As United States struggles with a sagging public image in many Latin American countries, US adults show a stunning ignorance about the region, a new Zogby Interactive poll shows.
Only 10% of online poll respondents said they were familiar with Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the second-term president of Brazil, South America's largest country. And just 20% were familiar with Felipe Calderon, the President of Mexico, who was elected last summer in an extremely close race that captured global headlines. The Zogby Interactive poll included 7.362 adults nationwide and was conducted July 27/30, 2007. It carries a margin of error of +/– 1.2 percentage points. Asked which Latin American countries are the biggest allies to the U.S., Mexico is seen as the top ally, while Brazil is seen as a close second. Costa Rica is seen as the third greatest ally of the U.S. Asked which countries in the region are least friendly to the U.S., Venezuela and Cuba predictably topped the list. But Americans listed ColombiaÃÂ¢€"which has been the U.S.'s closest ally in the past decadeÃÂ¢€"as a distant third. "The poll suggests that US adults are badly misinformed about the region," said Peter Hakim, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that collaborated with Zogby on the poll. "Most Americans believe Brazil and Mexico are the U.S.'s best friends in the region, but the great majority cannot identify the president of either country, or they mistakenly identify Washington's closest ally in the region, Colombia, as an adversary," Hakim noted. "While US citizens identify two familiar adversaries in Latin America as Cuba and Venezuela, they do not know much about their friends," said Hakim. The Bush Administration considers Colombia one of its staunchest allies in the region, backing Plan Colombia with more than a half-billion dollars per year for its anti-drug, anti-guerrilla campaign. Colombia gets more foreign aid than any other country in the world outside the Middle East/Afghanistan arc. However more than half, 56%, said they believe China's increased involvement in Latin America represents a serious threat to American influence there. Among those respondents who identify themselves as most politically liberal, 48% said China's increased involvement in the region represented a serious threat to the U.S., but the most conservative respondents were much more concerned, 76% said China's activity was a serious threat to America. Just 10% said such involvement by China posed little or no threat at all to the U.S. role there. "The poll results on China suggest a huge gap between U.S. public perception and reality," Hakim said. "Among the range of issues that are meaningful to U.S.-Latin America relations and to the region's economic vitality, I must say that China, as a threat to the U.S. in our own hemisphere, does not rise to the top of the list," Hakim said. "China's involvement with Latin America, although increasing, simply cannot compare to long-standing commercial, political, and social ties that Latin America has had with the U.S. and Europe. Any threat from China is among the lower-priority worries the U.S. faces in the region," he added. "Indeed, many observers believe that Chinese involvement in Latin America will in the end benefit all partiesÃÂ¢€"the U.S., Latin America, and China". The wide–ranging survey about Latin American issues also showed that majorities of US adults believed it is time for the U.S. to open negotiations with Raul Castro, the stand–in Cuban president for brother Fidel, in an effort to improve relations between the two countries. While 58% felt the two countries should be talking about their future relationship, 56% said it is time for the U.S. to remove the travel restrictions on Cuba and to end the economic embargo. One in four adults (26%) gave President Bush positive job approval marks specifically for his handling of U.S. relations with Latin America. Just 29% said they think the Bush administration has done an adequate job of focusing on Latin American issues and building stronger relationships with the region, while 60% disagreed with that statement. A majority, 55%, said they believe the US economy benefits from migrant workers from Latin America, while 48% said the U.S. should pursue more free trade agreements with Latin American nations. One in three U.S. adults disagreed, however, saying they do not believe the U.S. should pursue more free trade agreements with southern neighbours. The US public's view of one well-known trade agreement in particular, NAFTA, might be the reason for lack of support for new trade agreements in the region. A substantial plurality (48%) believe that, of the three nations involved in the North America Free Trade Agreement – Canada, the U.S., and Mexico – the U.S. has been most harmed by NAFTA, which was signed into law by President Clinton in the 1990s. Just 3% said they think Canada has been most harmed, while 12% said they think Mexico has gotten the short end of the stick. Conversely, respondents, by a three–to–one margin, believe Mexico has been a bigger beneficiary than the U.S. under the trade agreement. "The poll results reveal that U.S. public opinion is totally confused about what's going on with trade," Hakim said. "The American public even seems to be contradicting itself in some of the results. How can so many Americans believe that the U.S. has been harmed by NAFTAÃÂ¢€"while nearly half call for new trade agreements," he said.