National Security Network

A Full Partner in Our Own Hemisphere: A New Approach to Latin America

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Report 25 November 2008

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A new report from the Brookings Institution on the future of U.S. - Latin American relations finds that the U.S. must become a full partner in the affairs in its own hemisphere.  With America facing two wars and a global economic crisis of nearly unprecedented severity, it is tempting to relegate matters in Latin America to the back-burner.  But for the last eight years, the Bush administration has pursued an episodic and ideological approach that ignored the concerns of countries in the regions. The consequences have been troubling. Good will towards the U.S. has dwindled, stemming from anti-American sentiment fed by leaders like Hugo Chavez. U.S. influence has declined amidst the emergence of new strategic competitors in the region, like China and Russia. And finally, in the absence of U.S. partnership with the region, problems such as narcotics trafficking and poverty.  Growing interdependence between the U.S. and Latin America, coupled with the challenges posed by such issues as criminal networks, trade, climate change, immigration, and energy, necessitate broad strategic cooperation and improved relations.  The election of Barack Obama presents the U.S. with the opportunity to take a new approach to reverse the shortcomings of the last eight years by moving hemispheric relations in a healthy, cooperative, and mutually beneficial direction.  

Under the Bush administration’s short-sighted foreign policy and “episodic engagement,” our relationships in Latin America have deteriorated, leaving the hemisphere ill-prepared to deal with emerging challenges. “Episodic U.S. engagement” has strengthened the hand of rulers like Hugo Chavez, while other countries increasingly drifted further away from the U.S., many pursuing relationships with new powers like China.  According to the Brookings Institution report, this weakening in relations could carry severe consequences.  “Without a partnership, the risk that criminal networks pose to the region’s people and institutions will continue to grow. Peaceful nuclear technology may be adopted more widely, but without proper regional safeguards, the risks of nuclear proliferation will increase.  Adaptation to climate change will take place through isolated, improvised measures by individual countries, rather than through more effective efforts based on mutual learning and coordination. Illegal immigration to the United States will continue unabated and unregulated, adding to an ever-larger underclass that lives and works at the margins of the law. Finally, the countries around the hemisphere, including the United States, will lose valuable opportunities to tap new markets, make new investments, and access valuable resources.” [Washington Times, 11/19/08. Brookings, 11/24/08]

Revising U.S. policy toward Latin America is a strategic necessity.
According to the Brookings Report, growing interdependence between the U.S. and Latin America necessitates broad cooperation and improved relations. “The key challenges faced by the United States and the hemisphere’s other countries—such as securing sustainable energy supplies, combating and adapting to climate change, and combating organized crime and drug trafficking—have become so complex and deeply transnational that they cannot be managed or overcome by any single country.”  The report adds that “more than 30 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Latin America—more than from any other region, including the Middle East. Over half of the U.S. foreign-born population is from the LAC region. These immigrants and their offspring make up a large and growing part of the U.S. labor force, and they are fast becoming an integral part of American society, politics, and culture. When economic or natural disasters strike the LAC region, the United States is often the first port of call for emigrants and refugees. The LAC countries buy a fifth of all the United States’ exports and supply a fifth of its imports. Finally, the United States and most of the LAC countries share fundamental values and ideals—including a belief in democracy, a market economy, secular government, and civil and human rights.” [Brookings, 11/24/08]

The election of Barack Obama gives the U.S. a new opportunity to deepen ties with Latin America.
  According to the New York Times, which summarized the Brookings Report’s findings, with “the election of Barack Obama, the United States has a fresh chance to reinvigorate its relations with Latin America.”  The report itself observes that “a valuable window of opportunity soon will open for the U.S. government to rethink its relations with and policies toward the LAC countries. In 2009, a new U.S. administration and Congress will take charge in Washington, opening the door to fresh thinking and new policies.”  From the region’s perspective as well, time is ripe for a shift in approach: “[I]n many LAC countries, the bicentennial celebrations in 2009 and 2010—marking the beginning of their revolutions that led to independence from Spain—will be a highly symbolic moment, one that will stimulate introspection and debate about their role in the world.”  Experts Stephen Flanagan and Johanna Mendelson Forman cite a “recent poll by Latinobarometro - an annual public opinion survey conducted in 18 countries in Latin America” which found “a strong desire for a more collegial relationship with Washington.” According to Flanagan and Mendelson Forman, “[t]his is an important opening that the Obama administration seems poised to seize.” The Brookings report identified four areas that hold the “most promise” for a potential partnership: “(1) developing sustainable energy sources and combating climate change, (2) managing migration effectively, (3) expanding opportunities for all through economic integration, and (4) protecting the hemisphere from drug trafficking and organized crime.” The report also suggested the U.S. reexamine its approach toward Cuba, as this relationship presents a stumbling block toward improving relations with Latin America. [New York Times, 11/24/08. Brookings Report, 11/24/08. Washington Times, 11/19/08]

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