Many U.S.-Americas watchers are concerned with the rise of Chinese influence in Latin America and fear that the United States is “losing” Latin America. While there are a number of indicators that one can look at that suggest that U.S. influence in much of the region remains robust, there can be little doubt that Latin American perceptions of the United States have declined in recent years. As policy makers look for ways to promote a more positive image of the United States in Latin America and renew Hemispheric relations, important lessons from the past may prove useful.
Perhaps the most effective period of active U.S. efforts to expand soft power efforts in the Americas was during the Roosevelt Administration’s Good Neighbor Policy. Some of the policies of the era included a renewed commitment to the Pan-American conferences, agreements to not intervene in Latin America, the abrogation of the Platt Amendment, and the opening of U.S. markets to Latin America during the Great Depression. However, it was not only the specific foreign policy moves that made the Good Neighbor Policy an effective means of expanding U.S. soft power in the region. In fact, many of Roosevelt’s foreign policies that the Good Neighbor Policy advocated were initiated under the previous administration of Herbert Hoover. Despite this, FDR is remembered for the Good Neighbor Policy. This is in part due to the expansion of cultural diplomacy efforts under the Roosevelt administration that sought to combat the rise of Nazi influence in the Americas. To this end, the Roosevelt administration tasked Nelson Rockefeller with leadership over the newly created Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) in 1940.
Rockefeller and the OCIAA pushed a number of different public diplomacy initiatives that had important implications for U.S.-Latin American affairs. One of the key elements that they sought to do was develop a shared sense of identity between the peoples of the Americas. This included targeting activities and campaigns both at home and abroad. These included efforts to highlight the shared historical experiences of colonialism and independence across the Americas, going so far as direct comparisons between the U.S. Founding Fathers and Simon Bolivar. Similarly, the OCIAA sought to support Latin American markets in the United States through activities that included encouraging Macy’s to host a Pan-American Bazaar that featured Latin American products and companies. One of the most common methods that the OCIAA implemented was encouraging and sponsoring Hollywood to produce Latin America content, both for domestic and regional consumption. Some of these were a disaster, such as support for Universal Studio’s Argentine Nights, which not only did not have an Argentine cast nor represent Argentine culture, but sparked riots within Buenos Aires for its characterization of the country. However, one of these Hollywood partnerships should be highlighted for the important lessons that can be drawn from it: a partnership with Walt Disney Studios.
Walt Disney and Ambassador Donald Duck
As part of the partnership between Disney Studios and the OCIAA, Walt Disney took a team of artists to Latin America to collect material for a series of animated films about the region intended for U.S. audiences. This would include a goodwill tour of several Latin American countries by Walt Disney in which he would debut his recent film Fantasia to several countries. While the initial partnership between Disney Studios and the OCIAA proposed funding for a good will tour followed by three films, each of which would be made up of four shorts, the partnership ended up generating two films, Saludos Amigos (1942/1943, for the international and domestic releases, respectively) and The Three Caballeros (1944/1945), along with 13 short films on health in the Americas, four short educational films, a short documentary of the good will tour (which included meeting with leaders as well as the general public), and two Pan-American propaganda pieces. There are several important elements of this trip that are important to highlight as they demonstrate an effective approach to public diplomacy as well as some lessons on what should be avoided.
Blockbusters: Successes of the OCIAA-Disney Partnership
One of the keys to the success of the Disney good will tour was that prior to the visit to Latin America, Walt Disney and company worked with academics in California area to learn about the region. In addition to providing them with some initial material for the content of their films, this helped them avoid some of the pitfalls that had plagued other good will tours and films of the time. This preparation had many advantages that paid off in the long run as well as during the tour as it provided Disney Studios with a direction for their research while in Latin America as well as helped to avoid the lack of respect and recognition of the diversity of cultures within Latin America. By not lumping all of Latin America together Disney created shorts about a variety of different Latin American countries as well as working with local artists and researchers.
While recognizing the diversity of cultures within Latin America, as with other Good Neighbor Policy projects, the Disney projects also sought to highlight the similarities across the Americas. Classic Disney characters interacted with Latin American characters and environments. In one iconic scene, Goofy dressed as a cowboy is lifted from Texas and dropped in the Argentine pampas to show the similarities between the rural cattle workers of the Americas. Likewise, in The Grain That Built the Hemisphere, Disney studios highlighted the role that Corn plays as a staple in many nations across the Americas. However, perhaps the clearest way that the Disney OCIAA partnership both highlighted the similarities across the Americas while also acknowledging the different national differences was through the creation of Donald Duck’s new companions; José Carioca, a Brazilian parrot, and Panchito, a Mexican rooster. By having these “Birds of a Feather” become friends, it highlighted the similar nature of all of the nations of the Americas as represented by anamorphic birds. To strengthen the friendship while maintaining respect for other countries, Donald Duck was made the brunt of many of the jokes in the films.
During a good will tour of Latin America, Disney met with popular artists from the region and incorporated their work and music into his films. Similarly, Disney Studios worked with regional and U.S. educational and health experts to develop the educational and health short films that were produced for the OCIAA. Although the films were initially originally intended for U.S. audiences, after Rockefeller showed the preliminary version of Saludos Amigos to a Bolivian diplomat who suggested that the films would also be a hit in Latin America. With the OCIAA’s encouragement, both Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros premiered in Latin America before coming to U.S. theaters. More recently, critics have ridiculed the pieces as examples of U.S. imperialism. However, they were well received in the region at the time. By working with Latin American artists and officials, this partnership was able to introduce Latin American topics to the U.S. populace while simultaneously boosting U.S. influence in the region.
Flops: Criticisms of Disney’s Projects
While there were a number of elements of the OCIAA Disney partnership that highlight best practices in the practice of public diplomacy, there were a few areas fell flat and should be avoided in other efforts to promote a U.S. image abroad. These include the belief that the films were an extension of U.S. imperialism, the perpetuation of Latin American stereotypes, and the over-sexualization of the Latin body. These all limit the long term impact of these policies.
Although, perhaps the greatest drawback to this program was not just the missteps of the Disney production team, something that was common among many films at the time, but the limited timeframe of the program. The OCIAA was closed in 1948. The closing of an agency specifically designed to promote U.S.-Latin American relations through public diplomacy efforts meant that these types of programs took a backseat to other policy measures. This combined with the changing geopolitical landscape meant that U.S. policy towards Latin America turned from one of partnership towards one of confrontation as U.S. concerns with communism grew throughout the Cold War.
Joseph Nye, one of the intellectual founders of “Soft Power,” stated that, “The best propaganda is not propaganda. It’s interactions in two-way conversations in flows, and I think that’s the challenge for public diplomacy today.” The Disney OCIAA partnership highlighted how public diplomacy can be a conversation between different countries and cultures in the Americas. While the partnership is dated and faces some of the critiques typical to policies of the time, there are several lessons that should be considered in promoting improved U.S.-Latin American Relations. By highlighting the similarities while maintaining national differentiation across the Americas, the Disney partnership created a dialogue between the United States and Latin America in the form of a friendship between Donald Duck and his Latin American friends. If the United States is going to try to combat the growing influence of other countries in Latin America, a more active public diplomacy strategy must be developed.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a consultant and specialist in Latin American public and foreign affairs. His work has been featured in The National Interest, Global Americans, Charged Affairs, and Diplomatic Courier among others. He holds an MA from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. He is also pursuing his doctoral studies in International Relations.