By Daniel W. Fisk15

Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced a generally positive twenty-year trajectory of internal reconciliation, interstate peace, growing democratic institutions and processes, and economic growth with broadening middle classes. Unfortunately, this general record of progress is counterbalanced by several enduring or worsening problems: institutions lacking accountability and weakened by corruption; continued monopolistic economic practices; persistent income disparities; limited educational opportunities; marginalized communities facing integration challenges; the continued growth of well-armed and well-financed criminal organizations; and continuing migration from parts of the region to the United States.

One consequence of this dichotomy is the re-emergence of leaders who have centralized authority and limited political space through electoral manipulation, institutional subversion, and overt repression—all wrapped in the rhetoric of a “21st Century Socialism” claiming to address social and economic inequities. In response, U.S. policymakers have defined U.S. interests toward the region almost exclusively in terms of these internal dynamics.

Refocused and reinvigorated support for a democratic and prosperous hemisphere should remain at the core of the next President’s policy toward the Western Hemisphere.  The challenge for a new Administration will be to understand and address the risks emanating from the region as well as those sited locally but whose real sources are to be found in other parts of the world.

China, Russia, and Iran have reached out to countries in the hemisphere, seeking allies and markets. These interactions go beyond longstanding relationships with the Cuban dictatorship. China has used financial gifts, infrastructure projects, and commodity purchases as an entry point to the region. By 2012, regional trade with China had reached $270 billion, up from $29 billion in 2003. Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2015 visit reinforced China’s engagement, as well as indicating that China would specially reward those countries willing to cooperate with it, intimidating the others would be even further excluded. Russia has re-announced its presence, too, sending into the Caribbean bomber aircraft and a naval flotilla, as well as its Defense Minister to seek access to ports and airfields in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Iran’s relationship with Venezuela has long been of concern to outside observers, despite some uncertainty about the concrete objectives of the relationship beyond a shared opposition to the United States.

This activity to our south reinforces the necessity of renewed U.S. engagement with our neighbors. To the extent that interactions by these extra-hemispheric actors remain transparent and benefit the people of the region, as trade relations are likely to do, we should welcome them. It is all too easy, however, to recognize interactions that do not fit that definition. The next U.S. Administration should therefore focus initially on countries that respect democratic rules and follow economic growth policies based on market principles and an openness to global markets. These countries offer a strong counterpoint to those who seek to impose a state-centered alternative or who welcome extra-hemispheric countries for all the wrong reasons. 

The place to begin is to revive North America’s potential with our immediate neighbors—Canada and Mexico. Building on Ronald Reagan’s summons to “[stop] thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners,” Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton pursued approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This landmark agreement tied together the economies of Canada, Mexico, and the United States within a framework that respects sovereignty and the unique governmental and cultural characteristics of each member. President George W. Bush, with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts, subsequently launched the Security and Prosperity Partnership in 2005 to build on NAFTA.

In NAFTA’s 20-year existence, North American trade has grown from $300 billion (1993) to more than $1.1 trillion today. NAFTA changed the nature of intra-continental trade, making North America a production platform for finished goods and services. This trade has benefitted all three countries, with Mexico’s transformation and its growing middle class being the most visible sign.

The continent’s human and natural resources are significant, yet the full potential of the North American partnership remains to be realized.

The continent’s human and natural resources are significant, yet the full potential of the North American partnership remains to be realized. The energy revolution of the past decade is a case in point: The three countries account for a quarter of the world’s oil and gas production. Mexico, already the world’s tenth largest gas producer, is poised to see increased production with implementation of its energy reforms.[16]  Regrettably, the Obama Administration has frayed relations with Canada, pushing our largest trading partner to look to Asia, especially China, for markets. After taking some initial positive steps in supporting Mexico’s efforts against transnational crime, the Administration seemed to step back to a point where, in the words of one observer, “there is not much to talk about” in terms of U.S. policy actions.[17] The July 2015 “escape” of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán further strained the relationship.  The capture and prosecution of Guzmán had been a top U.S. priority for several years, but after his capture, the Mexican government resisted his extradition, assuring the U.S. that it could and would handle incarcerating him for his crimes.

A new President’s early and unwavering attention should reinforce the mutual benefits of the continental partnership with Canada and Mexico. Outreach should begin prior to the inauguration with an informal meeting between the U.S. President-elect and the Mexican President (an established tradition) to reaffirm the importance of the bilateral relationship. A primary point of this meeting should be to ensure U.S. support for the Mexican government’s economic reform agenda, as well as its confrontation of criminal syndicates and the violence fueled by the narcotics trade. After the inauguration, the new President’s first foreign trip should be to Canada, signaling a revival of that relationship. These steps will firmly establish that our North American partners are no longer an afterthought.

To underscore the importance of North America, the new National Security Council staff should be given authority to coordinate U.S. government policy, delegating elements of implementation to the relevant Cabinet agencies. These policymakers should recognize that today’s driver of North American economic integration is energy.[18] Canada’s shale-oil development, the opening for foreign investment in Mexican oil production, and U.S. shale and natural gas deposits can help ensure North America’s competitiveness and energy self-sufficiency. 

A significant impediment to progress is the legacy regulatory structure in the areas of food and consumer safety, environmental protection, and labor mobility (including immigration). The lack of regulatory alignment and the persistence of duplicative structures have cost American consumers billions of dollars. This must be addressed. A more efficient regulatory structure would recognize and accept equally demanding standards of food and consumer product safety and environmental and labor protections. If combined with an improved transportation infrastructure and updated, enforceable laws governing labor mobility, it would increase the prosperity of all three countries.

As for the tone of the new President’s engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean, decisions on U.S. immigration policy will be critical.  Recognizing the dissatisfaction with the current situation and the controversy surrounding the status of the more than 11-plus million illegals in the United States, ending an immigration framework that encourages illegal migration is essential to America’s societal and economic well being. While waves of immigration have always caused discomfort, legal immigration is essential to our definition of ourselves and to U.S. economic growth. Immigrants fill critical gaps in and rejuvenate our workforce, often coming to the United States during their prime working years.  Immigrants are major contributors to innovation, too, having shown themselves to be especially good at starting small businesses. An undertaking as large and as controversial as real immigration reform that fundamentally updates a 1960s-era structure will require strong presidential leadership.

Another focus should be on the countries that have respected democratic norms, pursued economic liberalization internally, and opened their economies globally.  Colombia, which was declared a “failed state” 15 years ago, is one such country and one of the hemisphere’s success stories. The 50-year-old struggle by the FARC—now primarily a drug-trafficking organization rather than a political movement—remains the primary obstacle to peace and greater prosperity. The U.S. government, under Plan Colombia, has supported Colombia’s efforts to end the conflict; as long as the FARC retains any organizational capacity, U.S. support should continue, ensuring that the Colombian government is dealing with the FARC from a position of strength. Colombia also could be a key ally for the new U.S. Administration as it re-engages the region.

Mexico and Colombia, along with Chile and Peru, formed the Pacific Alliance to enhance trade opportunities with Asia and to promote economic integration. This effort demonstrates the evolution of these countries’ vision beyond this hemisphere and merits U.S. encouragement.

The Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras (known as the “Northern Tier”) are plagued by dramatic levels of criminal violence, inequality, endemic corruption, and weak institutions that are unresponsive to the majority of citizens’ needs. To its credit, the Obama Administration has sought to assist these countries, although it took the massive and embarrassing migration of unaccompanied minors from the region to the United States to get it to act.

Achieving more effective governance at the local level must be a priority for U.S. policy in these countries. Without confronting pervasive corruption, any assistance will have little lasting impact. Strengthening civilian police forces and independent justice systems is essential to stability and will take time to build. In the near-term, we should fund the establishment of an independent, investigative organization in each of the three countries—similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—to review professional competence, ensure accountability, uphold the rule of law, implement anti-corruption measures, deliver judicial reforms to address impunity, and participate in the preparation of legal cases against corrupt actors. Funding through the central governments should be restricted, however. We should also condition any such aid on the willingness of each of the three Central American governments to publicize their national budgets and match every U.S. dollar of assistance with revenues through the enactment and collection of a “security tax.”[19] Regular consultations with national and international civil society organizations, including the private sector and labor organizations, about the development, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of the program also should be an element of U.S. assistance.

In the special case of Cuba, the Obama Administration’s decision to resume full diplomatic relations perversely reinforces the dictatorship.

Finally, the United States must insist on tangible results in partner countries’ efforts to end impunity, hold corrupt officials accountable, and prosecute human rights violations.  The Executive Branch should be more active in using existing authorities to combat corruption, including the use of Treasury Department designations and the withdrawal of U.S. visas under Proclamation 7750 (2004).

The island nations of the Caribbean all face continuing challenges of governance and economic development to one extent or another. Some are at risk of being overwhelmed by the money and violence of international criminal organizations. Despite these threats, these countries—Cuba still excepted—have remained true to their democratic processes and institutions.

Beyond Haiti, where U.S. assistance remains a priority, the other Caribbean countries are often relegated to a lesser place on the U.S. policy agenda. The Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) is overdue for updating. The new President should direct a comprehensive review of policies to engage and bolster the well being of Caribbean nations, including in the areas of energy, economic development, and educational exchanges.

Respectfully engaging Brazil, the world’s sixth largest economy, should remain an objective of the new Administration’s senior leadership, including at the presidential level.  Regardless of the country’s tumultuous politics, Brazil envisions itself the leader of South America and has expanded its diplomatic and economic presence in the hemisphere in recent years. Its foreign policy bureaucracy is generally adversarial to the United States, seeing the two countries in competition. Its business class, however, remains strongly interested in building up the bilateral relationship. Brazil should be a partner, as President George W. Bush demonstrated by pursuing cooperation in areas of mutual concern, such as in alternative fuels and health initiatives in West Africa.

Brazil is important in its own right, but it is also critical in its role as an enabler of “rejectionist states” such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador—occasionally joined by Nicaragua and Argentina. The internal maneuvering and external conspiring of these states has preoccupied U.S. policymakers. With leaderships hostile to the United States, these countries have attempted to create an alternative inter-American system.  Except for Cuba and its longstanding one-party dictatorship, the others have manipulated democratic mechanisms (for example, elections, constituent assemblies, and referenda) to centralize power and subvert separate governmental branches, while threatening independent political and civil society actors. The next President must recognize these regimes for what they are and approach policy toward each with a clear vision.

In the special case of Cuba, the Obama Administration’s decision to resume full diplomatic relations perversely reinforces the dictatorship. In the new Administration, support for the Cuban people should be the U.S. priority, and that focus should go well beyond the provision of information technology. The U.S. diplomatic presence on the island and visiting U.S. officials should engage all elements of Cuban society, including regular interaction with independent Cuban actors, regardless of the regime’s obstruction. At the same time, the President should enforce existing statutory restrictions on investment in Cuba with state entities or involving expropriated properties, modifying policy only in response to genuine political and economic reforms.

The new President should direct increased public diplomacy to highlight how U.S. policies seek to help average Cubans. This effort should include outreach by the President and other senior U.S. officials with foreign counterparts, as well as engagement with the Cuban people directly, not simply with the regime in Havana.

The Obama Administration’s accommodation also extends to Venezuela, including outreach to officials who are reportedly under Justice Department investigation for complicity in narcotics trafficking. Experience over the past eight years has disproved the belief that diplomatic engagement will moderate the anti-democratic and anti-American philosophy of the Venezuelan leadership. Rather, the new U.S. President, using existing statutory authorities, should increase pressure on Venezuelan government officials responsible for human rights abuses. At the same time, the U.S. should enhance support for the Venezuelan opposition, including through diplomatic outreach to third countries to encourage support for civil society actors. The President should direct the public release of information on Venezuelan corruption and facilitation of narcotics trafficking, information that deserves to be widely known. Venezuela can be expected to respond by saber-rattling against its immediate neighbors; U.S. support to those countries should be visible and robust. And the new Administration should develop a strategy to encourage multilateral support for a political transition and economic recovery as the Venezuelan regime faces a governmental legitimacy and economic meltdown. As the authoritarian regimes in Havana and Caracas founder, the examples of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, will be less relevant and the so-called Bolivarian model will be shown for what it is: a power grab in populist garb by a few who empower and enrich themselves at the expense of the larger society.

President Obama came into office with little in his background or experience to suggest an interest in this hemisphere. The importance of the Western Hemisphere nevertheless bookends his eight years: Early on, his Administration followed through on cooperation with Mexico, and his message at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009 offered expectations of a new partnership and “steps forward to advance prosperity, security, and liberty.” As the Administration concludes, what will stand out is the Executive Order on immigration, the outreach to anti-American governments in Cuba and Venezuela, and—given the region’s rapturous love affair with fútbol (“soccer”)—the U.S. Justice Department’s welcome investigation into Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) corruption. 

Yet prosperity, security, and liberty are more at risk today than they were on January 20, 2009. A peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Western Hemisphere is in the interests of all the citizens of the Americas, and most assuredly of the United States. Defending our interests and our values is not imposing them; failing to defend them has made the United States neither more secure nor more prosperous.

[15] The author wishes to acknowledge his JHI working group colleagues for their assistance with this chapter: Kimberly Beier, Jose Cardenas, Richard Downie, Bonnie Glick, Frank Kelly, Rebecca Ulrich, Ray Walser and Timothy Walton.

(16) See Council on Foreign Relations, North America: Time for a New Focus, Independent Task Force Report No. 71, David H. Petraeus & Robert B. Zoellick, Chairs, 2014; and Bernard L. Weinstein & Morgan Allen, “North America: An Energy Colossus,” George W. Bush Institute, March 2014.

(17) Richard Miles, “The U.S. Is Not Being a Good Neighbor,” Washington Post, April 23, 2015.

(18) This goes well beyond the status of the Keystone XL pipeline. If the Keystone XL pipeline application remains pending in January 2017, an early on-the-merits decision should be made; if the application has been disapproved, a new application should be encouraged.

(19) One of the principal reasons that Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative with Mexico have been successful is the willingness of the governments and citizens to bear a larger degree of financial responsibility through the payment of taxes. In the case of Colombia, a specific tax was placed on the wealthiest, with their agreement, to help fund efforts against the guerrillas. In Mexico, the government matched each U.S. dollar with $5-8 dollars in state funding.