Update on U.S.-Latin America Relations

Thursday, September 14, 2023
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Will Freeman, fellow for Latin America studies at CFR, discusses the political landscape in Latin America and its implications for migration trends, the opioid crisis, and trade relations with the United States.


FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach at CFR.

We’re delighted to have over three hundred fifty participants from forty-six states and U.S. territories confirmed to be with us today. Thank you for taking the time to join this discussion, which is on the record.

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Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics. We will be sending out the link to this video and transcript after the fact. This discussion is on the record and it will be posted on our website at CFR.org.

We are pleased to have Will Freeman with us today. We’ve shared his bio with you so I will just give you a few highlights. Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His work focuses on the rule of law, corruption and organized crime, elections, constitutional change, and U.S.-Latin America relations. And prior to coming to CFR Dr. Freeman was a Fulbright-Hays scholar in Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala, and worked with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to draft bipartisan legislation and Senate resolutions.

So, Will, thanks very much for being with us today. We’ve seen recent elections in Central and South America. I thought you could begin by giving us—setting the stage of talking a little bit about the political landscape in Latin America and the implications for relations, you know, for the United States with countries in Latin America.

FREEMAN: Sure. It would be my pleasure. And, first off, thank you so much, everyone, for joining us today. I’m excited to have this conversation. It means a lot to me that you can be here and that I can be here.

So in terms of the political landscape, let me start small and then I’ll zoom out. About a month ago I was in Guatemala. As Irina mentioned, it’s a country I’ve been going to for some years now. I was back because the country is holding one of its most consequential elections in generations, really—there was a presidential vote on August 20. And just to put you in my shoes, I mean, as I was following this election in June there was a first-round vote. That’s something common in Latin America where, you know, you’ll kind of weed it down to just the top two vote-getters who go to a runoff for the presidency.

Ahead of that first-round vote I had no idea who could come out on the other side of it and that did not, you know, put me in my own camp. That was everybody. Increasingly in Latin America predicting who’s going to win an election is like throwing a dart at a dartboard blindfolded. The region is—the elections in the region and politics have become more unpredictable, more fluid than I think they’ve ever been before. So it was the case in Guatemala.

The other thing about Guatemala’s elections, so in that first-round vote, ultimately, you saw an establishment candidate win, a woman who had been in traditional politics for decades, had the oldest political party in Guatemala at her command, and her rival, ultimately, for the runoff was a total outsider who most Guatemalans had never heard of. He had not worked in politics before. But he really, you know, kind of capitalized on that, presented himself as a fresh face.

That’s something else that you’re seeing, not just in Guatemala but all over the region, outsiders versus insiders. I’d argue that it’s a more important political division in Latin America right now than left versus right. Increasingly that’s the way voters look at the candidates they have to choose between. It’s not so much, you know, who’s a conservative, who’s a progressive.

Sure, that matters a bit, but it’s more about who’s been around forever and who looks like a fresh face who maybe I can trust to do things differently. And then, you know, besides that, voters in Guatemala wanted solutions to problems, which I’d argue dominate the agenda in every Latin American country. Those are security, so public safety, economic growth and opportunities, particularly for the middle class, for the lower middle class, for the poor, and corruption, in that order.

Those are really important issues in Latin America today. Again, it doesn’t always break down so much along right and left; it’s more about who can most credibly say that they’re going to solve those problems. And as I alluded to, I mean, often we’re seeing in elections now in the region it’s these political outsiders, it’s these new faces who voters trust to be sort of least entangled, least corrupt, maybe least already enmeshed in the status quo so that they’re actually willing to make changes on these fronts.

In terms of implications for U.S. relations, now zooming out beyond Guatemala, right now, obviously, everyone in Latin America knows, recognizes that we’re going through a huge moment of geopolitical realignment. The U.S. is no longer the uncontested hegemon that it once was.

We have the rise of China, which is particularly important for Latin America, but also Russia as this sort of increasingly aggressive geopolitical competitor. And I think where Latin Americans see themselves in this situation or their leaders see themselves is trying not to get burned by siding too much with any one external power in all this because Latin America has had, you know, a traumatic experience with us in the past.

Some countries, you know, went the way of the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. Many more stuck with the U.S. In every country there were terrible human rights abuses. In many there were civil wars. The Cold War was devastating for Latin America and the last thing Latin Americans and their leaders want right now is to be wrapped up in a new Cold War.

So just to give you a sense of how I think they see this, right, is there’s a lot of fear that as competitions escalate Latin America is going to get pushed and pulled in one direction or the other. I think that also contributes to a lot of the region’s leaders being quite sensitive when they get the message from the U.S. that they’re expected to be obedient or somehow automatically take the United States’ side because they’re, quote/unquote, in a phrase no one likes in the region, “in the backyard of the United States,” right?

So I think that if you see, you know, Brazil’s president, for instance, saying controversial things on Ukraine or you see other countries, you know, one by one signing trade deals with China, it’s because they’re trying to build in a degree of buffering against sort of being towed in the direction of the U.S.

We might not like that but that’s the reality on the ground and I think it’s one that we have to be cognizant of and we have to deal with. You know, anything that can be seen as kind of bullying from the United States’ side to say, hey, get in line—this is a competition with our rivals—you’re on our side, you know, I think that it’s dangerous and we need to think really carefully about how we try to build and maintain those partnerships, making sure that we’re offering something to make it attractive, right, to partner with the U.S. as opposed to our rivals.

So, yeah, I think I’ll wrap it up there in terms of elections and relations with the U.S. But that’s the big picture that I see.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Will. And can you talk a little bit about—give us a little background on the influx of migrants to the United States, how that’s shaping? I mean, this is very much in the news and on top of people’s minds of how we deal with this.

FREEMAN: Absolutely. Yeah. And I was just recently about two months ago down in Panama in the Darien Gap, which, you know, is this region of undeveloped jungle that increasingly migrants from Venezuela, from Haiti, but also from all over the world are traveling, making it, ultimately, to the U.S.-Mexico border.

So I think the headline we often see is the—just the raw numbers in terms of migrants arriving at and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are surging past all records. Sure, that’s absolutely true. But I think we’re seeing a qualitative change in migration in the Western Hemisphere, not just a quantitative one.

So it’s not just that the numbers are higher. It’s also that the countries from which people are coming are so much more diverse than they were in the past. So in the 2000s you saw, and even back to the 1990s, huge amounts of migration from Mexico and off and on quite a bit of migration from Central America. That continued all the way up until the early 2010s.

But what we’ve seen in the last five to maybe ten years is this route opening from South America through Central America, crossing that Darien Gap that I mentioned, and increasingly more and more Venezuelans coming, more and more Ecuadorians coming, more and more Haitians arriving and, you know, what I had the chance to see on the ground was just the sheer quantities of also Chinese nationals, people from Afghanistan, people from West Africa coming.

The point I’m trying to make here is that migration in the Western Hemisphere has become global. So this is not Mexico and Central America predominantly anymore. It’s much larger. It’s also a business. So governments in the region have incentives to make migration through their territories as fast as possible because they don’t want to have to deal with the problem and they want it to be low visibility so they don’t suffer consequences with their own voters, right?

So I think that that’s led a lot of governments, Panama’s included, to try to basically invisibleize the problem and allow whatever local businesses and criminal groups are already on the ground to continue running this thing, right?

So what you’re seeing and—you know, for instance, when I was in Panama or on the Colombian side of the border is that you have local kind of pop-up businesses charging migrants for everything from writing down a river on a canoe to getting on a bus to charging their cell phones. These are exorbitant rates. It’s, honestly, a travesty. But it works from the eyes of everyone, you know, involved locally because locals are making money they didn’t have before, governments get to move people along quickly.

I’m telling you all this because I think it makes the problem extremely intractable. We’re seeing an international business setup that moves people to the U.S. or allows them to get there if they have sufficient money and sufficient determination, and I don’t see any way that we’re going to dismantle that anytime soon even with cooperation from our partners.

So, you know, I think given what I’ve just described it only makes so much sense to talk about root causes. That was a language that really came into vogue when it was more Central Americans and Central Americans alone who were migrating. But I do think root causes still matter because, of course, even if we can’t stop it there are things we can do to control just this unprecedented flow of people from South America, Central America into the U.S. and elsewhere.

And so I think, you know, one thing that in most countries you really need to get right, you need to improve, is not so much, you know, how large are the economies, how many resources are there floating around. Sure, that matters. But it’s also about distribution of opportunities. We’re talking about some of the most unequal countries on earth, unequal not only in their wealth distributions but also in terms of, you know, control of different industries by businesses.

In most Latin American countries you have a few very large businesses controlling most sectors, you know, kind of elbowing out competition through all kinds of legal and sometimes, unfortunately, illegal means. What I think you need in a lot of Latin American countries, for instance, in Central America is a real sort of, you know, trust-busting movement that is going to open up space for small and medium-sized enterprises so that normal people who have very few options right now can actually dream of starting a business in their own country and, you know, having kind of prosperity in the future that right now they only see as a possibility if they come to the U.S.

So, you know, there is some positive momentum in the region on this. Guatemala’s recently elected president has pledged to push through an antitrust law. But usually—you know, these are very politically sensitive measures. Because the system is the way it is there are a lot of private and even public interests that want to resist any kind of broad economic change.

I say all that just to underscore that it’s not just about pumping dollars into the region; it’s about how they’re spread around and who they create opportunities for.

Now, I said that the economy is kind of the big issue in most countries but let me focus in on one where the issue is different. That’s Ecuador. You might be hearing more and more about Ecuador because numbers of Ecuadorians arriving in the U.S. have been surging despite the fact that we’re talking about one of the smaller countries in Latin America.

Right now Ecuadorians are the third largest group crossing Panama’s Darien Gap. They’re one of the largest groups arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and I think they’re the second largest right now arriving in New York City where I am right now.

So that’s kind of alarming. You know, what’s going on? Well, I just went down to Ecuador a few weeks ago or a few months ago to try to find that out, to try to figure out what was driving so many people to leave.

Bottom line is it’s violence. Ecuador right now is caught in a spiral of violence that looks like Colombia in the ’80s in the days of Pablo Escobar or Mexico twenty years ago. The only difference is that Ecuador’s state is so much weaker, has so much less capacity to respond.

My biggest worry right now about the region or one of the biggest worries is that, unfortunately, leaders in Washington and elsewhere are going to let Ecuador fly under the radar because it’s a small country. It won’t get the support it needs in time to fight back against the drug cartels and gangs that are making Ecuador into the newest hub for shipping drugs out of Latin America and that we’re going to see the country basically implode.

I mean, I hate to imagine something like a second Venezuela but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. So, you know, I really kind of try to champion that cause. I try to talk about it as much as I can. I think we need to focus on Ecuador. It’s at such a vulnerable inflection point.

OK. So I’ll leave off there with migration but happy to dig into the specifics in our Q&A.

FASKIANOS: Great. And so a few people have written questions already. So if you would like to ask your written question, please raise your hand. Otherwise, I will read your questions. And if you would like to ask a question, if you raise your hand, click on the icon, I will call on you and then accept the unmute prompt.

So I’m just seeing if—let’s see. OK. Nobody has raised their hand yet so I will start with Representative Elizabeth Velasco, who represents the House District 57 in western Colorado. How can we push the United States to model the humane treatment of migrants?

FREEMAN: I think that’s an excellent question, you know, I think one we should be most concerned with.

Look, I’m not an expert on border policy but I do think it starts there. That’s the visible message we send to the world. You know, just today the New York Times published a story on migration and they interviewed Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who was kind of citing the image we saw. You know, we all saw border guards riding horseback and whipping people who were crossing the border. I think that was a year ago, two years ago. That’s devastating for our, you know, international soft power in the region. That can’t be happening. So I think, one, making sure that our, you know, kind of Border Patrol is upholding the highest standards and, you know, putting pressure on necessary officials in Washington to make that happen.

But, you know, I think it’s also about what we encourage our partners to do. So in Panama and Colombia this passage, the Darien Gap, is harrowing. I talked to Venezuelans as they were emerging from the jungle. It can take ten but up to twenty days to cross this pretty impassable stretch of land and, you know, along the way migrants are subjected to just the most terrible types of victimization you can imagine, the most terrible crimes.

I think we need to be pushing our partners in Colombia and especially Panama to assert more control over this part of their territory. It’s not easy, right, and we need to be helping them. We need to be giving them the resources to do that. But a lot of the worst abuses that occur in the entire migration process are happening in that patch of land.

So I think sending that message that, you know, there needs to be accountability for crimes committed against migrants there that matters as well.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Bob Kaplan, who’s a councilor in Ashland, Oregon, and I think you touched a little bit upon this but if you would dig into it a little bit more: Where in the United States are nontraditional migrants taking the overland route through Central America and Mexico settling? Are they connecting with prior migrants from their country of origin as was the case for so long for migrants from Mexico and Central America?

FREEMAN: Yeah. In terms of migrants from Central America and Mexico I see that is basically the pattern you’re describing. They’re going to the traditional communities, you know, New York, New Jersey, south Texas, southern California, you know, because these are already well-established communities. When I meet people in Guatemala who are leaving usually they know someone in the U.S. and they’re planning to join those communities.

I think it’s—you know, it’s the more recent arrivals who don’t have such a track record like this latest wave of Ecuadorians or like arrivals from outside the hemisphere where the distribution, you know, is a little bit more random.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. All right.

So the next question—written question—is from Canek Aguirre, a council member in Alexandria, Virginia.

Is it possible to get a breakdown of this new global migration in terms of percentages from Mexico, Central America, South America, Caribbean, West Africa, and Middle East, North Africa and how it compares to pre-2010 levels?

FREEMAN: Yeah. So if you were to search, like, southern border encounters it’s the CBP—page of the CBP website. You can look at the breakdown of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border based on nationality group going back several years. I think it only gets so fine-grained, like, to have the biggest twenty nationalities or something like that. You can look at those and beyond that it’s like a box that says other. But those resources are out there.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

So the next question is from Connecticut Representative Anabel Figueroa: I hear you talking about immigration. I believe the main reasons why many of us have immigrated to this country has to do with violence and economic conditions. In El Salvador, violence has decreased but economic conditions continue to be a challenge. What do you think we can do to help these countries with similar issues?

FREEMAN: Well, I think in terms of economics, and maybe we’ll get to this topic, I mean, I see a region that wants to trade with the United States and sees great benefits in that. But what really concerns me is I see a U.S. public that’s increasingly skeptical of trade deals, increasingly unlikely to approve them or vote for politicians who advocate them.

So I think that’s really on us. I mean, we need to change the message on trade. I understand there are tradeoffs with—you know, with free trade or whatever you want to call it. But it’s not zero-sum. You know, we also gain here in the United States and, you know, in the form of lower consumer prices.

It’s not always an offshoring of jobs that happens, you know, and also it’s a question of who we’re going to trade with. There’s a lot of talk right now about friend shoring, nearshoring so that at least, you know, a lot of our supply chains and trade is happening with partners of ours rather than geopolitical adversaries like China.

So, you know, I think there’s appetite in the region. Just look at the case of Ecuador or Uruguay, both of which were clamoring for trade deals with the U.S. But when, you know, they couldn’t get them because there’s just too much political resistance here what did they do? They ultimately signed trade deals with China. So I think it’s something we have to fix domestically.

And then in terms of the violence question, you know, I do think there’s a track record of the United States in some cases making a positive improvement. You could look at Plan Colombia, which, you know, in the late 1990s and early 2000s really helped Colombia stabilize and ultimately end up in a more peaceful place than before, not without its blemishes along the way. But, you know, I think that we should be thinking about, you know, why we haven’t been as willing in recent years to invest those same resources in a country like Ecuador.

Now, El Salvador, you mentioned, is a troubling case because there the violence has come down under the watch of an authoritarian president who has completely thrown civil liberties to the wind. But he’s extremely popular and, you know, the gang problem in El Salvador was just crippling for the population, as I probably don’t need to tell you, and, you know, Bukele used authoritarian means to get there but homicides are much lower.

My concern is that we don’t see democratic approaches to fighting crime throughout the region. We’re going to see more and more leaders following Bukele’s example. You might like that. You might dislike that.

But it would be a huge change for the region in terms of the sort of respect typically that’s been maintained at least somewhat for civil liberties while governments went about the business of fighting crime.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic.

We have several questions now in the chat so let’s see where to go. Let’s go to Karina Macias: You mentioned the situation in Ecuador of increased violence and the influx of organized cartel activity, activity that has been present in other Latin America countries for years. At what point is a summit needed to address this as a crisis with the support of the State Department?

FREEMAN: That’s an excellent idea. I’d say yesterday or, you know, maybe last year. As soon as possible. As soon as possible.

When I was talking to members of the Foreign Ministry and the foreign minister in Ecuador, you know, he said, this is going to become a failed state in ten years if we don’t have, you know, a huge influx of international support.

I will say there’s already good work being done on the ground but I’m just not sure that it’s rising to a high enough priority. So I think something like a summit to bring together, you know, the interagency on the U.S. side with Ecuadorian authorities and, ideally, transition teams from the very—you know, the couple candidates right now who are vying for the presidency. I think that that would be absolutely a step forward.

You know, a big concern we have in Ecuador right now is that heading up to the October 15 presidential runoff there you have two candidates, one of whom who’s more likely to maintain a close relationship with the U.S., the other who is more likely to distance herself.

You know, what can we be doing right now to try to show that we’re willing to offer assistance no matter who wins? I think that that’s really important because we can’t take it for granted that after October 15 we’re going to have a government in Quito that trusts us to collaborate with them.


I’m going to take the next question from Thomas Black, who’s an alderperson in San Elizario, Texas: Appreciate all the useful information. I constantly hear the negatives but can you help explain the benefits migration has on a country?

FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, yeah, I think in my view the benefits outweigh the costs or the negatives, however you want to put it. You know, one, I think, OK, look, we’re in this—we’re in this rising competition with China, a country which is facing a real demographic crisis. It’s probably China’s greatest weakness, along with a slowing economy in the long term. A lot of people are wondering about how the U.S. will compete.

I think one of our main advantages is that this is still a country where many people want to come, many young people from Latin America that will, you know, to some extent, I think, if we allow more migration will help, you know, ameliorate our own demographic sort of slowdown, which is a good thing, you know, from the perspective of paying into pension contribution systems, you know, for Social Security, for tax revenue.

But a critical caveat on all that is that migrants need to be legal, right? They need to be here paying taxes and a feeling that they can be visible to the system. So I think, you know, there are great benefits to migration, especially on this demographic and economic point. A lot of research shows that.

But there also needs to be a new kind of pact or agreement, you know, bipartisan on how we get immigration reform. I know I’m probably sounding like, you know, pie-in-the-sky thinking because we all know the political obstacles to getting anywhere on migration. But I do think if we can solve that part of the problem a lot of those positive impacts of migration will really become tangible very quickly.


We have another written question from Jaime Patiño, who’s a council member in Union City, California: Would redirecting manufacturing from China to Central and South America slow down the influx of migrants from these regions?

FREEMAN: Yeah. You know, I think that the research on economic development and migration is a little mixed.

So some scholars have talked about waves of migration and spikes and, like, waves, you know, occurred over decades. They tended to have to do with the demographics of a country, often a country that’s experiencing a youth bulge. And in countries which have sent waves of migrants to the U.S.—think Europe in the nineteenth century or Central America from the 1990s to the 2010s—usually these are actually countries that are undergoing economic growth. So growth doesn’t necessarily limit migration. Sometimes growth even gives you the small amount of capital you need to make your trip to the U.S.

So I think we should be realistic that it’s not just, like, creating economic growth is going to have this linear relationship decreasing migration from Central and South America. But there are other reasons we should do it. I think growth will add to the political stability of these parts of the world. I think that they will allow us to have more lasting partnerships as we compete with our geopolitical rivals, again, you know, because we’ll be bringing something to the table.

And, you know, for some people they might create an alternative to migrating. But as I said earlier, I think it’s also about how economies are structured. It’s not just, you know, GDP numbers. Right now Guatemala is an upper middle-income country just based on growth numbers.

Might sound good but if you’ve ever been to Guatemala most people are not living the lives of people in upper middle-income countries, you know, because of the vast, vast inequalities, high rates of poverty, right? So it’s also about the structure, who gets the opportunities.

Yeah. And then, you know, in terms of—one last thing to say on this is in terms of the nearshoring, you know, people often kind of talk with a broad brush about Central America, Mexico, and South America. It’s really Brazil and Mexico that have already the capability to manufacture in a big way.

You know, these are two countries with large automobile industries, that have the infrastructure, that have the factories. Elsewhere you’re talking about, you know, so to kind of generalize here about building more from the ground up. So I think it’s worth being realistic that Mexico and Brazil, large, large economies—industrial economies—but the rest of the region it’s a bit of a tougher sell and I think a longer road ahead.


Representative Elizabeth Velasco has another follow-up question: How can we prepare for a threat of massive deportations if DACA ends?

FREEMAN: Yes. I mean, I think it’s a terrifying question, one that concerns me a lot. But, you know, I think that sort of falls within domestic policy. I’m really not sure. I’m sure many of you on the call are much better informed about how to prepare for that in your own communities, you know, with your own constituents.

In terms of mass deportation to the region, I mean, I think that it will have really disruptive consequences, one, because you’re uprooting people who are Americans who’ve grown up here, but, two, because we know what happens, you know, when you have mass waves of deportation of people who aren’t ready and don’t want to leave the U.S.

I mean, this happened in the 1980s during Central America’s—and 1990s during and after Central America’s civil wars. You had large numbers of people deported, for instance, from California and, you know, that ultimately, you know, created these dislocated communities in El Salvador and elsewhere and laid, you know, the foundation—sowed the seeds of some of the gangs that we see today.

So, you know, I think this could be really destabilizing for the region. It’s just one among many reasons to push back, you know, against this threat of ending DACA. But in terms of preparing at the local level, I think you all will know much better than me.


Councilor Brad Riley from East Hampton, Massachusetts: What are some key agencies or nonprofit and philanthropy stakeholders that can help support municipal governments when we receive caravans of migrants from countries with varying histories of violence and poverty?

FREEMAN: Yeah. I mean, again, I think that this is somewhat more of a question on the domestic side, not so much on foreign policy. But I know that the Lutheran Social Services, you know, have been very active across the country in terms of helping new arrivals, you know, integrate, build lives, build communities.

So that’s just one organization I look to, and I know my home state of Minnesota, you know, has been very active on these issues.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I want to shift a little bit. You know, we’ve seen some countries in Latin America experiencing democratic erosion. Can you talk about what—how the U.S. can help shore up, take a more active role in preventing democratic backsliding?

FREEMAN: Yeah. Sure. So, you know, while we do hear about it, I sometimes think that we hear about it too much given the levels of how much it’s actually happening. You know, I think that—OK, so, like, just take a really broad scope. Look across the world. Latin America, most countries transitioned to democracy between the ’70s and the ’90s. And only in two countries, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have we seen democratic breakdowns. Other countries have teetered close to the brink, but they’ve always rebounded in the right direction. So I think we’re actually talking about probably the region of the world where democracy—new democracies have been most resilient.

You look at Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Africa right now, I mean, you see one democracy collapsing often after a military coup—you know, one after the next. Latin America you really don’t see that so it’s something to applaud. Someone earlier asked about, well, we hear all this bad news—I think it was on migration.

What’s the good news? Well, let me tell you, you might be hearing a lot of bad news about democracy in Latin America. I think it’s actually one of the region’s biggest accomplishments and something that’s really helping, you know, create stability rather than taking it away. That said, in terms of what the U.S. can do, well, I do think we should applaud just what’s happened in the last few years under the—as long as the Biden administration has been in office. In Brazil, the country came dangerously close to a rupture with the constitutional order. Ex-president Jair Bolsonaro ad certain members, ex-members of the military, seemed intent on conspiring to thwart elections in that country. Now, fortunately, mostly because of Brazilian bottom-up activism but also because of the strong messages sent by the State Department and Washington, we saw that outcome avoided and a peaceful transition of power in Brazil. Right now, Brazil’s doing pretty well. The economy is growing. There’s political stability. You’re not seeing huge protests in the street. That’s something we should all applaud. And it was possible, in part, because the U.S. did play a constructive role.

Same thing about Guatemala. On August 20, when I was in the country, everyone was sitting on the edge of their seat wondering if certain anti-democratic forces would try to thwart the elections or overthrow democracy. And fortunately, you know, you also saw the State Department, in a very quiet way, but be active on that country. So I think regardless of which party holds office next, who we see as the next president, just trying to maintain some continuity on that. The message I’ve gotten from this administration is: We don’t care who wins. We just want to see a free and fair process respected. I think it’d be great to see that going forward. And I hope—I really hope that that’s the value that any next, you know, administration or administrations share.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

And can you talk about the political trends that we’ve seen, you know, just in response to the U.S. opioid epidemic and the trafficking of fentanyl?

FREEMAN: Yeah, sure. So this is the toughest issue. I think, frankly, this is the issue that has to do with the region that’s affecting life in the United States right now most. We all know that around 110,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, the lion’s share being from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which is an absolute tragedy. You know, I think that with the arrival of synthetic drugs—the shift away from biological drugs like cocaine and towards synthetic drugs like fentanyl, I think we’re talking about the end of the drug war, or at least the end of the war on drugs as we know it. One flatbed truck can store enough fentanyl pills to saturate the U.S. market for years—for a year, sorry, one full year—because of how potent these pills are, right?

So that just means, you know, in theory, traffickers driving one truck need to get through the U.S. border. That’s it. All the other enforcement we might do for a year, down the drain, right? So I think that that means that, you know, we should be doing everything we can to reduce the amount of fentanyl coming into the country. We’re never going to stop it. And if that’s the case, what should we be focused on? And, again, this falls more into the realm of domestic policy, but I do feel strongly about this. We should be focused on harm reduction and on addiction treatment, as I know, you know, many towns and counties across the country are, about saving lives here in the U.S. I think it’s the only path forward.

So what can we be doing, though, to reduce the supply? Because I do think the less fentanyl there is, maybe the more manageable this problem becomes. But we have to be clear-eyed. We have a government in Mexico right now that’s reduced law enforcement cooperation and intelligence sharing with the U.S., that has a strong kind of nationalist component to it. Has had a lot of skepticism about cooperating closely with the U.S. So we’re facing sort of an uphill battle here. But I do think it’s important that we maintain as much of that relationship as we can. We cannot afford to—there’s just no way that we can fight this fentanyl problem without cooperation from Mexico.

I think that that means we need to be very careful about the kind of, you know, rhetoric that’s going on in this presidential campaign right now. For instance, talking about sending U.S. troops unilaterally into Mexican soil, I know that that would require congressional approval and, you know, it’s just talk at this point. But I think it’s dangerous talk. It probably makes the current Mexican government sour more on the idea of cooperating with us. I understand where it comes from. I understand all the frustration and all the pain that this issue is causing. But I think we need to try to maintain what cooperation we can with Mexico.

The other thing is, you know, Mexico is, at most, in this entire process sort of a toll post on the road of fentanyl going from, you know, Chinese chemical producers to U.S. drug consumers. So, sure, it would be, you know, a huge improvement if Mexico threw all of its resources and, you know, had a serious intention about controlling the kind of incoming precursor chemicals to its ports or the manufacture of fentanyl in drug cartels’ labs. But it wouldn’t, you know, solve the problem unless the precursors stopped coming. So in this—you know, work I did with the Senate Foreign Relations, we did focus on, you know, trying to encourage Treasury to update as often as possible its sanctions against Chinese chemical companies which keep pumping out these new precursors.

You know, there is a U.N. working group on this issue involving China. China does pledge cooperation now and again, but I think we need to be keeping up the pressure to make sure that we’re tackling this issue from the source all the way to, you know, where the drugs get consumed here. So I’ll leave it there, but it’s obviously a very complicated problem. And, as I said, I think just the reality of synthetic drugs is that you can’t eradicate them along the way, like you even in theory maybe could with cocaine—although, we all saw that that was very, very difficult and even impossible. But with fentanyl, it’s a hundred times harder. And I think we need to be focused on, you know, treatment and ending addiction here in our communities.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. There are several questions just about, you know, how to make sure our migrants get medical attention when they’re entering the U.S. at the border to avoid deaths. and how can you—you know, how can we ensure that illegal migrants are treated vis-à-vis fair pay and equity. I don’t know if those are in your—

FREEMAN: I think it would be better suited for an expert on domestic policy.

FASKIANOS: Right. So I but I—if anybody wants to share best practices of what they’re doing in their community, you can—you can raise your hand or share your experience in the chat for others to see.

So I’m going to take the next question from Council member Heidi Henkel in Broomfield, Colorado. She’s city council member and a county—and a commissioner: I’m also the executive director of a new resettlement agency and we focus on Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, but feel hamstrung with on serving those with no Office of Refugee Resettlement eligibility. Do we know of any federal bills that would fight for more ORR eligibility for our migrants from the south?

FREEMAN: Unfortunately, I can’t provide any information about that.

FASKIANOS: OK. All right. Looking to see if anybody else has raised their hand. There’s another question about legislative suggestions for rural states that are seeing a rise in their populations. But I think, again, that’s maybe too domestic for this.

You talked a little bit—you mentioned—you talked about trade as well. And I thought it would be great if you could maybe, you know, just give us sort of overview of U.S.-Latin trade, and where we are, and what you what you see—

FREEMAN: Yeah, sure. So just to recap, you know, some of what I was saying earlier, I do think that—again, it’s a region of countries that wants to trade with the U.S., but unfortunately there’s a lot of political hostility right now to trade in the U.S. A lot of skepticism around it. So, you know, I do think we should temper our hopes about new trade deals. Look, if we can’t figure it out at home this is going to lead to China becoming the majority trading partner everywhere in the region, I think. You know, as I said, you already saw Ecuador, Uruguay lining up to try to get trade deals. Couldn’t happen, so they went with China.

But I do think—if we’re going to just accept right now, given the current political moment, free trade deals are off—new FTAs are off the table, there are measures short of that that I think can—you know, can make a positive change. So one is encouraging the Commerce Department to send missions to the region so that, you know, private-sector companies in the U.S. can be fully aware of the opportunities as well, in the region. Commerce sometimes, you know, has a tendency to, for whatever reason, you know, let Latin America slide on the agenda. I think it needs to be higher. More missions need to go.

On top of that, I mean, it’s small things, but Latin America is a huge producer of critical minerals, really important for the green transition for EVs. So there’s a few different things on that, that we—that I’d hope to see coming out. You know, one—and these are—it gets a little bit in the weeds. But one is—you know, I think an immediate win would be for the Senate to ratify the U.S.-Chile Bilateral Tax Treaty. That would basically allow Chilean mining to, you know, have, like, fluid relations with the U.S. You know, Chinese companies would no longer be at a huge advantage in in Chile. Beyond that, I think the administration could also think about bringing Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Peru into the existing mineral security partnership. That’s an agreement that, again, kind of creates channels for critical minerals from those countries to be traded with the U.S. with relatively less friction.

And, you know, I also think you could, for instance, extend the Semiconductor Supply Chain Mapping Project, which was announced at the North American Leaders Summit, to go beyond Mexico, Canada, and the U.S., to other countries in the region that are prepared for it, like Costa Rica. Very, you know, technical in the weeds, but just to say that—more the reason I bring it up is there are things we can do that don’t require the whole political lift of a free trade agreement. Those are just a few.

Last thing I’ll say is that so we—as of a couple years ago, you know, we have this new agency in Washington, the Development Finance Corporation. It’s kind of a remaking of a preexisting agency. And, you know, that’s a really powerful tool. But right now, it’s rules say that it has to prioritize financing lending to low-income countries. As I mentioned earlier, you know, there are countries in Latin America which, just based on the rules we use to slot countries into different categories, they end up as middle-income or upper-middle income, like Guatemala, the case I mentioned, just because of their, you know, GDP numbers.

But that’s not talking about sort of the realities for ordinary people in the country, right? So I think that we need more flexibility in the rules that the DFC, or Development Finance Corporation, is bound by when it’s making decisions about lending. It should be—have a much freer hand to prioritize countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, which, again, might look like they’re sort of, you know, middle-income or upper-middle income on paper, but where we have a great urgency of stimulating, you know, economic development and growth.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Mayor Jorge Maldonado in Nogales, Arizona: Border Patrol is a very good service here. They check medically and criminal all immigrants that they apprehend. My question is, will the border cities continue to get federal funding to support the efforts of getting these migrants to their destinations and funds to process them? Small cities like ours cannot afford these costs.

FREEMAN: It seems to me like that would, you know, really depend on the way the debate goes in Washington. I don’t know. I unfortunately don’t think I can, you know, see the future on that one. But it’s obviously a live topic, you know, the sense that border cities, border states have had to shoulder more of a burden. And now you’ve seen, you know, as a result of some of the, you know, busing from Texas, that there’s really been kind of a reaction on the part of Eric Adams, other mayors, you know, governors of states in the northern part of the U.S. So, you know, I think that eventually there’s going to have to be a longer, sustained political discussion on this that kind of sets up a stable way of doing things, but I can’t see what it’s going to be.


So the next question is from Evan Reade, who is international affairs advisor for the lieutenant governor of California: Any thoughts you care to share on the upcoming presidential election in Mexico?

FREEMAN: Yeah, absolutely. So, look, what’s happened in Mexico is 2018-19 you had the start of the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also known as AMLO. AMLO, comes from the left, but he’s really governed more in the center, center-right. He was, you know, for years trying to win the presidency in Mexico. He felt that he had been thwarted by the traditional political parties in Mexico. So he gets in office. Those parties start to collapse, because everyone’s fed up with all the corruption and violence that’s been raging in Mexico. And it gives him this vacuum, this total window of opportunity to build his own new party and really take control of the state. So that’s what’s happened.

Some people call it democratic backsliding. I think there’s some truth to that story. But other people say, look, AMLO was handed this opportunity. He’s just kind of, you know, pushed his political muscle to the limit. And he’s built a strong new party. I think there’s truth to both sides of the story. But what it means is that he’s very well set up to put a successor in office for the next term. So there’s just been a sort of primary process within AMLO’s party Morena, to determine who that successor will be. The woman who came out on top, she is the former mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum. Would be the first woman in the history of Mexico—in Mexico’s history to be president. But, you know, many people worried that she will be a total loyalist to AMLO, won’t question any of his policy decisions, that she’s essentially been chosen because she’s the most loyal soldier.

That said, you know, in terms of her own views, she hews a little bit more on the center-left direction. You know, under her would we see the concerning things we’ve seen during AMLO’s presidency—the empowerment of the military beyond all previous levels, you know, continuation of violence? Most likely, I think, we would. They’re pretty intractable issues and the ball’s already rolling on those. So, you know, people are looking at her—at her candidacy in the U.S., I’d say, with some amount of worry. Now, on the other hand, you have an opposition coalition that’s put forward a candidate by the surname Galvez. So she—you know, it looks like a stronger competitor to AMLO’s party than anyone expected to surface in this race. Mostly because, as I mentioned, those traditional political parties that were the opposition feel pretty spent, pretty out of gas.

But this new candidate, Galvez, she herself comes from a very humble background. She sort of has a way of connecting with ordinary Mexicans, like AMLO himself. And she’s really been able to, you know, to poke holes in some of his narrative that everything is going well, or better than it used to, in Mexico. She’s focused a lot on the security issue. So I wouldn’t count her out, even though AMLO’s party and has candidate, Sheinbaum, still look like the favorite to win.

In terms of what it means for U.S. relations, you know, I do think that because we’re neighbors, we share this huge border and right now Mexico is the biggest trading partner, Mexico and the U.S. will stay close on a number of dimensions, no matter who wins. But I do expect that if the opposition candidate, Galvez, wins, there’ll be less friction in the relationship than if it’s Sheinbaum and AMLO’s party, you know, kind of lives on for another day.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Council member Patricia Farrar-Rivas from Sonoma, California, who’s asking about the elements of a fair immigration path. I wanted to just broaden that a little bit. From your time traveling in South and Central America, what have you heard, Will, as the common criticisms of the U.S. immigration system? And how to what—yeah, what others think we should be doing?

FREEMAN: Look, at a very high level—and maybe this won’t shock anyone—what I hear time and time again is that I would love to take the legal pathway, but it’s too slow. I can’t wait years, you know, for the problems of violence in my community or the lack of economic opportunity to maybe start to fix itself. You know, I also think just consider the disparities. I mean, in Quito in Ecuador, I was meeting people who, you know, might make $20-30 a day. They know that in Miami they can make $20 an hour, you know, doing a number of construction jobs or, you know, other sort of manual labor, right? So I think just seeing that disparity, the fact that—for instance, a Venezuelan I met told me, you know, if I stay in my community I might work my entire life to have a car and my own apartment. My friends who are already in Florida have those things, right? And they’ve been there a few months. So even if I know this is extremely risky and I’d love to do it a different way, I’m going to go.

So I think just hearing those stories firsthand, you know, you kind of realize that unless we speed up the immigration process substantially, there’s going to be no way to deter people from making this journey. Just to underscore that, I mean, you know, if you consider the risks people already face as they’re crossing the Darien jungle in Panama, or, you know, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, where they can be kidnapped, or held for ransom, or extorted for—and put into debt. I mean, you know, when people are already willing to brave all those risks—and being fully aware of them when they set out—I think the, you know, deterrence is just—the way we know it—doesn’t work. The only way is faster legal immigration.

FASKIANOS: Which we’ve been trying to do for many years.

FREEMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I know, I’m really saying completely revelatory things here, which no one has thought of.

FASKIANOS: No, no, no. I mean, it just—it really is, you know, that that seems to be the thing that needs to happen.

FREEMAN: But, you know, on that—on that point—and I know, this might seem very naïve or what have you, but I do think this all starts with people’s perceptions on the ground. And I imagine the people on this call, you know, your constituents, your community members, I’m sure have as wide a range of opinions on migration and immigration as the entire American public. But I think working with people to understand these realities and communicate that you can be a fan of it or not, but deterrence, as we’ve been talking about, just I think there’s real limitations to that working as a strategy.

If people understand that, I wonder if they won’t—you know, there won’t be more of a bottom-up push for figuring out a path to immigration reform. You know, because as long as some people continue to believe that just by—if you tighten the border enough, it’ll all stop, you know, I think that’s what in a way, from the ground up, stops us from coming to any kind of, you know, political consensus on this. And everyone’s going to have to make concessions, right? But I do think that the change starts—you know, the change starts at the level of voters’ opinions and perceptions.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic.

Oh, I think there was another question. OK, it’s from representative Leonora Dodge: Are there elements from Colombia’s success story that can be replicated in Mexico, even though, due to its geographical proximity to the United States, Mexico is bound to be a major battleground for the trafficking of drugs and human migrants? As the historical saying goes, poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far away from God.

FREEMAN: Yeah. You know, I think that in a sense we’ve already tried to apply those. The Mérida Initiative in Mexico since 2007 put tons of money into the country. Has helped here and there, but it has not achieved the turnaround that Colombia experienced. You know, I think that’s for a number of reasons. But what can we apply from Colombia? I mean, I think one big high-level takeaway is that the military is a very important tool to restore order to a country where it has effectively lost a chunk of its territory and doesn’t have full sovereignty anymore. You need the military. Colombia had to use it to fight against leftist insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries.

But the military can’t ultimately solve the problem of organized crime. Soldiers and generals can’t investigate and prosecute crimes, right? They can’t retake control of prisons that have been captured by gangs. They can’t flush out corruption from ports. So if I had a magic wand and was going to change things in Mexico, I would take the ports and, you know, other key institutions out of the hands of the military, which Lopez Obrador has given them, you know, control over his institutions, and work on strengthening the civilian authorities that should be managing those institutions. You know, Mexico’s police force, unlike Colombia’s, is federal. So it has a high degree of autonomy, you know, all over the country. I don’t know if that’s a workable solution indefinitely. You know, you’re talking about a large country where police are, you know, underpaid, and it’s, you know, relatively easy for organized crime groups to co-opt them, to corrupt them. So I think focusing on those civilian institutions, that’s the big lesson to me from Plan Colombia.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. I don’t think we have any more questions. Is there—I’ will leave it to you for any last remarks, Will, what you want to leave the group with before we close.

FREEMAN: Sure. No, I’ll just say that I really appreciate you all being here. You know, I, in part, work on this region because I think it’s probably the most important, or one of the most important, to ordinary people in the U.S., you know, in terms of affecting our lives, and we affect, you know, people in the region. So, yeah, I appreciate it. And I’m always—you know, feel free to follow up as well if you didn’t have a chance to formulate your question or didn’t get a chance to ask it. I’m accessible. You can find me on Council on Foreign Relations webpage, and perhaps also in the invitation you received to this event. So thanks again. And I hope I was able to provide you some insight on what I’ve been seeing and hearing in my travels and work throughout the region.

FREEMAN: Wonderful. Will, thank you very much for sharing your expertise with us today, and to all of you for joining us.

Again, we will send out a link to this webinar recording and transcript. You can follow Will on X at @willgfreeman. And, as always, we encourage you to visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on international trends and how they’re affecting the United States. And we encourage you to share your suggestions for future webinars by emailing us to [email protected]. So thank you all again for today’s discussion, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.



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