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What Obama Should Do About Latin America

Obama should appoint a bipartisan panel to recommend how the U.S. can promote economic reforms and mobility in Latin America.


Across Latin America, people are celebrating the election of Barack Obama. Even though the Western Hemisphere will probably not be one of Obama’s top-tier priorities—given the U.S. economic crisis and the challenges he will face in the Middle East and Asia—there are several ways he could demonstrate his commitment to the region early in his presidency.

Here’s one suggestion: Obama should appoint a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission to recommend how the United States can promote democratic institutions, economic reforms, and social mobility in Latin America through bilateral and multilateral partnerships. The commission chair should be an elder statesman with bipartisan credibility and a strong background in the region. Thomas “Mack” McLarty, a Democrat who served as a special Latin America envoy under President Clinton, would be an excellent choice. Ideally, Obama’s Latin America panel would report back within the first six months of his administration.


Its findings would inform U.S. policy at a critical moment. The debate over Latin America has become quite polarizing, with Republicans and Democrats bickering about free trade, foreign aid, the war on drugs, how to handle Venezuela, whether to ease sanctions against Cuba, and more. When President Reagan confronted a polarizing debate over Central America in the early 1980s, he established a bipartisan commission chaired by Henry Kissinger, whose recommendations ultimately gave birth to policies such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative and a scholarship program that enabled thousands of Latin Americans to pursue studies in the United States.

Today, the outlook in Latin America is mixed. Over the past half-decade, many of Latin America’s most powerful countries—including Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Colombia—have enjoyed solid GDP growth and seen their middle classes expand. Meanwhile, smaller countries such as Panama and Peru have experienced rapid growth and become hot spots for foreign investment. Uruguay has been another impressive reformer, under the leadership of President Tabaré Vázquez. All of these countries have boosted their economic and political stability.

Unfortunately, two of the largest countries in South America—Venezuela and Argentina—have been moving in the opposite direction, while reaping the benefits of high commodity prices (at least until recently). In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez has trampled democracy and embraced authoritarianism, militarism, and socialism. In Argentina, President Cristina Kirchner has continued the populist and pro-Chávez policies of her husband, Néstor, who preceded her as president. Kirchner recently proposed legislation to nationalize Argentina’s private pension system, which was passed by the Argentine House of Representatives [on November 7, 2008]. (It still must win approval in the Senate.) The pension plan has spurred massive street protests in Buenos Aires, with thousands of Argentines marching to show their opposition.


Elsewhere in Latin America, some poor countries—including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua—have squandered opportunities and signed up with the Chávez bloc. Honduras effectively became a member of this group in August when its president, Manuel Zelaya, joined the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. However, this arrangement may prove ephemeral, for Zelaya’s move has triggered fierce domestic opposition, particularly in the Honduran business community.

El Salvador has a center-right (and staunchly pro-American) government, led by President Antonio Saca, but the country’s chief left-wing party, the FMLN, looks poised to capture the presidency next year. (Saca is limited to one five-year term.) Guatemala has a center-left president, Álvaro Colom, who seems to be pursuing a fairly balanced agenda but must address rampant crime. In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo is a former Roman Catholic bishop who has espoused radical liberation theology in the past, but the expectation is that his government will chart a more pragmatic course. As for Communist Cuba, its future under the Raúl Castro regime is highly uncertain, and the United States should be working to encourage a democratic transition.

All Latin American countries will be affected by the financial crisis and the global economic downturn, though to varying degrees. If Obama announced a new U.S. commission on Latin America, it would send a powerful message to political and business leaders throughout the region that the United States will not neglect its 600 million people.


Among other things, the commission should explore ways to upgrade cooperation in the war on drugs. The drug war is being fought in Colombia and Mexico—both of which have center-right governments that are firmly pro-American—but also in countries such as Bolivia, where the anti-American posturing of President Evo Morales is complicating U.S. efforts. As the Associated Press has reported, Morales recently “suspended anti-drug operations sponsored by the United States” and “accused the United States Drug Enforcement Administration of espionage and of financing ‘criminal groups’ trying to undermine his government.” Dealing with Morales will be no easier for the Obama administration than it was for the Bush administration.

A new bipartisan commission on Latin America could mark a big step forward for U.S. foreign policy. Obama should announce its formation upon taking office. Doing so would speak volumes about his dedication to the region. It would also energize the many Latin American officials who are so excited about his presidency.

Jaime Daremblum, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the United States, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute. The article originally appeared in the online version of The American magazine (www.american.com).


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