In 2016, Congress has a unique opportunity to improve America’s foreign policy toward Latin America. For the first time in the 17-year rule of Venezuela’s Socialist Party, the opposition has taken control of the National Assembly. As part of the anticorruption movement sweeping the region, former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was peacefully forced to resign after his alleged role in a government-run graft and bribery scheme.
Yet, not all developments in the region are encouraging. Both citizen and economic insecurity continues unabated in Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). Coming upon their fourth year, the peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC), a narco-terrorist group, continue to weigh heavily in the FARC’s favor, standing to jeopardize the successes of Plan Colombia.
Additionally, there is the ineffectiveness of President Barack Obama’s radical new policy on Cuba. Diplomatic recognition and increased commercial opportunities for the emboldened military dictatorship have directly resulted in historic levels of repression of anti-Castro opposition. In Venezuela, the recent triumph of the democratic opposition retaking the National Assembly in the December 2015 elections has been overshadowed by the ruling party’s attempts to undermine the legislature.
To uphold U.S. national interests in Latin America and the Caribbean, Congress should:
1. Prevent President Obama’s Cuba opening from financially benefiting Cuba’s regime.
One year into the new Cuba policy, there has been a departure away from support of the Cuban people and toward the direct strengthening of the Castro regime. The Obama Administration mistakenly believes that granting concessions to the Castro regime will lead to improved U.S.–Cuba relations, with the added bonus of a newfound respect for human rights in the Castro regime. Despite a series of unilateral U.S. concessions, Havana continues its aggression toward its people and the U.S. Historic levels of repression occurred in 2015, even during Pope Francis’s visit to the island.
Recently, it was discovered that for over a year the regime has been in possession of an inert U.S. Hellfire Missile, shipped from Spain to the island by mistake. It is unknown how the missile arrived to the island or if Cuba shared the technology with allied governments such as North Korea. In an economy owned and operated by the security services, a premature lifting of the embargo would undermine a transition from the Castro regime. The embargo must be kept until true political change on the island occurs and Americans are compensated for assets in Cuba seized from them after the Cuban revolution.
2. Effectively address the insecurity crises in Central America’s Northern Triangle.
The 2014 crisis of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.’s southwest border finally brought attention to the Northern Triangle. Central America’s security conditions, coupled with weak regional governments and dwindling economic prospects, have proven to be destabilizing factors that will continue to drive migration to the U.S. Congress’s decision to increase foreign aid to $750 million could potentially worsen the situation as it reduces the burden on regional governments and can keep them from becoming self-sustainable. While Congress was correct in conditioning 75 percent of funds for the Northern Triangle countries on Secretary of State specified improvements, including in the rule of law and border security measures, the continuing trend of overwhelmingly prioritizing economic and social development assistance over security assistance must be rectified.
3. Ensure a responsible conclusion to Colombia’s peace talks with the FARC.
The peace talks between the FARC and Colombia are expected to wrap up in early 2016. In attempts to bring the half-century armed conflict to an end, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has agreed to a conciliatory host of concessions that will directly impact U.S. national security in order to appease the FARC. So far, Colombia has agreed to cease offensive counter-narcotics operations, protect FARC members from extradition to the U.S., and grant amnesty for terrorist-related activities. Lasting peace in Colombia will be impossible with impunity for narco-trafficking. America needs to work alongside its strongest regional ally to ensure a sustainable and mutually beneficial peace accord.
4. Stand up to Venezuela’s authoritarian government.
There should be little doubt that the late Hugo Chavez and the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) have transformed Venezuela into a country run by drug traffickers. So dire is the situation that the U.S. Department of Treasury has labeled numerous former senior officials as “Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers.”
Indictments of former Venezuelan police officials on drug charges, indictment of the nephews of the spouse of the Venezuelan president on charges of conspiracy to violate U.S. narcotics laws, and a Wall Street Journal article concerning alleged drug-related activities of the former president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, raise serious questions concerning whether the regime in Venezuela may be associated with some involved in drug trafficking. This same regime is now working toward undermining the democratic opposition’s victory. Congress should send a clear message of solidarity to the democratic opposition and call on the Organization of American States (OAS) to convene a special session of the permanent council to discuss the situation in Venezuela. OAS member states need to hold Venezuela accountable to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Despite the destabilizing forces at work, Latin America has seldom been a focus for Washington. Congress should work to bring the region back into play for the United States. In doing so, congressional priorities should be to promote the rule of law and democratic norms, address citizen insecurity challenges, and challenge human rights violators throughout the hemisphere.—Ana Rosa Quintana is the Policy Analyst for Latin America and the Western Hemisphere in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.