Looking South

As President Obama begins his second term, he is likely to fix his attention on two key parts of the globe, the Middle East and Asia. The White House is eager to bring the war in Afghanistan to a close and restart the stalled Middle East peace process. The Obama team is also understandably concerned about the emergence of China as a global power and about the balance of power in the Pacific. The White House clearly has a busy foreign policy agenda, but that should not preclude it from focusing renewed attention on another crucial area of the world: Latin America.

The United States has a checkered relationship with its neighbors to the south. Too often the U.S. government improperly intervened in the affairs of these sovereign nations in pursuit of self-interest. Yet the United States has also sought to play a positive role in the development of Latin America, notably through the Alliance for Progress, an economic aid program launched by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That program had limited success, but it serves as an important reminder of the positive relationship that the United States should try to cultivate with Latin America. Much has changed in 50 years, of course. The United States is no longer the only economic superpower in the Western hemisphere. Brazil, in particular, has emerged as a key trading partner with China and is seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The relationship with Latin America needs to be rethought in light of the emergence of several important regional players.


President Obama is poised to tackle immigration reform, an issue that will have important ramifications for U.S. relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries. Failure on the part of the United States to address the plight of undocumented immigrants has led to frustration and uncertainty in Latin America. Yet immigration reform is just one piece of the policy puzzle. Other initiatives are needed as well, and not just additional U.S. funding for the government drug wars in Mexico, Central America and Colombia, for example. If the United States wants to exert a positive influence in the Western hemisphere, then courage and creativity will be required. These countries deserve special attention from President Obama in his second term.

Mexico. More than two-thirds of the population of Latin America reside in two countries, Mexico and Brazil. Given its size and proximity to the United States, Mexico is a crucial ally. Much of the news coming from Mexico focuses on the drug wars near the U.S. border that have claimed tens of thousands of lives. This is a very important story, one to which the church in Mexico has recently drawn attention through the ministry of Bishop Raúl Vera, O.P., of Saltillo, who has faulted both the government and the drug cartels for their complicity in the ongoing violence. Yet the drug wars should not be the only focus of U.S. attention.

Mexico recently elected a new president. Enrique Peña Nieto is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has governed Mexico for most of its modern history. U.S. observers are optimistic about a Nieto presidency, but the young leader faces significant challenges. A stunning 51.3 percent of the Mexican population remains in poverty, up from 42.7 percent in 2006. It is still unclear whether Mr. Nieto is an independent leader or a functionary of the PRI machine. Mr. Nieto deserves U.S. support, but he should not be the only center of interest. Mexico has a strong opposition movement, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who came close to winning the presidency in 2006. Youth and student movements are also showing their political muscle, as evidenced by the large demonstrations following the election of Mr. Nieto last July. Mexico’s Congress has also played a key role in instituting government reforms. U.S. policy toward Mexico must take into account these subtle political dynamics.

Brazil. A growing economic force, Brazil is asserting power in the region and on the global stage. Under President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil refused to support U.N. intervention in Libya and Syria. Brazil will continue to exert influence on other powers in the region, including Venezuela, where anti-American sentiment is strong. Yet Brazil should not be seen as a rival to the United States, but instead a major player worthy of engagement and collaboration. “We’re all focused on China. Latin America is a huge opportunity for us,” Governor Mitt Romney said during a presidential debate. He was right, and that opportunity is nowhere greater than in Brazil.

Brazil will host three major world events in the next four years: World Youth Day in 2013, the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. The government is using this opportunity to improve living conditions in the infamous slums of Rio, an important step but one that should not emphasize gentrification over the needs of Brazil’s poor. The Obama administration seems to understand that Brazil must be cultivated; in 2011 Mr. Obama visited the country even as the Arab Spring raged. Brazil’s combination of state-owned industry and free-market policies may seem an odd mix to American observers, but it is a historic trend in Latin America, and one that is working in Brazil despite a recent slowdown in growth.

Brazil has the most Catholics of any country in the world. The church in Brazil will play a prominent role in worldwide church affairs in years to come. On the issue of climate change, the church can help shape opinion in the world and in the church. Bishop Dom Erwin Kräutler, C.PP.S., of Xingu, Brazil, has written about how droughts and severe storms caused by climate change have had adverse effects on the region’s farmers. The United States must pay attention to the experience of countries like Brazil and partner with them to take concrete steps to address the causes of climate change.

Cuba. For a small island country, Cuba has played an outsized role in U.S. policy toward Latin America. Resistance to the Castro regime remains strong in the United States, but there are signs that the U.S. government’s hardline position may be softening. President Obama’s decision in 2010 to ease the travel ban to Cuba was generally met with support. Since Mr. Obama’s re-election in November, there has been growing pressure on the administration to lift the embargo. Even some Cuban-Americans favor ending the 50-year-old policy in hopes of hastening economic reforms in Havana.

Still, regime change in Cuba remains official U.S. policy. Now that Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, a Cuban American, is no longer chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, there might be an opening for Congress to change course. The White House should, at the very least, abandon its commitment to regime change—a course repudiated by the Cuban Catholic Church, among others—in favor of letting the Cuban people determine their political future. Doing so would send a strong signal to all of Latin America that the United States is not interested in interfering in their internal political affairs. Though Cuba may be small, it offers a unique opportunity for the United States to set a new tone in its dealings with Latin America.

Venezuela and Colombia. For years these two countries represented the two poles of U.S. engagement with Latin America. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez has made a career of demonizing the United States. In Colombia the former president, Álvaro Uribe, distinguished himself from his neighbors by his fealty to Washington. Yet the dynamics in both countries are quickly changing.

The election of President Obama in 2008 robbed Mr. Chávez of his bogeyman, President George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Mr. Chávez’s health is in decline, which could lead to a change in leadership and, possibly, an improvement of relations with the United States. Reports indicate that the two sides have discussed the prospect of restoring full diplomatic relations. In Colombia the new president, Juan Manuel Santos, has instituted a number of surprising policy initiatives since his election in 2010. Mr. Santos served as the defense minister under President Uribe, which led many to expect that he would, like the former president, make the battle against the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a top priority. Yet Mr. Santos is currently engaged in peace talks with FARC, and his most notable achievement is a law that compensates victims who have been displaced by ongoing violence between the government and rebel groups.

Venezuela and Colombia serve as a reminder that internal politics in Latin America is fluid and complex. The United States cannot assume that any one country is an absolute enemy or an unquestioning friend. Channels of communication should remain open to allow for change to occur.

Central America. When President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress in 1961, the poverty of Latin America was a top concern. Poverty may no longer be a systemic problem in countries like Chile, but it remains a pressing issue in Central America. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in Latin America after Haiti. Nearly half of Guatemala’s children are malnourished. Both countries are over-reliant on a single export crop, like coffee. Meanwhile, the seven countries on the Central American isthmus are uniquely vulnerable to hurricanes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. Add to this the violence fueled by the drug trade, and the future of Central America seems dim.

U.S. aid to these countries is minimal. That should change. Increased financial assistance to Central America will have long-term effects and will help repair the damage left by U.S. support for Central American dictators during the cold war era. The U.S. church, too, should continue to cultivate ties with the church in Central America [see “Still ‘Presente’?” page 17]. Finally, given the violence and instability engendered by the drug trade in Central America and Mexico, the United States should consider how its severe and increasingly myopic approach to drug abuse at home contributes to a rise in bloodshed abroad.

For nearly a century the relationship between the United States and Latin America alternated between intrusion and neglect. If President Obama continues that trend by looking east and failing to look south, the United States will become increasingly irrelevant to its neighbors to the south. The U.S. government can no longer look upon Latin America as a vehicle for its own interests. It must come to see Latin America for what it is, a diverse and complex society deserving of our full diplomatic scrutiny and support.

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