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Helping Latin America Help Itself

Author: Stephanie Hanson
May 13, 2008

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U.S. policy in Latin America has long focused on opening economies, strengthening democracy, and battling drug trafficking. Over time the United States can point to a growing number of market-oriented economies and improved bilateral ties with some states. But region-wide, the United States faces lingering mistrust over its policies, some of it embedded in resentment over the Washington Consensus (PDF), a set of 1990s macroeconomic policies that critics say failed to benefit the poor. Recent speeches from the Bush administration have focused on issues of social justice, but funding for such initiatives remains limited. Latin American experts lament the lack of sustained U.S. attention in the region, with groups such as the Washington Office on Latin America faulting U.S. policy for increasing anti-Americanism (PDF). A new CFR Independent Task Force on U.S. policy toward Latin America suggests that strained relations in the region “are less a result of alleged U.S. policy failings than a product of deeper changes: while the basic tenets of U.S. policy have not changed, Latin America has.”

The CFR task force, a bipartisan group of top policy experts, calls for Washington to transform its policy toward the region to target four priority areas: poverty and inequality; citizen security; migration; and energy security and integration. It urges U.S. policymakers to study how to bolster poverty-fighting measures—such as microfinance and conditional cash transfers—that have already met success in individual countries. The Task Force also argues that Washington can learn from the way Latin American governments have adapted to migration—for instance, by adopting policies to encourage circular migration and remittance flows. “U.S. policies lag far behind those of Latin American governments in adapting to the realities of increased human mobility,” the report says.

Another potential benefit of improved regional ties is energy security. The region provides nearly 30 percent of U.S. oil imports, but increasing resource nationalization in Venezuela and Bolivia has imperiled future production levels, as this Backgrounder discusses. Experts suggest there are opportunities for U.S.-Latin America cooperation on promoting alternative energy sources. The United States and Brazil are the biggest global producers of ethanol, and experts such as David Rothkopf argue that the region has the potential to become a global leader in biofuels production. Skyrocketing global food prices have dampened enthusiasm for biofuels in recent months, however, as evidenced by a recent TIME magazine cover story titled “The Clean Energy Scam.”

The recommendations from CFR’s task force emerge in the middle of a U.S. presidential cycle that has so far largely neglected Latin American policy. Discussion of U.S. policy toward Latin America on the campaign trail has been confined to the occasional remark on Cuba or Mexican immigrants. The current U.S. political mood on two subjects of resonance for the region—trade and immigration—is somewhat dim, with the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 and a free trade agreement with Colombia facing strong congressional resistance. Writing on the Colombia trade agreement, two experts opine in the Latin Business Chronicle that, “In 2008, voters may rightfully begin to ask who lost an entire region. In this case, it will be ‘Who lost Latin America?’” Yet Washington Post columnist Marcela Sanchez argues that if the United States manages to address its domestic challenges, “few regions stand to benefit as much as Latin America.” And experts and policymakers are looking to the election of a new president as an opportunity to change course in the region. CFR Fellow Shannon O'Neil says the change of administration offers a “big opportunity for recalibration.”

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