BY ROBERT SIMPSON
Latin America Advisor
WASHINGTON,DC—Democrats will take "a more socially responsible approach" to US policy toward Latin America than Republicans when they assume control of both houses of Congress in January, US Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the US House of Representatives' subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs and the subcommittee's likely next chairman, told the Latin America Advisor during an interview last week.
Engel, who said social responsibility is "one of the reasons I'm a Democrat, frankly," said his party's demands for greater labor and environmental protections in free trade agreements with countries such as Peru and Colombia are just one part of an effort to be more socially responsible toward Latin America.
"We turn to the region as partners and not as one country dominating any region, and that's the difference [with Republicans]," he said. "We want to be partners with [Latin America] and we really want to work with them. I view this committee as facilitating that."
Engel said he would seek to reach out to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, two frequent critics of the US, and said it was counterproductive to try to punish countries with populist leaders, especially with China and other countries making inroads in the region.
"We shouldn't sit idly by and let China do these things under our nose because we're not talking to this one and we're not talking to that one," he said.
Engel said he would attempt to travel to Venezuela to meet with Chavez, whose conduct he called "outrageous."
"He [Chavez] needs to start acting like a mature leader of his country rather than like a child lashing out," he said.
The congressman said one of the first issues the subcommittee would look into under his leadership would be allegations of slave labor being used in Brazil to make products for export.
Engel noted that the US Tariff Act of 1930 bans the import of goods produced by slave labor.
"If the Tariff Act wasn't being enforced, I'd want to know why," he said.
The congressman said one of the first delegations he would lead to the region would be to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two countries with which immigrants in his district in New York have strong ties.He said he wanted to see Haitian President Rene Preval succeed in getting the impoverished Caribbean nation on a stable footing.
"It's very important that we do everything we can to take Haiti from its history of being a failed state to a country that can march with the rest of the Hemisphere," Engel said.
Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter.