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POLITICS: Pundits Hope for Renaissance in U.S.-Latam Ties

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Mar 10 2009 (IPS) - While U.S. relations with Latin America hover near their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, the election of President Barack Obama “has opened the way for a new U.S. approach” to the region, according to the latest report released here Tuesday by the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based hemispheric think tank.

“A Second Chance, U.S. Policy in the Americas” calls for the new administration to adopt a 10-point agenda, including full consultation with its southern neighbours on steps needed to recover from the current “made in the USA” financial crisis and ending its 50-year policy of isolating Cuba, to establish a “new and better relationship” with the region.

The agenda also called for Washington to “substantially expand its security cooperation with the Mexican government” in its fight against the drug cartels and do far more to control the smuggling of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, as well as conduct a “thorough rethinking and revision of U.S. anti-drug strategy.”

Above all, Washington should adjust its policy approaches to the region to take account of its “growing independence, confidence, and competence,” according to the 40-page report which stressed that the days of the region’s willingness to defer to U.S. leadership were long gone.

“We can’t restore our traditional role in Latin America,” said Peter Hakim, IAD’s president. “We have to move on.”

The new report, which comes just five weeks before Obama meets his regional counterparts at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, is the latest in a series of studies published by major think tanks over the past year urging any post-George W. Bush administration both to take Latin America far more seriously and to treat it far more as a full and equal partner than it ever has in the past.

Last May, for example, a blue-ribbon task force of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations called for Washington to recognise not only that that its dominance over the Americas had ended, but also that, given growing European and Chinese influence in the region, “U.S. policy can no longer be based on the assumption that the United States is the most important outside actor in Latin America.”

Similarly, a hemispheric commission convened by the Brookings Institution and co-chaired by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Thomas Pickering published a major report after Obama’s election in November that also called for a new approach to Latin America and identified specific areas – including energy and climate change, migration, economic integration, and fighting drug trafficking and organised crime – on which what it called a “hemispheric partnership” should be built.

“Their enhanced confidence and autonomy will make many (Latin American and Caribbean) countries much less responsive to U.S. policies that are perceived as patronizing, intrusive and prescriptive, and they will be more responsive to policies that engage them as partners on issues of mutual concern,” according to the 32-page report, “Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations.”

The latest IAD report is largely consistent with both previous reports – particularly in its recommendation that Obama move to end Washington’s nearly 50-year-old embargo against Cuba – although it devotes much more attention to the implications of the worsening economic crisis for the region and provides a more current listing of policy recommendations designed to enhance hemispheric ties.

The report is also likely to gain attention in high places, both here and in the region. IAD is co-chaired by former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, and vice-chaired by the former head of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Enrique Iglesias and Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty. Other members of IAD’s board include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Zedillo; U.S. political thinker Francis Fukuyama; and former U.S. Amb. Donna Hrinak.

Regarding the economic crisis, the report stresses that Washington must first revive its own economy to restore demand here for Latin American exports, increase U.S. investments there, and ensure a continuing high level of remittances from Latin Americans workers back to their home communities.

“But the United States must also avoid protectionist measures that would reduce Latin American access to U.S. markets and investments – and use its influence to increase the resources of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and multilateral banks to help ensure that Latin America and other developing regions can secure the capital they need for their own stimulus packages,” it said. “An economically flourishing Latin America is good for the U.S. economy.”

While new trade initiatives will not be a priority either for the U.S. or most of Latin America, the report went on, the Obama administration should also try to complete the unfinished agenda it inherited from Bush, specifically in gaining ratification for pending free-trade accords with Colombia and Panama, restoring trade preferences to Bolivia, and seeking understandings with Brazil on a “common approach to global and regional trade negotiations.”

U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba, it said, are “an anachronism that serves mainly to isolate the United States form the rest of the hemisphere.” Moreover, “nothing will do more to convince the region’s governments that the Obama administration is committed to changing its approach to hemispheric affairs.”

The report warns that Mexico “may emerge as the new administration’s most difficult foreign policy test in the Western Hemisphere if criminal violence continues to escalate and threaten the country’s security.” It also notes that a prolonged economic downturn “will compound the problem” and calls for the two governments to develop a “joint border authority to better coordinate security activities.”

Similarly, Washington should step up its cooperation with other countries affected by organised crime. In addition to cracking down against gun-running from the U.S. to the region, Washington should also reconsider its policy of deporting convicted felons which Latin American governments claim is exporting violence to their countries.

Comprehensive immigration reform that, among other things, would legalise the status of some 12 million undocumented migrants living in the U.S. should also “be high on the new president’s agenda,” according to the report which called for “quick action…to suspend construction of the wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and better protect the rights of illegal migrants in the United States.”

Washington should also try to ease bilateral tensions with Venezuela initially by offering to re-instate ambassadors that were withdrawn last September. At the same time, Obama “should keep its expectations modest – and recognize that the best way to offset Venezuela’s activities in the hemisphere is to enhance U.S. cooperation with other Latin American countries.” It should also move to normalise ties with Bolivia.

Warning that the next year will be a “period of extreme hardship for Haiti,” the report called for immediately suspending of the deportation of undocumented Haitian migrants – something that Obama has so far rejected – increasing aid, and encouraging multilateral banks to forgive the country’s debt obligations.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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