. Yet, even so, I find this last figure intriguing and perhaps promising. I would have expected it to be much lower given the strong historical fear and rejection of any type of foreign involvement in domestic affairs. A political union implies a level of political and legal integration that transcends borders. If this poll accurately reflects the temperament of Latin Americans – and that is a sizeable IF, this is a very positive result and it bodes well for the region. For economic prosperity this is significant, but it is more important for the continued institutionalisation of the democratic systems and the spread of social stability, which should lead to a greater spreading of prosperity.

-David Berger

Based in Miami, David Berger is Managing Director for Latin America & The Caribbean region at NAI Global.