February 9, 2009
By Ray Walser, Ph.D.
In the face of multiple challenges from distant Iran, Iraq,
North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it may be easy to forget
that Latin America and the Caribbean are so close at hand. The
region may not be America's backyard, but it is certainly very much
our neighborhood. The United States shares a 2,000-mile border with
Mexico that is still far too porous. Cuba is a mere 90 miles from
Key West, reachable by the desperate on even the most flimsy of
craft. Ready trade partner, democratic friend, and epicenter of the
cocaine trade, Colombia, is a two-hour flight from Miami and
accessible by the ingenious, stealthy, semi-submersible boats of
drug traffickers. We worry about the same legal and illegal flow of
goods and people, the same hurricanes, and shared environmental
BROAD AND DEEP
Across the board, U.S. ties with Latin America and the Caribbean
run broad and deep. From 1996 to 2006, total U.S. merchandise trade
with Latin America grew by 139 percent, compared to 96 percent for
Asia and 95 percent for the European Union. In 2006, the United
States exported $223 billion worth of goods to Latin American
consumers (compared with $55 billion to China). Fifty-one percent
of U.S. energy imports originate from Canada, Mexico, Venezuela,
Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil.
Americans of Hispanic descent now account for 15 percent of the
U.S. population, making the United States the largest
Spanish-speaking nation after Mexico. The billions of dollars in
remittances dispatched from the United States are vital to the
economic health and well-being of American's neighbors to the
south. But the current recession will create new strains abroad.
Illegal aliens, predominantly Hispanic, exceed 10 million.
Any major change in U.S. relations with Latin America will
inevitably be linked to progress on complex U.S. domestic issues,
notably immigration reform, homeland and border security, and
reducing U.S. domestic drug consumption. These changes are
contingent on prevailing public attitudes toward open markets, free
trade, international competition, and foreign assistance. Any
substantial retreat into protectionism or isolationism on the part
of the United States will send a hard shiver down the spine of the
Americas. While Americans generally desire to help their less
advantaged neighbors, they fear the additional tax burdens that
would accompany any increases in foreign assistance in a period
when fiscal discipline is under siege and recessionary pressures
In the new Obama Administration, just as in others, Latin
Americans will first judge the President by what he is able to
accomplish at home. The historic election of 2008 and the orderly
and dignified transition in 2009 speak volumes about the openness,
the maturity, and the majestic continuity of American democracy.
The old adage about the United Statesneeding to lead by example
remains fundamental to revitalizing our ties with Latin
The Western Hemisphere, moreover, presents a confusing and
complex patchwork of states, cultures, resources, and ethnic and
linguistic identities, as well as conflicting definitions of
democracy and pathways to the economic future. Just think of the
differences between three of the Southern Hemisphere's sovereign
states: the Bahamas (a small English-speaking Caribbean nation),
Brazil (an emerging multi-racial economic giant), and Bolivia (an
impoverished, ethnically divided, politically unstable state).
Imagine how difficult it is to develop a common policy that fits
not just these three, but the 35 sovereign nations of the Americas.
Therefore, it is important that from the beginning the new
Administration avoid sweeping rhetoric, one-size-fits-all programs,
and cosmetic multilateral fixes that paper over the region's
differences and problems.
Latin America is undergoing changes in geopolitical orientation.
The growth and current crisis in the global economy and the rise of
Asia coupled with a new sense of Latin American identity and
solidarity have an impact on the region's development. From the
establishment of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to
the proposed creation of a Bank of the South (Banco Sur), a
southern rival to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), South
America is demonstrating a desire for greater autonomy of action as
well as separation from the United States and the traditional
mechanisms of the international economy.
Even strong trade partners of the United States, such as Chile,
Colombia, and Mexico have signed dozens of free-trade agreements in
all parts of the world and seek more agile and diverse paths for
integration into the global economy. Many South Americans believe
they can better solve political problems in a divided country like
Bolivia without direct U.S. involvement. Brazil considers itself a
rising power, meriting a place on the world stage on par with India
or even Russia.
Latin Americans are making progress against the traditional
asymmetry that dominated relations between the Northern and
Southern Hemispheres during the 20th century. China's and India's
entry into the Latin American market coupled with the steady
presence of the European Union and a more activist Russia will
ensure that the future field of potential international links
remains far more diversified.
Other less friendly players, such as Iran, are warmly welcomed
by Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela and actively courted by
Brazil. Transnational bad actors from the violent Basque ETA
separatists to terror groups Hezbollah and Hamas are also seeking
to gain entry into the Western Hemisphere. The diplomatic leverage
and economic influence the U.S. wields remains important, but it is
undergoing relative decline in face of growing global
competitiveness. The Obama Administration must make continued
policy adjustments that fit these changing international
During the electoral campaign, President Obama spoke of a "new
alliance with Latin America" and promised substantial increases in
U.S. foreign aid. These optimistic promises were welcomed by all
who care about the future of the Western Hemisphere. The
post-inaugural challenge will be to deliver on these promises.
Latin Americans have not forgotten that at the beginning of his
term, President George W. Bush also promised to strengthen
relations with Latin America, particularly with Mexico. But 9/11,
the global war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, and other urgent
challenges directed U.S. commitments in other directions, leaving
dashed expectations in their wake.
It is important that the Obama Administration recognize that
past policies for the region go back one or two decades and have
been the result of considerable bipartisan efforts. U.S. policy
toward Latin America has followed a relatively consistent,
bipartisan track since the fall of the Berlin Wall when the United
States ceased to view the region through the prism of
From the Brady Plan for debt relief, democracy promotion under
the National Endowment for Democracy umbrella, and the Enterprise
for the Americas Initiative, all products of the Reagan -- Bush era,
through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Summit
of the Americas process, and Plan Colombia under President Clinton
to bilateral free trade agreements, the Millennium Challenge
Corporation (MCC), and the Merida Initiative of the past
Administration, one Administration after the next has built on the
work of its predecessors. Latin Americans need to be gently
reminded of these costly and extensive U.S. policy initiatives of
the past twenty years when they begin complaining about U.S.
inattention to the region.
General consensus and bipartisan support have existed for the
key pillars of policy: support for democratic governance and
institution-building, market and free-trade-oriented development,
structured financial assistance through the IMF, the World Bank,
and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), as well as law
enforcement and military cooperation against drugs, crime, and
terrorism. These will remain the central pillars of sound
Moving ahead in the Western Hemisphere will require hard-headed
pragmatism. While there was discussion of "bottom-up reform" before
the inauguration, the probable reality is that the instruments
available to the Obama White House to shape U.S. Latin American
policy will remain two-way trade and Latin American access to the
world's largest market. The new Administration also needs to
encourage private capital formation and foreign direct investment
in Latin America. It should also look for ways to stimulate the
growth of the private sector and to promote reforms that liberate
citizens in the region from the heavy hand of bureaucratic
Policymakers in Washington should not lose sight of the
importance of economic freedom. In country after country, as The
Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal's annual
Index of Economic Freedom clearly demonstrates, the greater
the level of economic freedom, the better the chances to develop
and prosper. Latin America's track record has been deteriorating in
"George Bush's policy in the Americas has been negligent toward
our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the
challenges that matter in people's lives, and incapable of
advancing our interests in the region. As the Americas have
changed, we have sat on the sideline, offering no compelling vision
and creating a vacuum for demagogues to advance an anti-American
agenda," read candidate Obama's Web site.
This was a useful theme for a political campaign. Now that
President Obama has assumed office and has begun the selection of
officials and ambassadors who will design and implement policy, it
is time for a sober review of the Bush Administration, its
accomplishments, and its shortcomings.
In eight years in office, the Bush Administration doubled
foreign assistance budgets, created the Millennium Challenge
Corporation, and launched the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS
Relief (PEPFAR). The MCC has begun the disbursement of nearly $1
billion to El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Guyana, and
Peru. During the Bush presidency, Congress, with bipartisan
support, passed free-trade agreements with Chile (2002), Central
America and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR, 2005), and Peru
(2007). The Bush Administration also negotiated agreements with
Colombia and Panama that now await congressional approval. It is
vital that each Member of Congress push for their approval.
Plan Colombia, begun in the Clinton Administration and continued
under Bush, achieved remarkable improvements in security and
reductions in levels of violence. The streets of Bogota and
Medellin are much safer. The reach of the Colombian government,
from soldiers to social workers, now extends much deeper into the
countryside. The continued projection of civilian and military
power is needed to restore the capacity of the Colombian state and
to win the final battles against the armed extremes of the
paramilitary right and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) on the left. In North America, the Security and Prosperity
Partnership for North America advances the concept of working with
Canada and Mexico to develop a close relationship with our most
important trade partners, improving efficiency and competitiveness
while enhancing security at American borders.
PROTECTING U.S. SECURITY
A hydra of violence and insecurity troubles the Western
Hemisphere. Recent surveys of public opinion indicate that security
is becoming the primary concern for Latin Americans. Making an
impact in fighting crime and drugs in Latin America will require a
mix of the elements of hard power -- helicopters, aerial and
maritime patrol craft, radars, and law enforcement technology -- and
soft power -- computers, systems networks, and investigative and
human rights training. It will also require close coordination of
all elements of national power in the United States and abroad and
a seamless web of cooperation with neighbors across a spectrum that
runs from community policing, crime prevention, and demand
reduction in Latin America and the U.S. to intelligence sharing,
improved investigation and forensic skills, and improved capacity
for seizures, take-downs, and arrests.
It will be important for President Obama and the new
Administration to speak forthrightly about the United States'
dangerous drug habits. Decreasing U.S. consumption is critical.
Consumption of cocaine and other drugs fuels a bloody chain of
violence and narco-terrorism running from the alleys and streets of
U.S. cities through Mexico's Tijuana, Sinaloa, and Michoacan,
through Guatemala's Peten to the hidden runways in Venezuela and
cocaine labs and coca fields in Colombia, where FARC guards the
trade, hold hundreds hostage, and siphons off massive revenue from
the cocaine trade. The United States needs to impart fresh urgency
to help President Felipe Calderon and Mexico win the horrific fight
against the Mexican cartels. It is also imperative to continue
efforts of Plan Colombia and build upon the Merida Initiative for
Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
To garner domestic support, President Obama should consider
convening a bipartisan commission to map out a balanced drug
strategy for the next four years. Such an exercise was conducted
during the first Reagan Administration (1983) to deal with the
Central American crisis. It helped to lay the basis for a
bipartisan policy for Central America. When the study is completed,
President Obama should invite the heads of state of the Western
Hemisphere to review the policy and to develop a new hemispheric
anti-drug compact and strategy.
The problem of transnational gangs (maras) is often seen
abroad as originating in the United States and being aggravated by
the process of criminal deportations from the United States.
Regardless of origin, the gangs are a shared challenge. Developing
a comprehensive and effective response will find a wide and
favorable audience in the region.
The U.S. Southern Command under the energetic and
forward-looking leadership of Admiral James Stavridis has worked to
enhance security partnerships in the Americas and to interweave
civilian and military components into combined actions. Efforts "to
demilitarize" U.S. foreign policy should not overlook these
Embrace Free Trade. Former Bolivian president Jorge
Quiroga recently remarked that two key commodities, oil and
cocaine, enter the United States duty free while the U.S. Congress
debates duty-free entry of legal products from the United States
into pro-American Colombia (which already has access to the U.S.
It is critical for policymakers on Capitol Hill to work with the
congressional leadership to pass the pending Free Trade Agreements
(FTAs). A full spectrum of the wisest voices -- U.S. and Latin
American presidents, former senior officials, both Democratic and
Republican -- and the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings
Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage
Foundation, to name a few, as well as mainstream media editorials
are unanimous in urging swift passage of pending agreements with
Colombia and Panama. Colombia will certainly be willing to work
with the Obama Administration to accommodate additional reasonable
measures aimed at protecting labor and environmental standards.
Leadership also needs to be applied to progress on the Doha
Round of trade talks and reduce agricultural subsidies at home,
which will spur progress on a U.S. -- Brazil FTA. President Obama
should also quickly put an end to speculation that he will attempt
a renegotiation of NAFTA with Canada and Mexico.
Bolivia AND Nicaragua
A question of principle arises regarding assistance to Bolivia
and Nicaragua. The United States suspended Bolivia's trade benefits
in 2008 following Bolivia's groundless expulsion of the U.S.
ambassador and the cessation of counter-drug cooperation. In
Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas are engaged in a
concerted assault on the fragile fabric of democratic governance.
This has caused a suspension of the h grants. The Obama
Administration should make it clear that U.S. assistance and trade
benefits will only be granted with a reasonable expectation of
adherence to democratic principles and continued cooperation in key
areas of mutual interests, such as anti-drug-trafficking
Revitalize Democratic Governance and Promotion. On
September 11, 2001, while the world watched al-Qaeda's unfolding
assault on America in horror, Secretary of State Colin Powell was
in Lima, Peru, with the region's foreign ministers. Before
departing for his stricken home, the Secretary joined in signing
the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The charter guarantees every
citizen in the Americas the right to a democratic government. Seven
years later, a significant minority of Latin American states have
begun to abridge citizens' rights and turn to the streets to
silence political debate, while the Organization of American States
has sat by inertly without invoking that charter.
The United States is founded on sound principles. Americans
should not be afraid to defend them. Constitutions exist to protect
the rights of minorities as well as majorities. Democracy means
more than finding ways to manipulate the electoral process in order
to remain in executive office.
But the United States cannot be the only nation in the Americas
ready to speak out in Defense of the charter. The challenge is to
encourage fellow democrats in the Americas to speak up in the halls
of the OAS and elsewhere. It is incumbent on President Obama and
his new Latin American team to find new strategies for winning the
battle for pluralistic liberal democracy in the Western
Promote Energy Cooperation. Much of the U.S.
presidential campaign was conducted at a period when energy prices
soared, siphoning off precious American dollars and leaving the
United States vulnerable to energy blackmail by Venezuela's
anti-American president, Hugo Chávez.
Even with currently lower oil prices, a sound comprehensive
strategy will require expanding domestic oil and energy supplies,
more nuclear power, economically sustainable alternative energy
sources, and greater energy efficiency and conservation. The United
States must work closely with Canada and Mexico, America's nearest
and most reliable suppliers. Realistic steps to promote energy
alternatives in both Americas will include elimination of the tax
on sugar-based ethanol, collaborating to develop research in
second-generation bio-fuels, and supporting a regionally integrated
system of pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities.
Earn Trust, Work with Pivotal Leaders. It is
important to move quickly to develop a strong personal rapport with
Latin America's current breed of genuinely democratic leaders.
President Calderon in Mexico, Brazil's Luis Lula da Silva, Peru's
Alan Garcia, Chile's Michelle Bachelet, and the Dominican
Republic's Leonel Fernandez are among prominent leaders who share
forward-looking attitudes on democracy, free-market growth, and
poverty alleviation. The Obama Administration needs to reach out to
them early and often. Special attention needs to be given to
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe whose program of democratic
security and efforts to build what has been absent for decades, a
strong Colombian government, merits early consultation and
continued support in the final stage of two remarkable presidential
Develop a Bold education Initiative. The Obama
Administration needs a bold initiative capable of touching the
lives of ordinary Latin Americans. education is the key to
permanently reducing poverty and making more equitable societies.
The United States is well positioned to present a broad,
multifaceted educational initiative. Support for elementary and
secondary education is important and can include loans from the
World Bank and the IADB. Rejuvenating programs at the higher
education level could be a signature initiative for the incoming
Administration. They can reach directly to future leaders and spur
innovation in sciences and technology, areas where Latin America
lags behind on the global scale. President Obama should consider
creating a senior-level voluntary Western Hemispheric education
Council to energize and revitalize the gamut of education
strategies. The challenge is also to develop a stronger synergy to
promote coordination and cooperation between government efforts,
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society. Additional
educational efforts should also advance English-language education
and develop a basic program that identifies the fundamentals of
Revitalize Regular and Citizen-to-Citizen
Diplomacy. While there is anti-Americanism in the Western
Hemisphere, there remains an abundant hunger for the American
brand. The new Administration, drawing on a commitment to public
service and to the revitalization of a service ethic, should work
to recapture and revitalize what is best in the United States.
President Obama and his team should work to develop a strategic
communications plan to closely coordinate democracy promotion and
public diplomacy, making sure the Departments of Defense and State
and the National Endowment for Democracy carefully define a
strategy, work together, and remain on message.
Restoring a special envoy for Latin America may signal fresh
interest in the region but the envoy needs genuine access to the
Oval Office and the ability to inject fresh discipline and energy
into the Washington policy process.
Increasing the number of Peace Corps volunteers, as proposed, is
a wise idea. So is making the government a clearinghouse and point
of assistance for the large number of American NGOs and faith-based
groups that are active in the Western Hemisphere. Finding ways to
energize and engage the U.S. Hispanic population to work
constructively with their home countries is another avenue that
needs to be pursued.
CAUTION WITH Cuba
Exercise Caution with Cuba. On May 23, 2008,
Senator Obama declared that, "My policy toward Cuba will be guided
by one word: Libertad. And the road to freedom for all Cubans must
begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners, the rights of
free speech, a free press and freedom of assembly; and it must lead
to elections that are free and fair."
It is important to keep clearly in focus the fact that Cuba,
after 50 years under a single revolutionary, anti-American leader,
remains a totalitarian state -- an ideological dinosaur and island
prison with a stronger kinship to the regimes of Stalin and Mao
than to modern social democratic states. The island belongs not to
the people but to an aging Raul Castro and his military comrades.
Cosmetic economic changes have done little to alleviate dire
In Miami, candidate Obama proposed potential carrots for a
relationship with Cuba that is often seen as all stick, and no
carrot. While the desire to remove barriers that separate families
and infringe on rights of free travel is commendable, it is
important to remember that Cuba's restrictive, bureaucratic regime,
with its rigid controls and dual-currency system, is skilled at
monopolizing as many of these fresh resources as possible in an
effort to help perpetuate the regime's stranglehold on Cuban
economic life. Waves of Canadian and European tourism have done
little to open Cuba politically.
There is little evidence, as suggested in the rare interview
Raul Castro recently granted to actor Sean Penn, that the Cuban
political system is a negotiable item on any possible U.S. -- Cuban
agenda. There is a good chance that the Cuban regime is
already planning ways to eviscerate any fresh opening by the U.S.
that does not fit with its visions of perpetuating Communist
Don't Send an Ambassador to Venezuela. Noting
the shortcomings of U.S. policy and the lack of a U.S. presence in
the region during the campaign, Senator Obama stated that,
"demagogues like Hugo Chávez have stepped into this vacuum.
His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric,
authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same
false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past." This
was an excellent analysis. Yet what Secretary of State-designate
Hillary Clinton suggested before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations
Committee -- that we "need to care less about what Hugo Chávez
does and more about what we do" -- does not go far in mapping out a
strategy for dealing with a Latin American leader whom President
Obama described just before taking the oath of office as an
"obstacle to progress" and who makes anti-Americanism the
cornerstone of his domestic and foreign policy.
The challenge of dealing with Chávez is considerable. He
is an outsized despot, a study in contradictions in a country torn
between an impulse to populist socialism and the preservation of
political and economic pluralism. He enjoys a significant following
among Venezuelan citizens and is lionized as Fidel's successor.
The battle for the political soul and future direction of
Venezuela is for its people to determine. But the U.S. has a
legitimate, if still undefined, role in working with the majority
of Venezuelans who do not want a president for life, and bolstering
democratic pluralism as a right.
The primary concern of the United States is dealing with a Latin
American leader who routinely insults the United States and warmly
embraces every rogue and tyrant from Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe
to Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Chávez has forged a
strong relationship with an increasingly threatening Iran and a
resurgent Russia. Moreover, he intends to become the energizing
axis for Latin America's socialist integration as well a pivotal
player in a world that he hopes will freeze out capitalism and
globalization, and weaken the United States.
Chávez has all the subtlety of a perpetually burning
American flag. Sending an ambassador to Caracas should be quietly
buried on the White House's to-do lists. A U.S. ambassador should
not return to Caracas without a comprehensive, tough-minded
strategy for dealing with Venezuela, one that focuses foremost on
actions harmful to U.S. interests, such as drug trafficking,
terrorism, Venezuela's support for the FARC insurgency, and
fronting for Iranian sanctions evasions. There needs to be serious
and satisfactory resolution of these issues before seeking
agrément for another ambassadorial sitting duck. A
one-on-one with Chavez at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in
Trinidad and Tobago in April is a bad idea. Cuba's presence should
not be welcomed either.
The Western Hemisphere will eagerly anticipate President Obama's
participation at the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of the Americas in
April. In Port of Spain, all eyes will be on our newly elected
President and the vision he puts forward for the future of
hemispheric relations. The President should be realistic and
present only proposals that can and will be funded by the U.S.
Congress and supported by the U.S. electorate. He should also make
clear that the fundamental principles of the U.S.'s Latin America
policy are defending democracy and liberty, advancing democratic
capitalism, combating poverty and exclusion, and working together
with our neighbors for a safer Western Hemisphere.
Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a
division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies at Heritage.
First appeared in Latin Business Chronicle
In the face of multiple challenges from distant Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it may be easy to forget that Latin America and the Caribbean are so close at hand. The region may not be America's backyard, but it is certainly very much our neighborhood. The United States shares a 2,000-mile border with Mexico that is still far too porous. Cuba is a mere 90 miles from Key West, reachable by the desperate on even the most flimsy of craft. Ready trade partner, democratic friend, and epicenter of the cocaine trade, Colombia, is a two-hour flight from Miami and accessible by the ingenious, stealthy, semi-submersible boats of drug traffickers. We worry about the same legal and illegal flow of goods and people, the same hurricanes, and shared environmental hazards.
Ray Walser, Ph.D.
Senior Policy Analyst
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