Opinion: U.S. Should Not Ignore Latin America, It's Backyard Neighbor

On May 18th the New York Times reported on a private dinner hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with six former presidents from Latin America. According to the article, the Secretary was seeking a way to improve the Obama Administration’s policy towards Latin America. This event comes on the heels of the announced departure of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, ostensibly to return to academia at Georgetown University. An Administration so fond of “reset buttons” appears to be seeking a “reset button” of its own policies toward a region virtually abandoned over the last two years.

There is good reason for the Obama Administration to seek a modification in their approach. Over the last several years failures in the region have multiplied. The U.S. currently does not have high level (Ambassadorial) representation with five countries in the region. Funding for programs – specifically counter-narcotics – is decreasing. President Obama’s one trip to Latin America was overshadowed by the initiation of a bombing campaign against Libya. In a diplomatic faus pax the President even gave the order for the initiation of hostilities from the office of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, despite the fact that Brazil had abstained from supporting the UN resolution sanctioning the attack.

The situation in Central America and the Caribbean is serious. At the Organization of American States General Assembly meeting in Tegucigalpa in June of 2009, the organization voted to allow the re-admission of Cuba without even the weak language calling for democratic reforms suggested by Secretary Clinton. President Obama’s easing in relations with the Castro regime (including a loosening of travel restrictions) has been scorned by the Island’s hard-line communists. They have displayed their contempt by sentencing Alan Gross, an American USAID contractor and political prisoner to 15 years in a Cuban prison. Even a visit by President Jimmy Carter was unable to persuade the dictators to release Gross. In Honduras, the Administration’s befuddled response to the Honduran Supreme Court’s legal removal of former President Zelaya for an attempt to modify term limits – an act of treason according to their constitution – resulted in the expulsion of Honduras from the OAS and continues to cause problems in that poor Central American nation. According to recent reports, it appears that Zelaya will be allowed to return to Honduras without facing any charges – even for corruption that was rampant during his administration. President Ortega of Nicaragua continues un-opposed in his blatantly illegal path seeking re-election, a fact that looks unavoidable. A Bush era plan called the “Merida Initiative” intent upon enacting a “Plan Colombia” for Mexico and Central America to fight the cartels has received tepid support from the White House, and has under-spent even the limited funds appropriated by Congress for the initiative. Panama’s Free Trade Agreement is on ice.

In South America the story is the same. Attorney General Eric Holder’s office failed to act in time on the extradition of Walid Makled, Venezuela’s most important drug kingpin who had allegedly run 10 tons of cocaine a month into the United States. Makled had named high level Venezuelan government officials in the drug trade, a fact which clashed with the Obama Administration’s attempt to ignore Hugo Chavez, and the US subsequently lost the opportunity to dismantle the cartel of the 3rd most important drug dealer in the world. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos continues to make counter-intuitive “deals” with Presidents Chavez and Correa. Probably feeling lack of support from the White House (as evidenced by the stagnation of the promised Free Trade Agreement and the decrease in security assistance), Santos continues to miss opportunities to eliminate the FARC in his attempt to make nice with his neighbors. The most recent example of this was the Colombian Court’s decision that the files obtained from the Raul Reyes computers were inadmissible to carry cases against those responsible for aiding and abetting the FARC – a ruling undisputed by Santos. Venezuela and its Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) allies continue to run rampant across the region. Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela have accelerated their dismantling of their own democratic institutions. Ecuador carried out a referendum that eliminated the Supreme Court. Bolivia’s Morales is quietly pursuing the ouster of four opposition governors – to increase its control in the run-up to an October referendum where he too will go after the Bolivian Judiciary. Meanwhile, the ALBA continues to deepen its ties with Iran and foreign terrorist organizations; serving as a venue for money laundering, drug trafficking and financial support for the destabilization of other countries in the region.

Clinton is reported to have been keen to also address the Obama Administration’s failure with the Latino community at home – most notably the lack of any movement on immigration reform. As one of then-candidate Obama’s hallmark campaign promises, this failure has left Latinos who came out in force for President Obama feeling betrayed. Recent polls indicate that his support among the Latino Community (one in six Americans) has collapsed by 30% over the last two years. President Obama will need to regain these votes if he is to win re-election in 2012; something that makes his tepid speech on immigration reform this May more puzzling.

What emerges as the narrative for the Administration’s Latin America policy is not a pretty picture. An Administration pre-occupied with “wars of necessity” in Afghanistan and “wars of choice” in Libya has ignored our most important allies. Latinos are an essential part of the United States. The United States is the fifth largest Spanish speaking country in the world. Latinos are the largest minority (and set to be a majority in my lifetime). We share values, religion, and culture. To abandon Latinos to violent crime (which, let’s be honest, is caused by too many Americans’ ongoing and shameful consumption of illegal drugs) is unconscionable. To surrender our values for political expediency is also a mistake.

The Obama Administration’s “reset button” on its failed policies could not come at a better moment. There is still time to undo the damage. Positive steps could be moving forward with Free Trade Agreements for Panama and Colombia. The Obama Administration could accept Colombian President Santos’s offer for support in sharing the lessons they learned in countering their criminal networks with Central America and Mexico. At the OAS and other forums, the Administration could make it clear that the United States stands with its friends and recognizes that, unfortunately, it does have adversaries in the region. In this acceptance, the Administration could present a coherent policy to contain and reverse the spread of “Bolivarianism”. Secretary Clinton could replace outgoing Assistant Secretary Valenzuela with Ambassador William Brownfield, Ambassador Kristie Kenney, or Deputy Assistant Secretary for WHA Roberta Jacobson - all seen as skilled and effective career diplomats who would lend gravitas and attention to an ignored region. Finally, the Administration could re-take President Bush’s immigration reform plan – accepted as balanced and fair – and make its passage an important priority. With these simple, clear headed acts the Obama Administration could begin the slow process of regaining the trust in the United States of America which so many Latino’s have lost.

Joel D. Hirst is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can reach him at www.joelhirst.com, www.twitter.com/joelhirst and jhirst@cfr.org