James T. Hill, the former commander of U.S. Southern Command, says many of the issues affecting U.S. relations with Latin America are tied to domestic political matters in the United States. Foremost among these, he says, is the need for a comprehensive plan to solve the problem of illegal immigrants. He also says it is time for the United States to abandon its efforts to isolate Cuba, and instead to start a dialogue with the country. On security issues, he says the real security threats come from gang crimes and other internal issues, and that there is little need for most Latin American countries to have such large standing armies. What is necessary, Hill says, is for the armies to improve the local police forces.
Let's say it's the middle of November and you've been elected president and you're sitting down with your national security team talking about issues coming up. What's your first thought about Latin America?
I'd probably have to have somebody remind me about it. That's sad because as our Task Force report makes clear, the issues affecting Latin America are primarily domestic policy issues. In one way or another, the new administration will have to deal with those issues that affect Latin America because those issues directly affect us in very real ways. Example: the immigration issue. Once we've gotten past the election we're going to have to have some kind of immigration reform because a country that could not evacuate people out of New Orleans from Katrina cannot move 12 million people back to Latin America. It's ludicrous to think that we can do that unless we become something of a police state.
Let's talk about immigration for the moment. President Bush had an initiative that did not get passed.
I think that President Bush's initiative on immigration was pretty sound. We're going to have to come up with something similar to that, it seems to me, and I think that will be very difficult because its becoming a very polarized issue.
It's interesting, because as the report points out, immigrants by and large are crucial to the American economy, right?
Absolutely correct. I was at a meeting with [former Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan and somebody asked him about it and Greenspan said we ought to be thanking the Mexican government. They're sending us some of their best workers. It's good for the United States economy.
Of course the Task Force report has some recommendations. Do you want to just touch on those?
We tried to write the report with specific recommendations that would be useful towards producing a coherent policy on immigration. There may be foreign policy issues in terms of international issues dealing with Latin America but the reality of life is that all of those issues are domestic issues.
On security issues, which you're very familiar with, the report says there are no wars going on in Latin America. But what are the main security problems?
The main security problems are internal violence, especially in Central America and Mexico and in parts of Brazil in the big slums in Sao Paulo and Rio. You do have continuing drug issues. You have FARC in Colombia. Those are all security issues, but you are correct, there are not armies facing off against armies. The report plainly says that where the military is fighting drugs in Colombia, for example, we need to continue to support that. Where the military needs to be moving into more of a police apparatus, we need to help that also. When I was the SouthCom commander I would go around and talk to other generals. I would say "You know, now that you are an army in support of a democracy, you really ought to take a hard look at your role in support of that democracy because one of these days voters are going to wake up and say, 'Wait a minute, why am I spending all of this money on an army?'" That's a reasonable question that democracies ought to be having. What I kept saying—and this includes the understandable baggage that many of those countries were ruled by military dictatorships—is you need to take your armies and begin to evolve them into security forces, more like police, because you need them for internal support against drugs, gangs, those kind of things. The argument has always been that the army is not trained to be policemen. So train them.
Is there a social stigma against the police in Latin America? I have the sense that the military sees itself as a special class and that police are way beneath them and corrupt.
In many cases that is correct. But the alternative is that your country will continue to erode. Let's take Guatemala for example. The gangs will never take over the country, but the gangs will become so dysfunctional to society in terms of the violence and in terms of disrupting the economy, tourism, and forcing people out of the area, that you will have to deal with them. Now if you don't have the trained police to do that, then you're going to need to use the army. As you're well aware, in Guatemala this would be a nightmare. I used to say this to my general buddies—"you are that special class of citizen, the defender of your nation and you're not corruptible, fine. Then do that but do it from a police stand point. Improve the police. You can do it with your own forces."
What should the United States do?
We can assist in police training. And when you have to continue fighting the drug war, you do that by continually working on the plan to support Colombia, even though the report accurately says that the Plan Colombia hasn't stopped the flow of drugs. But think how bad life would be today, six years into Plan Colombia, six years into President Alvaro Uribe, who has rebuilt that nation into a dynamic democracy where murder rates are down and union killings and kidnappings are down dramatically. What if we hadn't had Plan Colombia? What if we hadn't fought the drug war? How bad do you think it would be now? The answer, in my opinion, is pretty awful. Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state when Mr. Uribe was elected. With our assistance, he's taken that wonderful country, the second oldest democracy in the hemisphere, and reenergized it. We ought to be supporting him. But we're going to poke him in the eye and not give him a Free Trade agreement, which is awful, just ludicrous in my opinion.
We'll just touch on that for a second. Is there any question in the Task Force’s mind that trade agreements with Colombia and Panama should be passed?
When we discussed the agreements in the Task Force there weren't any dissenting votes. We all wanted them to pass. It was unanimous. It's the same way it was on the issue of saying our Cuban policy is outdated. That was also unanimous.
It's interesting that it seems that everyone who is interested in Latin America seems to believe that the Cuba policy is outdated and steps should be taken to see what normalization is possible with Cuba. But it's hard to get anyone in government to do it right?
It's very hard only because I think it’s a political issue in Miami. I live in Miami but the fact is that no one outside of Miami in this country gives a whip about Cuba, especially in terms of beginning a greater dialogue. If our policy has been to bring democracy to Cuba, it has failed on its face. Castro has outlived ten U.S. presidents. What have we accomplished with it? The answer is nothing. You don't have to say that you condone its human rights abuses to talk with it. We talk with China every day and what happens is that our Latin American friends and allies look at us as hypocritical and they are correct.
What benefits would accrue from a more normal relationship with Cuba?
Several. One is that you could begin to develop a trade relationship with Cuba. At least business could go down there. In the best of times there would be a democratic Cuba, ninety miles from Miami, that would become a huge trading bloc just for Miami alone. I envision for example large condo complexes in Havana with American retirees living pretty well, a ferry-ride from Miami, which is in fact the hospital center for Latin America. That would be good for Cuba. That would good for theUnited States. There would be a flow of goods.
The other thing that would occur almost immediately in my opinion is that the United States would begin to rebuild its image in Latin America, which it desperately needs to do, by recognizing we have a bad policy, and by stopping being hypocritical about it. I liken this to the appeasement debates that went on last week [stemming from President Bush’s speech in Israel saying that talking with Iran or Hamas was tantamount to “appeasement”]. Appeasement is not Neville Chamberlain [British prime minister who signed the Munich agreement with Germany in 1938]. You know Neville Chamberlain not because he talked to Hitler. He's an appeaser because he gave away the Sudetenland [part of Czechoslovakia with a large German population that the Czechs were forced to cede to Germany as a result of the Munich conference]. That was the appeasement. We're right to talk to people—our enemies alike. Why would we try to isolate President Hugo Chavez [of Venezuela] to our own detriment? All we do at that point is make him a hero to people. That's what we did with Cuba. We isolated them and gave them a forum to blame everything on us. It doesn't make any sense to me.
Let's talk about Chavez and Venezuela. Should the new president announce that we want to have a serious dialogue with him?
The report says accurately that this really has to be multilateral. We have little to no leverage on Chavez and Venezuela, but it is to no one's interest to have a destabilized Andean ridge. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil will always have more influence on President Chavez than President Bush, President McCain, President Clinton, or President Obama. We have to energize our friends to be of assistance so that all of us collectively are well served by a stable Andean ridge. These things have to be done it seems to me and we can make these inroads diplomatically. All this brouhaha over Colombia's going into Ecuador and everybody screaming that it was Colombia meddling in Ecuador's affairs—good lord. The longstanding tradition in Latin America is not to get into other nations' affairs, but the reality of life is that Mr. Chavez is meddling in Bolivia, meddling in El Salvador, meddling in Colombia, meddling in Ecuador. He's meddling in lots of places. We shouldn't try to isolate him and give him a forum for that.
I guess the main theme that everyone talks about in Latin America—but that's very hard to deal with—is the poverty, right?
When I am asked what the single greatest threat is to Latin America, I answer immediately: Poverty. That will over time breed the radical populism of Mr. Chavez; it breeds disgruntlement of democracy; it breeds a lot of issues that the Latin American countries had better deal with.
You know I started in foreign affairs at the very beginning of the Kennedy administration and I remember the much ballyhooed Alliance for Progress. But the reality is that it is very hard to crack this nut of poverty, isn't it?
We've got to get out of the aid mindset, and get an assist mindset, because it’s the Latin American governments that have to make their own changes. If they are not willing to do that then there's nothing we can do about that. Let's say country X knows they need to and want to enact judicial reforms—we have people trained in our Justice Department and in other areas to go in and help them with that.