Calling Latino Soft Power!

See posts from other guest contributors for The Priori here.

diegoby Diego Angeles

Currently discrimination represents a major threat to many immigrant communities all over the world. Donald Trump´s speech of hate against Latinos and Mexicans is one of the most visible cases in global media today. There are reports of increasing levels of discriminatory attacks against the Mexican-American community in the USA as a consequence of Trump´s denigrating remarks. Added to this, a third of Americans hold a negative opinion of Latino immigrants. If well employed, a country´s soft power could reduce adverse sentiments towards these communities. 

Soft power is a concept in international politics that advocates cultural appeal and values-based actions as means to co-opt others towards one´s agenda. Since it was coined in the 1990s by Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, many countries have increasingly relied on soft power strategies such as cultural campaigns and public diplomacy during the formulation of their foreign policies. Latin American countries have demonstrated in different occasions to be competent in these strategies. The region is full of images, sounds, flavours and stories that make it a natural magnetic pole in terms of soft power and possibly the Brazil of the Lula da Silva era represents the most recent case. Brazil´s stories of economic growth and increasing middle classes, along with its vibrant culture (football and bossanova), contributed to positioned the country as a leader of the developing world during the first decade of the XXI century. The country spread its international influence in regions like Africa and Asia and along with the BRICS helped in the establishment of a multipolar international system.

The concept has been criticised, among other aspects, for promoting a resource only available to rich countries that have the capacity to deploy cultural trends through worldwide media – think of Britain´s BBC network – and big scale policies and global ambitions such as the Marshall Plan developed by the USA to rebuild West Europe´s post war economy and subsequently reduce the influence of communism in the region. This critic is partially reinforced by recent studies that arguably measure and rank a country´s soft power. No single developing country is found among the first twenty positions.However, not everything in world politics is about big imperialistic plans. Soft power might be useful in other relevant international endeavours such as the protection of nationals living abroad.

Since the very beginning of his presidential campaign, Trump has attacked Mexican immigrants in the USA as part of his political strategy to get hold of the White House.  In June 2015, during the announcement of his candidacy, Trump called Mexicans rapists and criminals, and blamed them along with the Mexican government for the insecurity and unemployment experienced in the American Union. In several occasions, Trump has promised to erect a wall over the Mexican-American border, as well as to make his country withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

While putting in evidence once again that immigrants are the main scapegoats of inept leaders, this situation stands as the last link in a long chain of discrimination and persecution of Latinos, especially Mexicans, in that country. Latinos or Hispanics already represent the biggest minority in the USA with a share of 17.3% of the total population, with almost half of them having Mexican roots. Regardless of their resident status, conditions such as constrained educational opportunities, underpaid employments, persecution and street level racism are a daily currency for many of them. Trump´s denigrating remarks have made echo in a significant portion of the American electorate who share his stereotypes on Latino communities. According to a 2015 poll, a third of Americans hold negative opinions on Latino immigration while another third has mixed views. The situation is escalating. Discrimination and harassment have soared, according to reports by some American citizens of Mexican origin.

As a response, many Mexican and Mexican-American personalities and celebrities have condemned publicly the dangerous agenda of the American magnate. Some members of this group launched an initiative called “Proud to be Mexican” in order to disseminate successful stories of Mexicans living abroad as well as a campaign of appreciation of Mexico´s most recognisable cultural expressions. In their webpage they state they use Mexican soft power as a means to revert the negative image of Mexicans abroad. One of the virtues of soft power, according to its proponents, is that it can help to build a country´s positive image. Yet, the Mexican initiative faces some challenges.   

The uprising of violence, corruption and social unrest in Mexico in recent years contribute to the negative image of Mexicans promoted by Trump. Cases like the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014 have made headlines in global media. Soft power is not intended to ignore this information or manipulate stories, truth and good will are essential elements of a strong soft power strategy. It is the responsibility of any government to inform punctually about the causes of home-based problems and eliminate ad-hominem associations with communities abroad. Moreover, problems associated only to Mexico such as drug trafficking and drug related violence have a regional dimension. An effective soft power initiative should include sound information that mitigates dangerous myths and stereotypes and helps to sensitise foreign audiences about share challenges and problems.

Regularly soft power´s main source comes from a country´s folkloric, popular or high-brow culture. The “Proud to be Mexican” initiative seems to understand this point, but does not apply in the right form. It makes use of Mexican cultural expressions and latest achievements in arts, sports and science in order to boost a sense of Mexican pride all over the world. Nevertheless, the effects of this strategy might result adverse by increasing the cultural gaps between American and Mexicans. Back at the beginning of this century, political scientist Samuel Huntington saw Latin American culture as a growing threat to the American identity. His work, beyond its racist connotations, should be read as the manifestation of a conservative sector in American society that is reluctant to welcome new identities. Trump himself is the latest representative of this sector. Instead, Mexican soft power should build bridges between cultures.

An effective soft power campaign would be based on those points of interest shared by both cultures. For instance, in recent years Cinco de Mayo has consolidated as a date of celebration of Mexican culture in the USA, enhancing the consumption of some of Mexico´s most renowned cultural expressions such as food, drinks and music. Football (soccer), the main sport followed by Mexicans, has gained popularity among many Americans as seen lately and some personalities like filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu and actor Gael Garcia Bernal are current references in their own sectors in the USA. Soft power could be used to reinforce the benefits of the cultural exchange between different cultures and identities. It opens the possibilities for mutual understanding, respect and tolerance that immigrant communities need more than ever.

Trump´s attack on the Mexican and Latino communities is just one of the most visible cases of the dangers and threats that immigrant communities experience in a daily basis. Other groups such as Muslims are object of similar persecution and discrimination based on misleading stereotypes and mischievous political agendas. As I have pointed to, soft power can be resource that might improve a community´s image abroad and broaden the possibilities of a better environment for them. To make a call for Latino soft power in the USA is a call for tolerance and understanding between neighbouring cultures.    


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