Will the incoming Obama administration finally give Latin America and the Caribbean their due? It ought to.
There is no reason to pay sporadic, insufficient attention — as the United States commonly has done — to the nations that form part of the same hemisphere and have such a dramatic impact on this country. Whether the issue is immigration, civil conflict or narcotics trafficking, to name but a few, what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean easily travels north.
For recommendations on how President-elect Barack Obama might end the United States’ benign neglect of the region, I turned to Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador. After a lifetime of working throughout the Americas — and advising a fair number of U.S. presidents along the way — Frechette, a native of Chile, has an ample supply of ideas. He suggests that Obama take a serious look at Latin American and Caribbean realities, including what he calls the “hemispheric divide.”
On one side stands a large group of countries that wants to be part of a globalized economy but has different views as to what that means.
“Still, they want in,” he contends.
Then there are the rejectionists — such as the leaders of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela — who remain “stuck in the past,” Frechette says. They believe that they can turn the rules of economics upside down simply because they happen to be in charge.
In addition, he advises, it is essential to understand that not all of the countries that wish to compete in the global economy will follow the U.S. lead. Actually, American influence, for a variety of reasons, is diminishing in the unfolding 21st century. Globalization accounts for part of that development, as does the interrelated rise of other powers, notably China and India.
Inconsistency also is a factor; the United States has always advocated certain forms of economic behavior, but it has not always followed its own advice in terms of regulation.
“We have been talking with Latin America and the Caribbean about how to manage an economy without stifling it,” Frechette explains, “but the universal perception is that the current global economic crisis was made in the U.S.A., largely because we did not practice what we preached.”
Still, if the Obama team produces a strategy that others in the hemisphere find useful, Frechette feels confident that the nations of the region will go along with it. To create the proper atmosphere, the United States should cooperate and not dictate, he says.
How should the Obama administration proceed? Here is Frechette’s three-point plan:
1. Extend a friendly hand. Nothing shows interest and commitment better than a consistent presence. It is time to increase the number of diplomatic shoes on the ground in the region. To start, Obama should name a permanent special envoy to Latin America and the Caribbean. The person selected should be an Obama insider who, because of his or her high-level access, would have instant credibility.
2. Demonstrate boldness. An ideal opportunity for Obama to wow regional leaders as he meets them will come at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Trinidad and Tobago. He can best take advantage of this hemispheric stage by proposing a new, cooperative agenda for U.S. regional re-engagement. Instead of using trade and investment as the primary engines for movement, Obama should aim for a common regional focus, including issues such as education, climate change, energy and strengthening financial systems in the hemisphere.
3. Re-examine trade. Obama could surprise and excite the region by showing that he has an open mind on free-trade agreements, and that he intends to make them part of the solution to both the economic crisis and the improvement of relations with the region. Pending free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, for example, have become more important than ever. Obama could state that his resistance to such accords preceded the current situation, and that we must shape our perspective based on the way things now stand.
My guess is that if the Obama administration pursued those three steps, U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean could only flourish.