Time to pay attention to Latin America in an era of change
The United States should look beyond the traditional paradigm of security, migration, and narcotics when considering relations with Latin America. It is imperative to curb the influence of Russia, China, Iran and non-state actors like Hezbollah, in the region, and increase American trade to benefit our economy. We should forge closer diplomatic and economic ties with those countries committed to the rule of law and free enterprise, while working with partners in the region to encourage other countries to follow their successful models. With elections in the next two years for many important countries in the region, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and a potential transition of power in Cuba, it is important that, in 2018, the United States increases its efforts in the region.
Most countries in Latin America fall into two diverging blocs. The first consists of states trending toward democratization, strengthening the rule of law, and a free and open economy, including more interregional trade. The second bloc consists of states hindered by Bolivarian socialism, powerful criminal organizations and falling commodity prices.
The first bloc presents the United States with many opportunities for trade and alliances for security, and consists of our strongest partners. Colombia and the United States have had a strong relationship for many years, cooperating under Plan Colombia on fighting illegal narcotics and developing trade. As coca production has soared in the wake of the FARC agreement, mutual cooperation is more important now than ever. Panama has one of the fastest growing economies in the Americas, and is one of the United States’ key partners in fighting against transnational crime and illegal migration. It has pushed back on the movement of coca from Colombia through the Darien Gap, and has widened the Panama Canal, which is a strategic asset for trade throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Argentina, under the leadership of President Mauricio Macri, has joined this group, offering a blueprint for other countries to follow. In just over two years, President Macri’s reforms have transitioned Argentina from the corrupt socialism and economic isolation of the Kirchner governments to prosperity, the rule of law and engagement in the global economy.
The second bloc of countries, led by Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, consists of several corrupt, socialist regimes that repeatedly violate the human rights of their citizens and destabilize the region by supporting drug and human trafficking, and transnational crime. Moreover, they rely on other illiberal regimes for support like China, Russia and Iran, nurturing our major geopolitical rivals right in our backyard.
Venezuela is particularly troubling. For years one of the most prosperous nations in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela has succumbed to corruption and Bolivarian socialism. The Maduro regime has continued to repress human rights, engage in narco-trafficking, and abuse the rights of its people. The election currently scheduled for May will inevitably be another whitewash organized to cement Maduro’s hold on power.
In Nicaragua right now, despite the regime's politics, businesses and commerce flourish. A highly unusual asymmetry seems to exist in Nicaragua between the foreign policy of an authoritarian regime, which is wholly inimical to United States interests, and a domestic policy which tolerates the free market and has produced positive outcomes. Unemployment is at record lows, and very few people have emigrated from the country in the last two years, as opposed to emigration from the Northern Triangle. Nicaragua participates in the CAFTA/DR Trade Agreement and engages productively in counternarcotics efforts with the United States.
The trends for many countries toward democratization and free markets has vastly improved interregional ties, which aids United States strategic goals. Under Secretary-General Luis Almagro, a revitalized Organization of American States (OAS) has taken a stronger stand against the Maduro regime in Venezuela. An invitation to Maduro to attend the yearly Summit of the Americas has been withdrawn by Peru, the host nation, because of the illegitimacy of Venezuela’s upcoming election.
Further, hemispheric trade among free market economies has expanded. The Pacific Alliance, including Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Chile, has brought the members’ economies together to stimulate interregional commerce. Panama and Costa Rica are in the process of becoming full members.
There are significant asymmetries in the perception of the relationship between the United States and Mexico and its reality. Despite the media hype about illegal immigration and trade deficits, there is a strong cooperation between the two governments on combatting drug trafficking and security. Our relationship will be tested by the NAFTA renegotiations and by the potential election of the populist former mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as president in July.
As Vice President Pence said in a speech in Argentina in August 2017, “a secure Latin America means a more secure United States of America. A prosperous Latin America means a more prosperous United States of America. And the advance of freedom and democracy in Latin America benefits the cause of freedom everywhere.” As the vice president expressed, the United States must continue to champion the pursuit of democracy, just legal institutions, and the free market across the region. I encourage Washington to remember this message while implementing our foreign policy in Latin America to promote our strategic interests.