For President-Elect Obama, a New Agenda for Latin America

After Bush, there is an opportunity to build new ties in the Americas, Stephen Schlesinger writes.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (R) is greeted by his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon after a press conference at the presidential residence Los Pinos, in Mexico City.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (R) is greeted by his Mexican counterpart Felipe Calderon.

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President Obama will be facing multiple crises when he takes office in January 2009. One of those crises, which is not often mentioned but may turn out to be a major one, will happen in Latin America—and very soon. That region was, as most observers agree, notoriously neglected during the eight years of the Bush presidency. And it was not a topic of any serious discussion during the presidential campaign. But it may be a matter that soon haunts our country.

For the Americas are crucial to the U.S. future—especially in today's calamitous economic downturn. Just look at the statistics. From 1996 to 2000, total U.S. merchandise trade with the hemisphere grew by 139 percent, compared with 96 percent for Asia and 95 percent for Europe.

The United States depends critically on Latin sources for its oil supplies; it gets 30 percent of its imports from the region, notably from Mexico and Venezuela, as opposed to 20 percent from the Middle East. And the Latin continent is where most of the illegal narcotics come from. Finally, Latinos now constitute 15 percent of the U.S. population, representing nearly 50 percent of recent U.S. population growth.

Yet Washington has spent scant time working on strengthening its trade or commercial relations over the past decade. While it has signed bilateral free trade pacts with 11 Latin nations (two are still awaiting congressional approval), it has, as of yet, no deal with Brazil, the continent's largest country as well as our second largest Latin trading partner (after Mexico), and it has not effectively pursued a region-wide free trade agreement covering all 34 countries of the hemisphere.

Instead, Washington has heralded as its main Latin-related policies the following: helping Columbia's fight against its FARC insurgency, tightening the U.S. embargo on Cuba, seeking to break up al Qaeda cells in Paraguay, cracking down on drug smugglers in Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia, and arresting and deporting illegal aliens. And the Bush administration has spent an inordinate amount of its political energy on attempting to counter the more militant leftist leaders in the region, especially those in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, using diplomatic threats and suspension of aid and other retaliatory measures. This has ratcheted up tensions to the point that the first two of those governments have expelled U.S. ambassadors, while Ecuador is shutting down a U.S. antidrug operation.

This intense focus on security has come at the expense of the more pressing needs of the Latin region, namely helping to develop its economic and social structures and raising living standards and creating a more stable Latin middle class as well as stemming out-migration and reducing drug-related violence.

A new administration must begin to reorient American power toward a more measured and realistic approach to dealing with Latin America.

First, the new president must devise a comprehensive plan to help elevate living conditions throughout the hemisphere via broad-based trade pacts and targeted U.S. aid. As of today, 40 percent of Latins still live in poverty. Consideration should be given to resurrecting broad-based social programs like those that have worked in the past with the Latin community—such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy and President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress.

Second, Washington must begin to reduce its unhealthy reliance on military programs in the Americas.

Third, America must also start to reach out to nations and leaders who don't necessarily like us on the grounds that, while we can disagree, we can still co-exist with one another.

President-elect Obama gave a lengthy speech last May that suggests that he is aware of this situation. In his address, he called for a new "Alliance for the Americas" in which he promised to support the consolidation of democracy around the hemisphere, including giving financial backing to independent judiciaries, free presses, progressive police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law. He also said he would continue the battle against drug smuggling but would confront it not just with force but with corruption prosecutions, crime reduction, and crackdowns on drug lords.