Renewing Ties to Latin America

April 17, 2012

Over the weekend, President Obama met with leaders from across the Americas in Colombia for the Summit of the Americas. That the event was overshadowed by a scandal involving Secret Service agents and uniformed military is a shame.  Latin America is among the world’s fastest-growing economic regions, a central U.S. partner for trade and energy security. We share important security challenges, in particular those posed by the drug trade, which we must confront together while resisting fear-mongering over other concerns, such as the extent of Iranian influence in the region. Even as the region continues to face human and social challenges, its progress in promoting the rule of law and combating poverty and inequality offers hope and inspiration for other regions of the world emerging from or still mired in conflict.  Even as the U.S. and the region continue to stumble over differing views towards Cuba, that country itself is changing. Although not fast enough for other regional governments, the Obama administration has pursued a policy of pragmatic thaw with the island nation as it moves in the direction of a market economy.

The U.S. has much to gain in trade, energy security from strengthened relations with Latin America. As Shannon O’Neil, fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “Latin America today represents a good economic news story for the United States. Trade with Latin America has grown faster than virtually any other region in the world, reaching nearly a trillion dollars. U.S. shipments to its southern neighbors now total some $350 billion annually, roughly a quarter of all exports. With somewhat complementary industries and economies, expanding these sales further can benefit all sides.”

O’Neil continues, “Energy too provides a promising opening, not just for the economies in the region but also for shifting the fraught geopolitical balance for the better. Brazil’s huge oil finds, Colombia’s rising output, and the possibility of renewed exploration and production in Mexico (if the next president reforms the oil sector to allow foreign direct investment in the same manner as Brazil’s Petrobras), would all benefit the United States. The hemisphere is also a renewable energy leader, with wind, solar, hydroelectric, and ethanol. If integrated, these alternative sources could further the quest for a cleaner and more competitive energy matrix worldwide.” [Shannon O’Neil, 4/13/12]

Security concerns remain, with efforts to counter drug trafficking at the forefront.

Drug trafficking won’t be solved by absolutist responses. As Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution and Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center write, drug trafficking is a multifaceted problem that will not be fixed by absolutist responses: “Organized crime exploits the ‘soft spots’ along trafficking routes. Squeezed in one area, traffickers seek out regions with underdeveloped rule of law institutions, weak fiscal capacity, extensive corruption, and marginalized populations susceptible to participation in illicit economies. Today’s prime examples are Central America and West Africa. In response, local governments and external partners, such as the United States, often adopt the wrong policies by defining the problem in absolute terms — dismantling organized crime or stopping illegal drug flows. Such goals are mostly unattainable and guarantee costly failures. More attainable, but crucial objectives such as reducing the harms associated with the drug trade and other crime – the violence, corruption, and erosion of the social fabric – are largely ignored.” [Vanda Felbab-Brown and Eric Olson, 4/13/12]

Separating the real from the unreal:  Iranian support for terrorism in Latin America. Although this concern has been prominent on the campaign trail, the Congressional Research Service notes, “The State Department terrorism report maintains that there are no known operational cells of either Al Qaeda or Hezbollah-related groups in the hemisphere, but noted that ‘ideological sympathizers in South America and the Caribbean continued to provide financial and moral support to these and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.’” [CRS, 3/2/12]

Regional ties would be improved with a more pragmatic Cuba policy that favors progress over Cold War thinking – the administration has made initial moves in this direction. As the New York Times writes, the Summit of the Americas meeting hit a snag over disagreements about how to treat Cuba: “A summit meeting of Western Hemisphere nations ended without a final statement of consensus on Sunday [April 15], after the United States and some Latin American nations remained sharply divided over whether to continue excluding Cuba from such gatherings.” Although the policies are not enough for Latin American governments, the Obama administration has overseen pragmatic warming of relations with Cuba, such as an easing of restrictions for Americans to travel or transfer money into Cuba. As Arturo Lopez-Levy, lecturer at the Colorado School of Mines, wrote when the changes were announced in January 2011: “The changes could not have come at a better time. Cuba has entered a period of profound change: The Cuban state is laying off between 500,000 and 1 million workers and opening up the nonstate sector to reform in hopes that the private economy can absorb them. An increase in private-sector jobs, along with planned cuts to government subsidies, is bound to loosen the strings of dependence that have tied Cubans to the state for half a century. It is a revolutionary redefinition of how Cubans relate to their government, and it means that the reforms will necessarily be not just economic, but political as well. Whether the Castros admit it or not, Cuba is moving in a direction that fulfills U.S. hopes for a more market-oriented, open society on the island.” [NY Times, 1/15/12. Arturo Lopez-Levy, 1/31/11]

What We’re Reading 

A team of six United Nations military observers arrived in Syria to oversee compliance with the cease-fire negotiated by the special envoy Kofi Annan.

Amnesty International reports that human rights reforms in Bahrain are insufficient and have failed to provide justice for victims after last year’s government crackdown on opposition protesters.

About 1,500 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention began a hunger strike.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia expects her country to complete its military withdrawal from Afghanistan a year ahead of schedule.

India plans to test its longest-range nuclear-capable missile.

China has joined other nations in warning North Korea that they will not tolerate any more provocations after the country’s failed rocket launch.

Japan says it will give $60 billion in loans to the International Monetary Fund to advance efforts to control the European sovereign debt crisis.

Sudan’s government voted unanimously to brand South Sudan an enemy state.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey rejected allegations that there are unheard budget dissenters to President Obama’s spending request in the Pentagon ranks.

An earthquake struck coastal Chile near Valparaiso, resulting in mudslides and other damage.

Commentary of the Day

Rear Admiral John Hutson (ret) evaluates three proposals for improving a controversial law on detention of suspected terrorists.

Vali Nasr warns that too much U.S. focus on the security dimension of its relationship with Pakistan risks missing the opportunity to engage in fruitful new ways.

Captain Gail Harris (ret) argues the Obama administration was right to attempt engagement with the new North Korean regime while still maintaining military vigilance.

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