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U.S., Latin America Growing More Distant, Warns Think Tank

WASHINGTON, Apr 11 2012 (IPS) - Relations between the United States and Latin America have “grown more distant” in importance part due to the latter’s persistent disagreement with U.S. policies on immigration, drugs, and Cuba, according to a new report released here Wednesday on the eve of this year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.

“The United States must regain credibility in the region by dealing seriously with an unfinished agenda of problems, including immigration, drugs, and Cuba – that stands in the way of a real partnership,” according to Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue (IAD).

The 20-page report, entitled “Remaking the Relationship”, described current inter-American relations as “generally cordial but lack(ing) in vigor and purpose”. It suggested that Washington, in particular, has failed to fully come to terms with Latin America’s strong economic and political progress over the past two decades.

It also concluded that the two sides “need to do more to exploit the enormous untapped opportunities of their relationship in economics, trade, and energy”, as well as to work more closely together on global and regional problems.

“They need to breathe new life and vigor into hemispheric relations,” it stressed.

“If the United States and Latin America do not make the effort now, the chance may slip away,” the report warned. “The most likely scenario then would be marked by a continued drift in their relationship, further deterioration of hemispheric-wide institutions, a reduced ability and willingness to deal with a range of common problems, and a spate of missed opportunities for more robust growth and greater social equity.”

Coming on the eve of the Cartagena Summit, where many of these same issues are expected to claim centre-stage, the report represents as much of a consensus of elite opinion in both Americas as can be found.

Washington’s 40-year-old drug war and its impacts on the region will be major agenda item as a result of an unprecedented push by Latin American leaders to use the forum to discuss alternative strategies that could reduce the level of violence associated with drug trafficking.

Most of IAD’s members endorsed the report; there was only one partial dissent – by a former Latin America aide in the George H.W. Bush administration who objected to the report’s suggestion that legalisation of some drugs or decriminalisation could offer viable alternative solutions to dealing with illicit drug trafficking and the violence associated with it in many Latin American countries.

Founded 30 years ago, IAD’s membership includes 100 prominent figures divided roughly evenly between U.S. nationals, including one former president (Jimmy Carter) and numerous former cabinet officials and lawmakers from both Democratic and Republican administrations, on the one hand, and leading personalities from Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin Americans, including Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ricardo Lagos, and Ernesto Zedillo, and nine other former Latin American presidents, on the other.

IAD is co-chaired by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills.

In addition to leading politicians, members also include important business figures, heads of civil society organisations (CSOs), academics, and former top managers of multilateral or hemispheric organisations, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations, the Organisation of American States (OAS), and the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), among others.

Latin America’s recent advances in reducing poverty and inequality, consolidating democratic practices, and establishing promising new ties with countries like China and India contrasts favourably, according to the report, with Washington’s travails resulting from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, growing inequality and political gridlock.

As a result, “(m)ost countries of the (Latin American) region view the United States as less and less relevant to their needs – and with declining capacity to propose and carry out strategies to deal with the issues that most concern them,” it said.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to deal effectively with three longstanding irritants to inter-American relations – immigration, drug policy, and Cuba – has hardly helped, the report noted.

The report noted that Washington’s failure to achieve meaningful immigration reform – the result, to a great extent, of its increasingly divisive politics – “is breeding resentment across the region, nowhere more so than in …Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.”

Recent signs that immigration from Mexico, in particular, has levelled off should, according to the report, offer an opportunity for U.S. policy makers to revise their views.

On drugs, the report called it “critical” that Washington respond to growing calls by Latin American leaders, most recently by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, and Guatemala’s new president, Otto Perez, to consider alternative strategies, such as regulated legalisation of marijuana and decriminalisation of mere possession of certain drugs.

The report endorsed similar conclusions reached by the 2009 Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which was chaired by Cardoso, Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria.

It said these alternatives, as well as staunching “the flow of dangerous arms southward from the United States” by drug cartels and enhanced U.S. support for national efforts at rehabilitating and re- integrating criminals and other migrants repatriated by Washington to their home countries, should serve as a “starting point for an honest U.S.-Latin American dialogue on the drug question”.

On Cuba, the only country whose head of state, at Washington’s insistence, has not been invited to Cartegena, the report asserted that Washington’s 50-year-old embargo “has not worked and, in fact, may have been counter-productive, prolonging Cuba’s repressive rule rather than ending it.”

Washington, it said, “needs to do far more to dismantle its severe, outdated constraints on normalized relations with Cuba,” while its “authoritarian regime” should be urged by its Latin and Caribbean neighbours to institute democratic reform.

On the more positive side, the report said “expanded trade, investment and energy cooperation offer the greatest promise for robust U.S.-Latin American relations” and that “intensive economic engagement by the United States may be the best foundation for wider partnerships across many issues as well as the best way to energize currently listless U.S. relations with the region.”

While the U.S. share of the Latin American market has diminished in recent years, its exports – now greater in value than its exports to Europe – have been growing “at an impressive pace”.

The report noted that the ratification of long-pending free trade accords with Colombia and Panama offer a good start, but that Washington should also seek a “broader framework for U.S. economic relations with Latin America,” despite the failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) to gain any traction.

The growing global influence of Latin America, particularly Brazil and Mexico, also calls for greater cooperation and consultation with the region’s leaders on global issues, including nuclear non- proliferation and climate change, according to the report.

It also commended Washington for its accommodation of new regional institutions, such as UNASUR, that currently exclude the U.S., but also suggested the two sides also focus in reforming the hemisphere’s oldest regional grouping, the Organisation of American States, particularly given its importance in establishing democratic norms.

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

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