AS/COA – Why the U.S. Can’t Afford to Ignore Latin America

Christopher Sabatini and Ryan Berger CNN Global Public Square June 13, 2012

Speaking in Santiago, Chile, in March of last year, President Obama called Latin America “a region on the move,” one that is “more important to the prosperity and security of the United States than ever before.”
Somebody forgot to tell the Washington brain trust.
The Center for a New American Security, a respected national security think tank a half-mile from the White House, recently released a new series of policy recommendations for the next presidential administration. The 70-page “grand strategy” report only contained a short paragraph on Brazil and made only one passing reference to Latin America.

Yes, we get it. The relative calm south of the United States seems to pale in comparison to other developments in the world: China on a seemingly inevitable path to becoming a global economic powerhouse, the potential of political change in the Middle East, the feared dismemberment of the eurozone, and rogue states like Iran and North Korea flaunting international norms and regional stability.
But the need to shore up our allies and recognize legitimate threats south of the Rio Grande goes to the heart of the U.S.’ changing role in the world and its strategic interests within it.
Here are three reasons why the U.S. must include Latin America in its strategic calculations: 1. Today, pursuing a global foreign policy requires regional allies.
Recently, countries with emerging economies have appeared to be taking positions diametrically opposed to the U.S. when it comes to matters of global governance and human rights. Take, for example, Russia and China’s stance on Syria, rejecting calls for intervention.
Another one of the BRICS, Brazil, tried to stave off the tightening of U.N. sanctions on Iran two years ago. And last year, Brazil also voiced its official opposition to intervention in Libya, leading political scientist Randall Schweller to refer to Brazil as “a rising spoiler.”
At a time of (perceived) declining U.S. influence, it’s important that America deepens its ties with regional allies that might have been once taken for granted. As emerging nations such as Brazil clamor for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council and more representatives in the higher reaches of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. will need to integrate them into global decision-making rather than isolate them.
If not, they could be a thorn in the side of the U.S. as it tries to implement its foreign policy agenda. Worse, they could threaten to undermine efforts to defend international norms and human rights.
2. Latin America is becoming more international.
It’s time to understand that the U.S. isn’t the only country that has clout in Latin America.
For far too long, U.S. officials and Latin America experts have tended to treat the region as separate, politically and strategically, from the rest of the world. But as they’ve fought battles over small countries such as Cuba and Honduras and narrow bore issues such as the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement, other countries like China and India have increased their economic presence and political influence in the region.
It’s also clear that countries such as Brazil and Venezuela present their own challenges to U.S. influence in the region and even on the world forum.
The U.S. must embed its Latin America relations in the conceptual framework and strategy that it has for the rest of the world, rather than just focus on human rights and development as it often does toward southern neighbors such as Cuba. 3. There are security and strategic risks in the region.
Hugo Chavez’s systematic deconstruction of the Venezuelan state and alleged ties between FARC rebels and some of Chavez’s senior officials have created a volatile cocktail that could explode south of the U.S. border.
FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group based in Colombia, has been designated as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” by the U.S. government.
At the same time, gangs, narcotics traffickers and transnational criminal syndicates are overrunning Central America.
In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a controversial “war on drugs” that has since resulted in the loss of over 50,000 lives and increased the levels of violence and corruption south of the Mexican border in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and even once-peaceful Costa Rica. Increasingly, these already-weak states are finding themselves overwhelmed by the corruption and violence that has come with the use of their territory as a transit point for drugs heading north.
Given their proximity and close historical and political connections with Washington, the U.S. will find it increasingly difficult not to be drawn in. Only this case, it won’t be with or against governments — as it was in the 1980s — but in the far more complex, sticky situation of failed states.
There are many other reasons why Latin America is important to U.S. interests.
It is a market for more than 20% of U.S. exports. With the notable exception of Cuba, it is nearly entirely governed by democratically elected governments — a point that gets repeated ad nauseum at every possible regional meeting. The Western Hemisphere is a major source of energy that has the highest potential to seriously reduce dependence on Middle East supply. And through immigration, Latin America has close personal and cultural ties to the United States. These have been boilerplate talking points since the early 1990s.
But the demands of the globe today are different, and they warrant a renewed engagement with Latin America — a strategic pivot point for initiatives the U.S. wants to accomplish elsewhere.  We need to stop thinking of Latin America as the U.S. “backyard” that is outside broader, global strategic concerns.

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2 thoughts on “AS/COA – Why the U.S. Can’t Afford to Ignore Latin America

  1. JoseAngel

    Ana,

    Latinamerica is also responsible for the current state of affairs between the US and the region, I would not include Mexico, because Mexico´s economy is very integrated to the economies of the US and Canada, we share traditions, family ties, there are more than ten million mexicans living in the US, there are more than a million americans living in Mexico, there are more than twenty thousand american companies established in Mexico and many mexican businesses also operate in the US and hire americans there.

    In my opinion, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and other countries are increasingly doing more business with China, but sadly for them, for the wrong reasons. China came to south america looking for raw materials, and they got them in vast quantities in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and other countries in the region. But in turn, the China dump their electronics and other manufactured goods in those countries. China became Brazil´s largest trading partner buying huge volumes of Soja, Cereals, Oil and other raw materials, Brazil expanded its economy thanks to the surge in those commodities, but as soon as China´s economy cooled down, Brazil´s economy went downturn, last year it grew at 2.7%, this year they have not grown beyond 0.4%.

    Many have criticized Mexico´s trade dependence with the US market, Gerhad Schroder, Germany´s former PM once did in a visit to Mexico. Brazilian economist have pointed Mexico´s trade dependence.
    But Mexico exports to the US are cars, auto parts, aircraft parts, refrigerators, stoves, cellulars, plasma televisions and many other electronic and high tech components and products. Our relationship with the US is positive because we receive a huge transfer in technology. On the contrary, south american nations like Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, are developing a dangerous dependence on commodities, already 25% of all argentinian exports are Soy beans. South American countries welcomed China´s hungry for raw materials, but failed to develop their industries and manufacturing capabilities.

    China today has a lot of influence in the region, and they are making investments in south america in soy plantations, mining, oil, and mostly primary product related industries. China has secured many assets to guarantee their supply of primary products.

    Many countries in Latinamerica lost the opportunity to sign a regional free trade agreement with the US and Canada because of populists like Hugo Chavez or the Kirchners, or even Lula da Silva, because Brazil wants the US out and sees itself as the economic and geo-political leader in the region. Yet it has not used its leadership and influence to stop irresponsible populism that has bankrupted the economies of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, it has not used its leadership to promote democracy, instead democracy in Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador is quickly being eroded, already we have a dictator in Venezuela, another threatening to stay in Bolivia, Ecuador is going the same way. The region is also becoming increasingly protectionist, even among themselves, the Mercosur is nothing but a piece of paper, Argentina and Brazil do not consult with their partners to close their borders to their products or to impose tariffs. There are growing problems in the region, corruption is spread, there are more killings in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela than in Mexico, a lot more than in Mexico. Their educational systems is bankrupted the same.

    But some countries like Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, Colombia and others have seen the US as an opportunity to grow and a reliable partner in their quest for political stability, democracy and peace in the region, others have not, they are closing their doors to the US, and opening it to China, and some even to Russia and Iran, like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina, I sincerely doubt that they will find prosperity for their nations in their growing commodity dependence to China, but in my opinion there is nothing there the US can do.

    Reply
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