Obama: Improve Relations with Latin America

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of the author’s testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on February 4.

The relationship between the United States and Latin America is on the rocks. Both a new spirit of respect and improved policies are crucial to building a constructive partnership between the United States and the region under President Barack Obama’s leadership.

Approval of the United States has diminished in Latin America. In Latinobarómetro surveys between 2000 and 2005, approval ratings of the United States fell by more than 20 points in Ecuador, Chile, Brazil, and Bolivia; more than 30 points in Mexico and Uruguay; and more than 40 points in Argentina, Paraguay, and Venezuela. In the 2006 Latinobarómetro survey, President George W. Bush was among the hemisphere’s most unpopular leaders, tied with Hugo Chávez and scoring just a tad better than Fidel Castro.

In a 2007 BBC survey, 64% of Argentines, 57% of Brazilians, 53% of Mexicans and 51% of Chileans had “mainly negative” views of the United States. Particularly indicative of the erosion of U.S. influence was the contrast between the 1994 Summit of the Americas, when 34 countries of the hemisphere signed an agreement for a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and the 2005 Summit, when Brazil and other Latin American countries called for the U.S. to end its agricultural subsidies prior to the resumption of talks for the FTAA.

Bush’s Legacy

What went wrong? As elsewhere, overwhelming majorities opposed the Iraq War and the U.S. treatment of detainees at Guantánamo. In its invasion of Iraq without the approval of the United Nations, the Bush administration reminded Latin Americans of the multiple U.S. interventions in Latin America during the 20th century. Also, the Bush administration’s welcoming of a 2002 coup against President Hugo Chávez dismayed the region’s leaders, who in the Inter-American Democratic Charter had just stipulated the steps the Organization of American States had to take to sanction coups in the region. In general, the administration was considered hypocritical — not playing by the rules that it wanted others to follow — and President Bush was perceived as arrogant and incompetent.

At the same time as Latin Americans grew more critical of the United States, they became interested in China’s potential role in the region. Trade between Latin America and China increased tenfold between 2000 and 2007, to over $100 billion (although this figure was still well below the $560 billion in U.S.-Latin American trade). Although China’s investment in Latin America is only a fraction of the investment of the European Union (the largest investor in the region) or of the United States, it’s increasing. In the Latin American nations where China’s role has increased the most, China is often perceived as an emerging superpower. In Peru, for example, despite the new free-trade agreement with the United States and two visits by President Bush, China was rated more favorably than any other country in a Catholic University survey; the United States finished seventh.

Latin American nations are also more confident of their own capacity to play significant roles in the hemisphere. Overall, the last five years were good ones for the region: economic growth was robust, poverty levels declined, and democracy deepened. These trends were particularly evident in Brazil; also, as Latin America’s largest country with new oil discoveries to boot, it became Latin America’s foremost.

Further, for the first time since the Cold War, the United States faces in the region an adversary with ambitious foreign-policy goals and the resources to pursue his goals: Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. With record-high oil prices, the Chávez government has courted Chinese investment, conducted naval exercises with Russia, and befriended Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s estimated that, in 2006, Venezuela spent $2.1 billion abroad and that, in Latin America, Venezuela was spending five times as much as the U.S. on aid. In part as a result, the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alternative in the Americas (ALBA) now includes not only Venezuela and Cuba but also Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Dominica. The tensions between the United States and Venezuela and Bolivia are highlighted by the fact that, as of September 2008, all respective ambassadors had been withdrawn.

Most recently, the U.S.-Latin America relationship has been battered by the global financial crisis. Rightly or wrongly, many Latin Americans are blaming the United States for the crisis.

Respect

Former President Bill Clinton said that what matters most for the United States in the world is “the power of our example, not the example of our power.” This is particularly true in Latin America, which shares American democratic values more than any other region except Europe. So President Barack Obama has gotten off to a good start by moving to close the Guantánamo detention facilities.

Obama will have an excellent opportunity to strike a new tone with Latin America’s leaders at the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19, 2009. First and foremost, the president should listen — which fortunately by all accounts he does very well. And, the president can show that he is listening by changing U.S. policies in the recommended direction. Also, given that Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales are expected to be at the summit, hopefully fists will be unclenched, handshakes made, and better relationships begun.

Three Smarter Policies

Current U.S. policies toward Cuba, drug control, and immigration have been in place for 20 years or more, and it’s now very clear that they have failed. These policies are unwelcome in Latin America, where they are considered anachronisms, maintained only because they are responses to U.S. domestic politics. Given the robust agreement within the Democratic Party on the need for change in these policies, it’s appropriate that they be the Obama administration’s top priorities in the region.

Cuba
For nearly half a century, the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo and other sanctions against Cuba, with the expressed goal of a democratic transition on the island. Clearly, this hasn’t happened. For decades, U.S. sanctions have been overwhelmingly repudiated in the United Nations and other forums. Every other government in the hemisphere has diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba. And opinions in the United States are changing: In a recent Zogby poll, more than 60% favored free travel to Cuba and U.S. trade with Cuba, and in a Florida International University poll even 55% of Miami-Dade Cuban Americans favored ending the trade embargo.

It’s an excellent moment for change. Perhaps two-thirds of Cubans are of African descent, and they’re particularly excited about Obama’s presidency. The more Obama reaches out, the more difficult it will be for the Castro brothers to blame the United States for Cuba’s problems.

During his campaign, Obama promised unlimited family travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans. But he should go further. As leading experts on Latin America recommended in a 2008 Brookings Institution report, all restrictions on travel and remittances as well as the “communications embargo” should be ended immediately; Cuba should be removed from the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism; and cultural, scholarly, sports, and official exchanges should be encouraged.

Drug Control
U.S. drug-control policy has failed. Despite recent annual expenditure of about $20 billion on domestic law enforcement and supply reduction, U.S. drug use hasn’t declined significantly since the early 1990s and the price of cocaine has fallen. In part due to draconian drug laws, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Under the program Plan Colombia, more than $6 billion was spent with the stated goal of cutting coca cultivation in Colombia (the major producer) by 50% from 2000 to 2006, but in fact coca cultivation rose slightly. In the Andean region as a whole, coca cultivation in 2007 was at a 20-year high. Not only has U.S. policy failed to achieve its objectives, but the methods used to try to reduce supply — in particular, aerial fumigation — endangers and alienates nearby communities.

What should be done? Top Democratic Party analysts agree on several important recommendations, including this one: The United States should try to stop arms smuggling from this country to the region. About 2,000 guns cross the border every day and they constitute roughly 90% of the guns used by Mexico’s drug traffickers. In particular, the United States should ratify both the UN protocol against illegal firearms and the Inter-American convention against firearms. There is also consensus that chronic use should be considered a public health, not a criminal, problem, and that drug courts and drug treatment programs should be expanded. (The cost of incarceration for one year is about $34,000, versus $3,300 for one year of substance abuse treatment.)

Like many other analysts, I believe decriminalization would best reduce harm. Decriminalization would have the major advantage of reducing drug-fueled organized crime, which of course is currently ravaging parts of Mexico. Also, violent organizations that were once insurgencies, namely Peru’s Shining Path and Colombia’s FARC, endure today primarily because of drug money and coca growers’ opposition to supply reduction.

Although large majorities of Americans believe that the U.S. war on drugs is failing, they aren’t clear about what should be done. Currently, approximately 40% of Americans support the legalization of cannabis. Perhaps, given the success of such movies as Traffic and No Country for Old Men and the admission of marijuana smoking by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as well as Michael Phelps, it’s time for more public debate and education about illegal drugs.

Immigration
A third failed policy is immigration, which centered since the mid-1990s primarily on border control. Since 1996, the number of border patrol officers has more than tripled, and currently a 700-mile-long, 16-foot “wall” is being constructed along the border at a cost of about $9 billion. However, since 2000 the possibility that an illegal immigrant is apprehended at the border hasn’t risen significantly, and the number of illegal immigrants from Latin America has increased by roughly 40%. Meanwhile, the border “wall” is deeply insulting, especially to Mexicans. Also, especially from South America, illegal immigrants have often overstayed their visas, and as a result visas have become more and more difficult to secure.

The prospects for control of illegal immigration are much better at the workplace than at the border. Laws against the hiring of illegal workers should be strictly enforced; to this end, a new, secure Social Security card should be introduced, the E-Verify system improved, and fines against employers of undocumented workers increased. Upon strict enforcement at the workplace, the immigration-control practices at the U.S. border and U.S. consulates, which are prone to racial stereotyping and are often demeaning, should become more humane. (Indeed, with or without other changes in U.S. immigration policy, transparency in the visa process and consular officers’ respect for all visa applicants must be increased.) Also upon strict enforcement at the workplace, guest-worker programs could be expanded.

Under certain conditions, a path to legal status — at least a visa if not citizenship —should be provided for illegal immigrants. Almost all illegal immigrants are in the United States because their work is welcome in this country; yet, they live in the shadows, with horrific tolls on their families. For most Americans, this isn’t ethically acceptable. About two-thirds of likely U.S. voters (and 80% of likely Democratic voters) support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who pay taxes, pay a penalty, and learn English.

Conclusion

With a new tone of respect and new, smart policies on Cuba, drug control, and immigration, the Obama administration should find much greater Latin American interest in cooperation on other important but very complex issues, such as economic integration and poverty reduction and also energy and climate change. Further, it should become easier, over time, to engage President Chávez and other ALBA leaders and work together with the U.S. toward a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic hemisphere.

Cynthia McClintock, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University.