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Romney Right on Latin America

Romney’s vision is to lay the groundwork for a better future in our hemisphere.


The final question in last month’s Republican national security debate asked each candidate to identify an issue requiring more American focus.  Governor Mitt Romney, who I am supporting for the Republican nomination, got it exactly right: China is the long-term challenge, he said, and Iran the immediate one, but Latin America is the one that demands greater attention.  I couldn’t agree more.  In Florida, we can see very clearly both Latin America’s threats and its opportunities.  

As a virulently anti-American strand of socialism has spread from Cuba to Venezuela and beyond, it has undermined democracy and economic opportunity  and sent waves of refugees to Florida’s shores.   America has benefited greatly from these arrivals—I am one myself —but they serve as a constant reminder of lives lost and dreams destroyed, and the effect of events abroad on Americans at home.  

Authoritarian leaders are expanding their influence in the region at America’s expense and interfering with cooperative efforts on issues like illicit drug trafficking.   They have even welcomed terrorists like Iranian-backed Hezbollah to our doorstep, allowing terrorist operations in the region and establishing direct flights to Damascus and Tehran.  

Florida is equally familiar with the opportunities offered by strong, democratic allies.  It is America’s largest exporter to the Caribbean and Central America, and among the largest to South America.   Yet we have only begun to tap the potential of close economic and cultural ties among like-minded partners within our hemisphere.  While Asia receives most of the attention, Latin America has been our fastest growing trading partner over the past decade.   To continue that growth we must continue to advance the causes of free trade, free enterprise, and individual freedom.

Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Latin America is also the best way to address its threats.  If we want to strengthen alliances, isolate adversaries, and support peoples trapped under authoritarian rule, we must clearly contrast the disaster of Cuba and Venezuela’s authoritarian model with the promise of economic and political freedom.  Drawing that contrast requires the aggressive promotion of closer trading relationships that facilitate economic and cultural exchanges and demonstrate the superiority of free markets and democracy.

Unfortunately, as in so many areas of national policy, President Obama has gotten it exactly backward.  He failed to confront Hugo Chavez and he relaxed sanctions on Cuba without obtaining any concessions in return.   He even supported Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, an ally of Chavez, as Zelaya clung to power in defiance of the Honduran constitution, courts, and legislature.

While reaching out to dictators, President Obama has neglected our allies.  Most notably, he allowed trade agreements with Colombia and Panama to languish for years to curry political favor with Big Labor.  But those countries already exported most of their goods to the United States duty-free.   The only practical effects of the delay were to keep more American goods out of the Colombian and Panamanian markets for longer, while damaging our relationships with allies and our standing in the region.  

Mitt Romney has the right agenda for Latin America, which is one reason we must elect him as our next president.  Romney understands that we must foster a regional commitment to democratic governance and free market collaboration.  In his first 100 days in office, he will launch a vigorous campaign of public diplomacy and trade promotion throughout our hemisphere extolling the virtues of democracy and free trade.

He has also proposed an innovative idea—the Reagan Economic Zone—to create an open market for all nations committed to the principles of free enterprise.  Today most of our trade agreements are bilateral, meaning they are specific to the United States and each individual partner nation.  Thus while we have agreements with many Latin American countries, they may not have agreements with each other.  In the Reagan Economic Zone, by contrast, all participants will agree to free trade on fair terms with every other participant.  

Our numerous free trade partners in the region will be natural members, thanks to the key free-market commitments already incorporated in our trade agreements.  Those nations already account for more than $100 billion in trade with us,  and their combined GDP approaches $1 trillion.   As the Zone grows, it will serve as a strong magnet attracting new participants and encouraging them to adopt the same free market principles.  The result will not only be greater stability and security throughout our hemisphere, but also a larger and more robust market into which America can sell our goods and services. 

The United States must pay more attention to Latin America and recognize its importance to our future economic prosperity and national security.   Mitt Romney’s vision is to draw our allies near, clearly reject our adversaries, and lay the groundwork for a better future in our hemisphere.

Carlos Gutierrez served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 2005 to 2009.  He is the Chair of Governor Romney’s Trade Policy Advisory Group. 

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