Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Engage the region, Don’t ignore it

by Shannon K. O'Neil
May 20, 2008

The Task Force report co-chairs, Charlene Barshefsky and General James T. Hill, published an editorial yesterday in the Miami Herald. It lays out the main themes of the report, in particular the call to recognize that U.S.-Latin American relations is increasingly about U.S. domestic policy:

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May 20, 2008 Tuesday


The Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements are stalled in Congress. The Merida Initiative — President Bush’s proposal to aid Mexico in the fight against drugs — languishes on CapitolHill. Last week, the president dismissed calls for a revised policy toward Cuba, despite the leadership change there. A wave of populist backlash has produced anti-American leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, challenging the political landscape of the region.

At the same time, Latin America is strategically, culturally, economically and politically more important to the United States than ever before. The region provides 30 percent of U.S. oil — more than the Middle East — and is a leading source of alternative fuels. Some 18 million Latin American migrants — both documented and not — now live in the United States. Latin America is one of the United States’ fastest growing regional trading partners. It is also its largest source of illegal drugs.

With the hemisphere far more integrated than most appreciate, U.S.-Latin American relations demand special attention. As co-chairs of a comprehensive effort convened by the Council on Foreign Relations to address the U.S.-Latin American relationship, we assessed U.S. policy toward its Southern neighbors and suggesting a new direction for policy to reinvigorate, bolster and support the full range of interests in the region.

The longstanding focus of U.S. policy toward Latin America — trade, democracy and drugs — no longer maximizes the interests of either partner. Rather, it is clear that our domestic and international policy agendas are deeply intertwined and that fundamental challenges for the region pose equally significant challenges for the United States. Therefore, U.S. policy priorities should be reframed around four critical areas of current concern: poverty and inequality, public security, migration and energy security.

Endemic poverty, economic inequality and public insecurity limit Latin America’s growth, allow illegal activities and organized crime to flourish amid weak institutional capacity and threaten the state and democracy. Energy and migration represent not just new policy challenges but also opportunities for all countries concerned. The United States can play a positive role in the development of Latin America’s energy markets, enhancing U.S. energy security in the process, while a true reform of immigration policy would bring economic and security benefits for the United States and Latin America alike.

Efforts to target the four areas must be coordinated, first and foremost, with Latin American governments themselves, multilateral institutions and civil society organizations. With this in mind, policy initiatives should focus foremost on helping to strengthen Latin America’s public institutions and economies. This means fully funding programs like the Millennium Challenge Account, pushing for increased micro and small enterprise funding from multilateral institutions and supporting homegrown efforts to reform police, judiciary and tax systems. Alongside these policies, the United States should ratify trade agreements with Colombia and Panama and work with Brazil to revive the Doha Round trade negotiations.

The United States should also build on the real successes of Plan Colombia — which strengthened the Colombian state and its ability to enforce the rule of law — when designing new security aid for Mexico and the Central American countries. The United States should focus on what it can do from its side of the border to reduce drug use and violence.

Re-envisioning policy toward Latin America means working toward a new immigration policy that provides better security, fairness and a more-realistic approach to the pressures of labor supply and demand. A new direction also includes supporting traditional and new energy source development.

Finally, a new policy must include working to normalize relations with all countries in the hemisphere, including Cuba. Greater openness and exchange with friends as well as rivals will enhance U.S. leadership there.

To be sure, Latin America’s future rests in the hands of its elected leaders and its people. But the United States can play a more-positive role in the region — and better promote U.S. and Latin American interests — by concentrating on the issues that are at the core of our mutual challenges, defining those activities in which U.S. involvement can make a difference, then fulfilling those commitments.

Latin America has been on the back bench of U.S. foreign policy at a time of greatest need for all partners. American attention and capacity must be directed anew to the South, as our future is inexorably tied to theirs.

Former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky and former Commander of U.S. Southern Command James T. Hill are chairs of a new CFR-sponsored report,U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality.

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