Over the weekend, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced growing cooperation between the United States government and that of other Latin American nations to find common ground on climate change and renewable energy policies. The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) aims to address clean energy, energy security, and other issues including sustainable land use, and poverty issues related to the lack of an energy infrastructure.
The press releases sent out by the Departments of State and Energy tout many lofty goals. But from many Latin Americans’ point of view, can the United States genuinely lead on climate change and energy policies? And considering the history between these countries and their powerful—and often meddlesome—neighbor to the north, can the United States be trusted? Quite bluntly, is the ECPA just another window through which American corporations can profit and even exploit these economies?
So far the ECPA goals are fairly nebulous: pushing for “sustainable” energy in the Caribbean, mostly by giving advice and technical support; advice regarding creating climate change adaptation; and sending about 2000 Peace Corps volunteers to this region offering renewable energy and climate change advice. This initiative is heavy on advice, which may be the only realistic way the US can help emerging economies. Congress has no stomach to offer major financial assistance outside of current foreign aid programs, so considering the current political climate, the sharing of technology and knowledge is realistically the only support the United States can offer.
But other points strike me as dubious: promoting gas shale, which is not necessarily the most environmentally friendly energy source. Gas shale is booming in the United States, which makes me suspect that the ECPA may just be another open door for US companies to sell its natural gas to smaller Caribbean nations. One point is almost laughable: the United States offering to support “better urban planning” (really, we Americans are masters at this?) to urban planners in Latin America. The ECPA’s words are admirable; but will there really be any tangible actions?
When I think of the US and other world powers offering a “helping hand” to Latin American economies, Life + Debt comes to mind. The 2001 documentary covers the economic hard times that hit Jamaica after the nation’s leaders signed a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund in the 1970s. Over the decades that followed, Jamaican attempts to build strong local businesses in various industries, from dairy to chicken production to banana farming, was sidetracked by the US filing complaints with the World Trade Organization or US government subsidies that favored American businesses.
So when reading that the US is going to offer technical assistance to countries on issues like biomass production, I think of Jamaica and wonder where and how that country is going to find its source of biomass. After all, the number of banana growers in Jamaica had fallen from 45,000 thirty years ago to 3000 by this decade; considering that now its largest industries are now tourism and aluminum production, where else could that biomass would come from? Then again, Jamaica is slowly investing in renewable energy sources, thanks mostly to the Inter-American Development Bank, the majority ownership of which is by Latin American governments. The scale of this current project in Jamaica is small, but the facts indicate that with or without the ECPA, countries in the southern hemisphere are beginning to find their own ways towards developing energy policies and infrastructures that will reduce the dependency on foreign oil over the next several years.
I respect the goals behind the ECPA, as well as the achievements that Secretaries Clinton and Chu have gained so far—most commentary indicates that they are among the best of President Obama’s cabinet picks. Nevertheless, the ECPA appears to be another last-ditch effort for the United States to assert its leadership in Latin America—and the reality is that most of these countries are looking to Brazil, not the US, as a model: Brazil’s energy policy, developed over the past 30 years, is not perfect, but provides a framework much more relevant for its neighbors than one dished out by a country that uses one-fourth of the world’s energy supply. When we cannot hash out a credible energy future that weans ourselves away from fossil fuels, it puzzles me to think that we can instruct countries around us over how they can solve their own energy problems.