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Latin America Deserves More Attention

Jaime Daremblum

In her remarks to the 41st Washington Conference on the Americas this past May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the Western Hemisphere “vital” to U.S. interests, adding that Latin America and the United States “will rise or fall together in the 21st century.” Unfortunately, the Obama administration has yet to champion a regional initiative that matches Secretary Clinton’s lofty rhetoric.

Its neglect of Latin America reflects a bipartisan problem: Quite simply, neither Democrats nor Republicans are sufficiently attuned to hemispheric issues. Indeed, 50 years after President Kennedy created theAlliance for Progress, and two decades after the Cold War ended, Latin America is often treated as an afterthought in U.S. foreign policy discussions. While President Obama deserves credit for finally sending the Bush-era Colombia and Panama trade accords to Capitol Hill (where, thanks to the GOP, they received congressional approval last week), he has not promulgated a clear vision for hemispheric trade liberalization, and the broader U.S. trade agenda remains stalled. By way of comparison, Ronald Reagan established the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), which delivered considerable trade benefits to countries in Central America and the Caribbean. George H. W. Bush made some of the CBI trade preferences permanent and launched the negotiations that eventually produced NAFTA. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA into law and enhanced the CBI preferences. George W. Bush signed a multilateral trade pact with Central America and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA), plus bilateral pacts with Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Panama.

Under President Reagan, Capitol Hill was rocked by debates over U.S. aid to anti-Communist forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador, with efforts to support the Nicaraguan Contras ultimately leading to the biggest White House scandal since Watergate. Today, the “northern triangle” of Central America is experiencing higher levels of deadly violence that it did in the war-torn 1980s, yet relatively few U.S. lawmakers are paying much attention.

To be fair, at a time when Washington is (understandably) consumed by disputes over how to boost employment and slash the federal budget deficit, all foreign policy issues are receiving short shrift, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It should not surprise us that Latin America now seems more ignored than ever. 

Still, why is it that a region of 600 million people in the Western Hemisphere is consistently treated with such shortsighted neglect? Richard Nixon once said that “Latin America doesn’t matter,” and much of the Washington political community seems to agree with him. Latin America does not boast the economic clout of Europe, Japan, China, or India, and it does not pose the type of security threat that the Middle East, North Korea, China, and Russia do. It also suffers from a longstanding reputation for dysfunction, and U.S. views of the region tend to be stuck in a time warp. “For much of the past two centuries,” the Economist observed in an April 2009 editorial, “Latin America has been a byword for the profligate squandering of economic promise and for financial crisis.”

But all of this is now changing. As the Economist noted in that same editorial, the region has acquired a “novel reputation for prudent progress and good management.” Brazil (population: 194 million) has become a rising economic powerhouse and global energy giant; other countries (such as Panama and Peru) have enjoyed Chinese levels of GDP growth; and both China and India have aggressively expanded their hemispheric footprints. On the security side, there has been a remarkable upsurge of drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America. Meanwhile, Tehran has been working to create an Iranian satellite in Venezuela and boost terrorist activity in South America.

Here are just a few data points and recent news items that highlight these trends:

  • Last week, New York Times correspondent Simon Romero reported that Brazil could become the world’s fourth-biggest oil producer by the 2020s, with its daily output more than doubling to reach over 5 million barrels.
  • In early September, researcher Ana-María Poveda Garcés published a study showing that Colombia’s outward foreign direct investment grew from $3 billion to $23 billion (in inflation-adjusted terms) between 2000 and 2010.
  • According to a February 2011 Congressional Research Service report, U.S. merchandise trade with Latin America increased by 82 percent between 1998 and 2009. The equivalent figure for Asia was 72 percent, and for the European Union it was only 51 percent.
  • In a May 2010 report on Guatemala, Duke University scholar Hal Brands pointed out that “the influence of nonstate criminal actors rivals or exceeds that of the government in up to 40 percent of the country.”
  • A new study from the National Autonomous University of Honduras finds that “Honduras stands to break world records with its murder rate,” as Agence France-Presse notes.
  • This past April, a Brazilian magazine reported that al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all operating in Latin America’s largest country.
  • A few months later, Gen. Francisco Contreras, the former chief of staff of the Peruvian military, told the Jerusalem Post that “Iranian organizations provide support to other terrorist organizations” in South America.
  • Not only have Iranian officials established a strategic beachhead in the Americas, they were apparently plotting with Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

The failed assassination scheme should mark a turning point in U.S. attitudes toward Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere. But will it mark a turning point in Washington’s overall treatment of Latin America? Beyond Iran’s strategic push and the drug violence in Mexico and Central America, there are plenty of other hemispheric questions that deserve greater prominence in the national political conversation. For example: At a time when Latin America needs a robust democratic forum to combat leftist autocrats in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, how can we improve the Organization of American States? Now that the Colombia and Panama free trade deals have finally received congressional approval, how can the United States revive its broader hemispheric trade agenda? How can we better manage relations with Brazil How can we secure the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor unjustly imprisoned in Cuba? Should Venezuela be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism?

Each of these questions highlights a significant U.S. foreign policy challenge. It would be nice if one of them came up at the next Republican presidential debate. It would also be nice if the Obama administration took its rhetoric about Latin America more seriously.

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