U.S. Interests in Latin America

Report Americas

U.S. Interests in Latin America

October 31, 2002 12 min read
Otto Reich
Senior Research Fellow

Speech by Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Ambassador Otto J. Reich to The Heritage Foundation, October 31, 2002, Washington, D.C.


My message is that the United States is engaged in Latin America per force of our historical circumstances and by design. We are connected to Latin America, necessarily and happily so. We share historical, cultural, commercial, even familial ties. Most importantly, we are bound together by shared values. Today, there is a consensus in the Americas in favor of democracy.

Elected leaders throughout the Americas, except Cuba-today, 98 percent vs. 25 percent 25 years ago. The Inter-American Democratic Charter makes the nations of this hemisphere and the Organization of American States (OAS) unique in the world because of our commitment to democracy. Geography and commerce also create a bond between the United States and the region.

The U.S. sells more to Latin America and the Caribbean than to the European Union; Trade with our NAFTA partners is greater than our trade with the EU and Japan combined; We sell more to the Southern Cone, to Mercosur, than to China; and Latin America and the Caribbean comprise our fastest-growing export market. During the Cold War, American statesmen used to say of Europe and NATO, "We are there and we are committed." One might say of the United States and Latin America today, "We are here and we are committed."

President Bush believes in the future of the Americas, and our policy reflects his confidence and his vision. This is a very exciting time in the history of the Western Hemisphere. We have challenges. But there are also many opportunities. While we're optimistic, we're not naive.

Leadership will be critical to overcoming the obstacles to progress. The Bush Administration's agenda for our Hemisphere has four goals:

  • To strengthen security;

  • To promote democracy;

  • To encourage responsible governance; and

  • To stimulate economic development.


Security, it is often said, is the first function of a state. To make any meaningful progress, people require safety and the assurance that their work to build a better future will not be maliciously destroyed. In the United States, we also know that we will not be safe at home unless our neighborhood is safe, so promoting security in the region is our first priority.

The War on Terrorism
Led by Brazil and Argentina, our Rio Treaty partners stated that the attacks on the United States were attacks against all the American states. Thirty-two of the 34 OAS member states have also signed a hemispheric convention against terrorism to enhance regional cooperation in the fight against this scourge. We have been working diligently with Canada and Mexico both to secure our borders and facilitate the movement of goods and services on which our economies depend.

We know that some countries in the region have suffered terrorism for far longer. Colombia faces three terrorist groups supported by the profits of narcotics trafficking. These terrorist groups run the ideological gamut from unreconstructed Marxists to the far right, but the FARC, ELN, and AUC are not popular movements. They are after power, control over territory, and the dollars of the drug trade that comes with it.

President Bush has enhanced and expanded our military and intelligence assistance to the Colombian government. Colombia can defeat this combination of narcotics traffickers and terrorists, but it needs help from its friends to do it. They need training, arms, equipment, and intelligence to implement a successful military strategy. Our national security and the safety and health of our people depend on their success.

Any discussion of security in the Hemisphere would be incomplete without mentioning the abiding hostility of the Castro regime toward democracy. Castro's dictatorship is one of the last unreconstructed totalitarian regimes in the world, and his brutal repression of dissent continues unabated.

  • In the past few months, Castro has taken extraordinary measures to crush the brave effort of dissidents to claim their basic human rights with a petition drive known as Project Varela. More than 11,000 Cubans braved the wrath of the Communist Party and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to sign this petition, and thousands more have done so since. Recognizing the importance of this effort to obtain fundamental rights for all Cubans, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs awarded Project organizer Oswaldo Payá its W. Averell Harriman Democracy Award in September, and earlier this month, the European Parliament gave Payá its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

  • Castro's response to this cry for peaceful change was to fabricate a petition drive of his own, which 99.25 percent of the population signed-coerced by those same Committees for the Defense of the Revolution-in support of the "immutability of Socialism." On June 27, Castro's rubber-stamp legislature unanimously endorsed one-party communist government and state control of the economy forever. Many of the Cuban legislators concluded their speeches that day by vowing, "Socialism or death." 

  • On July 30, Cuban police arrested yet another independent journalist, part of their routine harassment of voices that dare speak out against the regime.

  • On August 5, Castro's thugs quashed a peaceful demonstration in Havana marking the eighth anniversary of the Maleconazo uprising. 

  • Just this weekend, an imprisoned dissident was hospitalized after a hunger strike to protest 43 years of the denial of basic rights to the Cuban people. We repeat our call for the Cuban regime to provide Leonardo Bruzón with adequate medical care and to release him from prison.

Historically, the Cuban government has sought to subvert its neighbors, and even today, Castro supports the foes of freedom and menaces the security of the United States at every opportunity.

  • Castro recently reaffirmed his solidarity with Saddam Hussein, and Cuba lends its political support to Iraq in international fora.

  • At last year's U.N. General Assembly session in the wake of September 11, Cuba accused the United States of war crimes, alleging that our campaign to root out the Taliban was a "bombing campaign against [the Afghan] people."

  • On September 21, 2001, the FBI arrested Ana Belen Montes on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States on behalf of the Cuban intelligence service. Ms. Montes was our senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst for Cuba. She pled guilty to the conspiracy charge in March of this year.

  • Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. We believe that Cuba has "at least a limited, offensive biological warfare research-and-development effort," and we know that Cuba has shared dual-use biotechnologies with other state sponsors of terrorism.

  • As my colleague Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Fisk reported not long ago, Cuba has engaged in a deliberate effort to confuse, distract, and divert U.S. intelligence from its vital counterterrorism mission by dangling false leads and informants. You may have heard the Cuban government deny its responsibility for this assault on our first line of defense against terrorism. Today, I can tell you that Cuba's hostile campaign against our intelligence agencies continues even now.

President Bush believes that the policy of the United States toward Cuba must be guided by our strategic interests and moral principle. In his mind, the issue is clear. The Cuban government must end its hostility, honor the rights of its citizens, and make basic political reforms before the United States resumes normal relations with Cuba.

Democracy and Good Governance

After security, our second priority in the region is promoting democracy and good governance. Democracy is more than a periodic election. It is a civic culture. Public integrity, equality before the law, respect for individual rights, economic opportunity, and healthy political institutions are indispensable.

The challenge in Latin America is for the leadership class to overcome the inertia of "old think," as the Russians called it during the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are still too many in elite positions who are addicted to power or believe that recycled rhetoric and discredited ideology will solve the problems of their country.

There are far too many in elite positions who have not learned that government exists to serve the people, not the other way around. The World Bank correctly identifies corruption "as the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development."

Many countries in the Western Hemisphere exemplify the connection between responsible leadership and progress.

  • In Mexico, President Fox is leading a charge against the decades of abuse that undermined the Mexican people's faith in their government.

  • Uruguay, a country with a tradition of good governance, enjoys the most equitable income distribution in Latin America.

  • Recently, forward-looking public policies have also contributed to above average economic growth in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.

  • Chile, ranked as the top country in Latin America for fighting corruption and other indicators of good government, has benefited from the fastest economic growth and poverty reduction in the region over the past decade.

  • In Nicaragua, President Bolanos is waging a determined campaign against corruption and impunity in his country. It is no coincidence that he is the leader in Latin America with the highest approval ratings.

  • We also applaud Presidents Maduro and Pacheco for their work to strengthen the rule of law in Honduras and Costa Rica.

Democracies in Crisis
As you know, there are democracies in crisis in our region as well. In Venezuela and Haiti, the failure of leaders to maintain the confidence of their people has led to violence and instability. The solution in both cases lies in strengthening democratic institutions.

Now is the time for Venezuela's true democrats-in both the government and the opposition-to demonstrate leadership. As the Head of State, President Chavez has a special obligation to ensure the proper conditions for dialogue and should avail himself of the opportunity presented by Secretary General Gaviria's mission to defuse political tensions by lowering the level of his rhetoric, disarming irregular armed groups including the Bolivarian Circles, and providing a safe environment for dialogue free of harassment, intimidation, and violence.

As Secretary General Gaviria has noted, the direct involvement of active duty military officers in a public political debate is a disturbing development, not only for Venezuela, but also for the hemisphere, and is not consistent with the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter. The tripartite facilitation effort of the OAS, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), and the Carter Center to foster dialogue is the best opportunity to achieve national reconciliation.

This is a timely opportunity to resolve Venezuela's political difficulties peacefully, democratically, and constitutionally through an election. Whatever electoral solutions Venezuelans arrive at during dialogue must be free, fair, transparent, and agreed upon by both the government and the opposition.

We are encouraged that the government and the opposition will begin constructive talks next week and that OAS Secretary General Gaviria will facilitate those talks. We welcome the efforts of a group of Venezuela National Assembly deputies that support and oppose the government, known as the Boston Group, to seek a peaceful, democratic, and constitutional solution to Venezuela's political impasse.

In Haiti, the Aristide government faces the prospect of forfeiting its credibility and legitimacy. The government must comply with OAS resolutions and its commitments to its own people. On virtually all fronts-from a timely accounting of its actions taken with respect to the political violence of last December, to ending impunity, to disarmament, to reparations, to counternarcotics, to election security-the government has simply not moved with enough purpose or effectiveness.

We are concerned about the well-being of the Haitian people. We are concerned about the strength and legitimacy of institutions that bear the stigma of the flawed elections of 2000. The primary responsibility for addressing Haiti's political and economic problems rests with the government of Haiti. It is time for that government to live up to its commitments to the Haitian people, who have as much claim to democracy and economic opportunity as any in the Americas.

Argentina is going through one of the worst economic periods in its history. But we have seen that, despite their real suffering, the Argentine people remain committed to democracy. Argentina is a close friend and ally of the United States and an important partner on issues ranging from regional security to counter terrorism, from the Middle East to free markets and trade.

We have seen some encouraging signs of macroeconomic stabilization recently and look forward to Argentina, in cooperation with international financial institutions, setting a course that will lead to sustainable economic growth, an outcome all its friends wish for.

All of the people of the Americas want the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their children. It is clearly in the interest of the United States to see that our neighbors have that opportunity. Our prosperity is tied to the prosperity of the region.

That is why President Bush is committed to creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Trade is the most effective and rapid means to economic development. Only by taking advantage of the efficiencies offered by the global market can the nations of the Western Hemisphere reduce poverty and accumulate the capital they require to invest in their people and their industries for long-term economic growth.

The FTAA will create the largest free market in the world, stretching from Canada to Argentina, including every one of the 800 million people in the Western Hemisphere. As you know, we intend to complete negotiations by January 2005 and bring the agreement into force by the end of that year. The United States looks forward to co-chairing the negotiations, together with our partners in Brazil, beginning next month.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Lafer, in a recent editorial, eloquently argued that Brazil had nothing to fear from trade negotiations with the United States and everything to gain. Brazil should be confident of its proven ability to compete in the world market. The principal export of Brazil today is aircraft. The United States is its largest market. I believe we can work together to achieve an agreement that serves the interests of all the people of the Americas.

I would like to take this opportunity to echo President Bush's congratulations to President-Elect da Silva. Brazil's recent presidential election has been portrayed by some as a repudiation of liberalizing reform on the part of Latin America's largest country. I believe that is a misinterpretation. There is a justified frustration on the part of people throughout the Americas with the governments that use the rhetoric of reform but fail to deliver the benefits of reform.

However, it is important to remember that vigorous private enterprise, encouraged by open, market-based policies, is the best path toward economic growth and alleviating poverty. President-Elect da Silva is not alone in his commitment to ease the hardships that afflict too many citizens of this hemisphere.

The United States wants to work with Brazil and our neighbors to create a prosperous and peaceful future for the people of the Americas. We believe that the greater economic integration of the Americas will have an overwhelmingly positive affect. The FTAA will give a powerful impetus to economic and political progress in Latin America, as NAFTA did in Mexico.

There is a virtuous dynamic between free economies and free societies. Increased growth from trade generates more revenues for governments to address the problems of unequal access to education and health services, to protect the environment, and to improve law enforcement and security services. By encouraging market-based reforms and greater transparency in economic decision-making, free trade agreements advance political openness and democracy as well.

Millennium Challenge Account
Our commitment to promoting prosperity is not limited to trade policy. President Bush has announced an initiative to provide more, and more effective foreign aid that is aimed to promote good governance, education, and reduce poverty. The Millennium Challenge Account is a change from our traditional approach to aid. Our goal is to provide incentives for governments to pursue constructive social and economic policies.

We will increase our core development assistance by 50 percent over the next three years, resulting in a $5 billion annual increase over current levels by fiscal year 2006 and beyond. These monies will be directed to those countries that govern justly and honestly, uphold the rule of law, fight corruption, invest in the health and education of their people, and promote economic freedom. I believe that many nations in the Western Hemisphere will benefit from this new initiative.

If we can provide a secure and liberal political environment with economic incentives and opportunities, the creative power of the people of the Americas will be unleashed. The Bush Administration has a comprehensive policy to do just that-promoting security, democracy, good governance, and prosperity.

These are ambitious goals, and I am well aware of the challenges we face. But I pursue them with confidence because I know that we have many millions of partners in our efforts to make this hemisphere free, prosperous, and democratic. As President Bush said, the people of the Americas have "a dream of free markets and free people, in a hemisphere free from war and tyranny. That dream has sometimes been frustrated-but it must never be abandoned."


Otto Reich

Senior Research Fellow