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A Latin America Agenda for Obama

Jaime Daremblum

Nearly two years have passed since his inauguration, and President Obama has yet to unveil a major policy initiative for Latin America. Regional officials are hoping that Obama ends this neglect in 2011 and increases U.S. engagement. Here are seven ways in which his administration could demonstrate its commitment to Latin America.

(1) Convince Nicaragua to end its illegal occupation of Costa Rica. Several weeks ago, in the midst of a river-dredging project, Nicaraguan troops invaded Costa Rican territory and began occupying Calero Island (which is located in the San Juan River). The Organization of American States (OAS) has demanded their withdrawal, only to be rebuffed by President Daniel Ortega. So far, the U.S. response has been dismayingly weak. By tolerating Nicaraguan military aggression, we are emboldening the Sandinista government and sending a dangerous signal about the lack of U.S. leadership in the region.


It’s past time for Hillary Clinton and other U.S. diplomats to get tough. They should sternly inform the Nicaraguan regime that continuing to occupy Costa Rican territory will affect its access to future economic aid and jeopardize its participation in Central American free-trade agreements.  

(2) Push for approval of the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements (FTAs). Until these two FTAs receive congressional approval, it will be hard for the U.S. to pursue a larger agenda of hemispheric trade liberalization. They were signed in 2006 (Colombia) and 2007 (Panama). As former U.S. deputy secretary of state John Negroponte has noted, “Colombia and Panama already enjoy duty free access to the United States for the majority of their products. Passage of the FTAs would level the field for us, increasing our exports and creating jobs we need here in the United States. Simply put, you cannot be in favor of increasing jobs through exports and, at the same time, not be in favor of these FTAs.“ 

(3) Expand U.S. economic cooperation with Brazil. Speaking of trade, Obama should build on the work that President Bush did with Brazilian leader Lula da Silva. The U.S.-Brazil Commercial Dialogue began in 2006, and it provides the basis for strengthening economic ties with Latin America’s most populous country. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, will be inaugurated on January 1. Obama should use their first meeting to make the case for expanding bilateral trade.

(4) Increase security aid to Mexico. Over the past four years, more than 30,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence. The Calderón government needs helicopters and weapons to take down the cartels, but it also needs to establish a well-functioning legal system that can handle the challenge posed by organized crime. Washington should increase judicial aid under the Mérida Initiative, which Bush launched in 2007. It should also allocate more money to train local Mexican police forces.

(5) List Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. We now have overwhelming evidence that the Hugo Chávez regime has assisted murderous groups such as the Colombian FARC, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the Spanish ETA. In March 2008, Colombian military forces recovered computer documents detailing extensive Venezuelan links to the FARC. Later that year, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Caracas of “employing and providing safe harbor to Hezbollah facilitators and fundraisers.” More recently, Spanish judicial authorities disclosed that ETA terrorists Juan Carlos Besance and Xabier Atistrain were trained in Venezuelan territory. Arturo Cubillas, an ETA member with close links to the Chávez regime, was in charge of protecting them during their training. Cubillas has an official position in the Venezuelan government as security chief of the National Land Institute, and his wife works as an assistant to Venezuelan vice president Elías Jaua. 

Given all these revelations, the State Department should strongly consider listing Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. Doing so would intensify diplomatic pressure on Chávez, who is already struggling with domestic unrest.

(6) Float serious proposals for reforming the OAS. The organization’s incompetence has been on full display throughout the ongoing border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. To date, Ortega has paid no diplomatic penalty for his belligerence. If it cannot summon the will to take strong action against the invasion of a member state, the OAS will become irrelevant. Washington should embrace the cause of institutional reform. For example, Obama administration officials should advocate (1) turning the Inter-American Democratic Charter into a treaty policed by the Inter-American System of Human Rights, (2) bolstering those OAS bodies that are still performing well (such as the human-rights and drugs-terrorism panels), and (3) downsizing the organization’s bloated bureaucracy.

Once the premier democratic forum in the Western Hemisphere, the OAS has become laughably ineffective. Overhauling the institution could help to promote multilateral cooperation and weaken radicals like Ortega.

(7) Establish a bipartisan commission on Latin America. Such a panel could be modeled on the 1983 Kissinger Commission, which analyzed U.S. policy options in Central America at the height of the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. It would offer recommendations on how the United States can support democratic institutions, encourage economic reforms, boost social mobility, and improve security conditions throughout the region. By creating such a commission, Obama would be making a powerful statement about bipartisan initiatives and the importance of Latin America to U.S. interests.

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