Executive Summary: A New U.S. Policy for Latin America: Reopening the Window of Opportunity

Report Americas

Executive Summary: A New U.S. Policy for Latin America: Reopening the Window of Opportunity

February 15, 2001 4 min read Download Report
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

Historically, relations between the United States and Latin America have been marked by periods of crisis and benign neglect. This was the case under the Clinton Administration as well. But with few exceptions, most Latin American countries have never posed a threat, nor has the region offered much economic opportunity. Now that is changing. Over the past 20 years, growing markets have put the region on the verge of becoming America's second largest trading partner; it is already competing with the Middle East as America's major petroleum supplier. In addition, civilian-elected leaders have replaced authoritarian dictatorships.

Yet new problems of political and economic upheaval threaten the region, as well as the United States. President George W. Bush should take advantage of the Summit of the Americas, to be held in Quebec in April, to demonstrate leadership and describe a vision of a hemisphere that is characterized by democratic governments, cooperative defenses against emerging threats, and open markets. His long-term strategy should be to recoup the momentum toward achieving these goals that was lost under the previous Administration.

Festering Problems, Few Solutions
When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, the Latin American region had gone through a profound transformation in a short time. The policies of the Reagan and senior Bush Administrations helped replace authoritarian regimes with civilian-elected leaders, encouraged open markets over import-substitution models, and promoted international trade as a foundation for future prosperity.

President Clinton promised to build on this legacy with an agenda that supported trade, democracy, and development. In 1993, he convinced Congress to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Mexican peso crisis, however, cast doubt on his agenda, and he subsequently ignored the rest of his commitments, reacting to crises merely to preserve the status quo. His efforts included spending an estimated $3 billion to restore a non-democrat to power in Haiti and making half-serious efforts to combat narcotics trafficking in Colombia.

Today, President George W. Bush needs to revitalize relations with a region that is significantly more troubled than in 1993. Democracies are at risk, threatened by the return of authoritarian traditions to governments that failed to extend democratic practices beyond holding elections. While international trade has gained a foothold in Latin America, markets are now dominated by protectionist sub-regional trading blocs, and overregulated economies and corruption are suffocating private-sector activity. New transnational drug trafficking and crime networks have spread from Colombia outward to Alaska and to Argentina. Escalating violence in Colombia is already spilling over into Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela. The weak administrations in Ecuador and Peru are unable to contain it, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez reportedly supports both Colombian guerrillas and Ecuadoran dissidents.

Meanwhile, on July 2, 2000, Mexicans elected the first opposition-party president in seven decades. While Vicente Fox has proposed restructuring the Mexican economy to loosen restrictions on free enterprise and create employment, he has suggested that the United States accept more migrant laborers until economic conditions improve. He will have to work with President Bush to address border problems, including the fact that Mexican cartels are responsible for two-thirds of the Colombian cocaine reaching the United States.

Rather than simply react to events, the Bush Administration should establish a definite agenda for U.S.-Latin America relations based on durable strategies that encourage self-development and multilateral cooperation. Such an agenda should be guided by the region's common needs: strengthening weak democracies, developing a modern security paradigm to counter traditional and emerging threats, and expanding trade and economic reform.

An Agenda for Common Prosperity
With the long-term needs of the region in mind, the Bush Administration and Congress should establish an agenda for relations with Latin America that focuses on:

  • Strengthening neighboring democracies, with the establishment of checks and balances, the decentralization of power from heavily concentrated bureaucracies, and the rule of law as a counterbalance to authoritarian traditions. More robust U.S.-sponsored civic education programs, subject expert exchanges, and the expansion of initiatives to reform the justice systems are key.

  • Building working defense partnerships to counter new transnational threats. Though military assistance is necessary to help regional allies address conventional threats, the United States and its neighbors should develop new protocols to cooperate against transnational crime and drug trafficking. These threats will require military and civilian agencies to work together and share responsibilities among the countries involved.

  • Promoting free trade and economic reform. The President should seek fast-track negotiating authority in order to facilitate bilateral trade agreements. The United States should move quickly to sign the free trade agreement with Chile and establish a global free trade association (GFTA) in which membership depends on open markets and the rule of law. The United States should advocate that Latin American neighbors strengthen property rights, eliminate barriers to business creation, and curb corruption so that they can qualify to join the association.

Leadership begins at home, and to improve the prospects for freedom and prosperity throughout the world, there is no better place for the United States to start than in its hemispheric neighborhood. President Bush should use the forum provided by the upcoming Summit of the Americas to demonstrate America's desire to promote democracy and prosperity by reinvigorating relations with its Latin America neighbors.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst