A Latin America agenda for Obama

Nearly two years have passed since his inauguration, and President Barack Obama has yet to unveil a major policy initiative for Latin America. Regional officials are hoping Obama ends this neglect in 2011 and increases U.S. engagement. Here are seven ways in which his administration could demonstrate its commitment to Latin America.

Convince Nicaragua to end its illegal occupation of Costa Rica. Several weeks ago, amid a river-dredging project, Nicaraguan troops invaded Costa Rican territory and began occupying Calero Island. The Organization of American States has demanded withdrawal, only to be rebuffed by President Daniel Ortega. So far, the U.S. response has been dismayingly weak. By tolerating Nicaraguan military aggression, we are sending a dangerous signal about the lack of U.S. leadership in the region.

U.S. officials should sternly inform the Nicaraguan regime that continuing to occupy Costa Rican territory will affect its access to future economic aid and jeopardize its participation in Central American free-trade agreements.

Push for approval of the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements. Until these two pacts receive congressional approval, it will be hard for the U.S. to pursue a larger agenda of hemispheric trade liberalization. They were signed in 2006 (Colombia) and 2007 (Panama). As former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has said, “Passage of the [pacts] would level the field for us, increasing our exports and creating jobs we need here in the United States.”

Expand U.S. economic cooperation with Brazil. Speaking of trade, Obama should build on the work that President George W. Bush did with Brazilian leader Lula da Silva. The U.S.-Brazil commercial dialogue began in 2006, and it provides the basis for strengthening economic ties with Latin America’s most populous country. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, will be inaugurated Jan. 1. Obama should use their first meeting to make the case for expanding bilateral trade.

Increase security aid to Mexico. During the past four years, more than 30,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence. The Calderon government needs helicopters and weapons to take down the cartels, but also it needs to establish a well-functioning legal system that can handle the challenge posed by organized crime.

List Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. We now have overwhelming evidence that the Hugo Chavez regime has assisted murderous groups such as the Colombian FARC, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Spanish ETA.
The U.S. State Department should strongly consider listing Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. Doing so would intensify diplomatic pressure on Chavez, who is already struggling with domestic unrest.

Float serious proposals for reforming the Organization of American States. The organization’s incompetence has been on full display throughout the ongoing border dispute between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. To date, Ortega has paid no diplomatic penalty for his belligerence.

If it cannot summon the will to take strong action against the invasion of a member state, the organization will become irrelevant. Washington, D.C., should embrace the cause of institutional reform. For example, Obama administration officials should advocate turning the Inter-American Democratic Charter into a treaty policed by the Inter-American System of Human Rights, bolstering those organization bodies that are still performing well (such as the human rights and drugs-terrorism panels), and downsizing the organization’s bloated bureaucracy.
Overhauling the organization could help to promote multilateral cooperation and weaken radicals such as Ortega.

Establish a bipartisan commission on Latin America. Such a panel could be modeled on the 1983 Kissinger Commission, which analyzed U.S. policy options in Central America at the height of civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. It would offer recommendations on how the U.S. can support democratic institutions, encourage economic reforms, boost social mobility and improve security conditions throughout the region.

By creating such a commission, Obama would be making a powerful statement about bipartisan initiatives and the importance of Latin America to U.S. interests.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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