At a Monday night talk, Arturo Valenzuela, former United States assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, praised U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since the Cold War.

More than 40 undergraduates, Yale Law School students and professors gathered in the Sterling Law Building to hear Valenzuela trace the evolution of the social, political, cultural and economic realities of Latin American countries throughout history. In addition to laying that foundation, Valenzuela examined how the United States has adjusted its foreign policy to changes within Latin America, such as the democratization of many countries in the region.

“Even though it has taken a long time for democratic institutions and ideals to take root in Latin America, and even longer for the U.S. to start supporting them, I believe we are finally living in a Latin American century,” Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela served as assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs from 2009 to 2011, and before that taught Latin American studies at Georgetown and Duke universities. He was born and raised in Concepcion, Chile, but traveled to the United States in the 1960s, attended Drew University in Madison, N.J., and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University in 1971.

Valenzuela said Latin American countries had nominally moved toward democratic institutions during the 1800s, but only began putting democracy into practice during the twentieth century — making efforts to apply their written constitutions and to elect transparent governments that respond to their citizens’ needs. This general shift toward democratic principles has been accompanied by the introduction of “substantive and viable” economic policies, Valenzuela said, which most notably include social welfare programs. In a region that has long struggled to assert itself in the world economy, he said, this move away from former rigid economic policies signifies positive change.

Latin America owes much of its 20th-century progress to the United States, Valenzuela said. He pointed to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union as the turning point in the relationship between Latin American countries and the United States.

“During the Cold War, all of American foreign policy was specifically created with the purpose to weaken the influence of the Soviet Union everywhere,” Valenzuela said. “But after the threat of the Soviet Union was removed, the U.S. was finally free to transform its foreign policy in Latin America from preventive to substantive.”

He added that this transformation began under the second Reagan administration in the late 1980s, when the United States condemned general Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile.

Valenzuela said U.S. relations with Latin America weakened under the George W. Bush administration, which failed to oppose a coup by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Under the Bush administration, a “gulf” also opened between Latin American nations and the United States in the wake of 9/11, he added.

The U.S. administration that has done the most to improve the country’s relationship with Latin America, Valenzuela said, is that of President Barack Obama. Valenzuela said Obama is among few current political leaders who recognizes that neoliberal reforms — if not coupled with policies guaranteeing social justice — cannot solve problems in Latin America. Valenzuela added that Obama considers public health, poverty and inequality, among other factors, in his foreign policy work, thus “giving reforms in Latin America a human element.”

Travis Silva LAW ’13 said he found the talk informative, but said he thought Valenzuela’s view on Latin America was more positive than the actual situation in the region.

Valenzuela received Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross and Colombia’s Order of Boyaca for his work with international diplomacy.