When President Obama attends the Summit of the Americas next week, he will encounter a wellspring of goodwill in Latin America toward the young leader who reminds so many there of their favorite American president, John F. Kennedy. And yet he will confront a region still angry at being cast aside for the United States' war on terror, then made to pay the price of our financial and economic irresponsibility. Latin America is clamoring for U.S. leadership without big-stick unilateralism. Obama should heed that call and forge a new partnership with our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.
Although Obama's advisors say he approaches this summit more inclined to listen than to propose, the meeting of 34 heads of state in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago offers the opportunity to lay out the administration's Latin America policy agenda for the next four years. The president might begin by repairing the U.S. relationship with Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere not invited to the summit, as well as relations with Venezuela, which were strained by the Bush administration's support for a coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in 2002 and by Chavez's relentless consolidation of power. Talking with these nations does not mean sanctioning their excesses; it offers the United States a chance to influencedebates that otherwise move ahead without us.
Among the other elements of a renewed Latin America policy:
* The economy: Latin America's economic growth of 4% to 6% in the last five years saw a significant decline in the number of people living below the poverty level. For a country such as Brazil, that meant the emergence of a middle class that finally outnumbered the poor. But economists project zero or negative growth for the region this year, which puts those gains at risk. Furthermore, poverty fuels instability, security threats and immigration to the U.S.
In Latin America as at home, then, the first order of business is for the administration to get the U.S. economy growing. Growth here means that Americans will consume more Latin American exports, which in turn will stimulate the demand for U.S. goods. Meanwhile, the region needs credit. The recent Group of 20 economic summit made a start by pumping money into the International Monetary Fund to lend to fundamentally healthy economies, but more help is needed. The United States and its partners should give the Inter-American Development Bank more flexibility in spending and recapitalize the bank to provide funds for the kind of "shovel-ready" infrastructure, energy and environmental projects that the U.S. government will support to stimulate growth at home.
* Free trade: At the G-20 gathering, leaders generally resisted the instinct to turn inward in the economic crisis and adopt protectionist policies. That's sound economics and good for the world. The United States' sincerity in this area, however, is suspect on the following counts: Congress' flirtation with a strong "buy American" provision in the stimulus package, which alarmed allies even after it was watered down; our refusal to honor the North American Free Trade Agreement and permit Mexican trucks to travel north of the border region; and the unreasonable holdup of the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements.
Obama should push Congress to revive the trucking program with Mexico to stamp out an incipient bilateral trade war. Of late, administration officials have begun speaking of the Colombia free-trade agreement in terms of when it will pass, not whether. That's encouraging. The president shouldn't miss this opportunity to pledge that he will shepherd this long-delayed pact into law. The Colombia agreement would lower tariffs on U.S. exports and open the door to a much-needed business boom. With barriers down, U.S. companies would be eager to increase exports to Colombia and add a projected $1 billion to our economy.
* Immigration: The economies of Latin America and the Caribbean are sustained by an estimated $70 billion in "remittances" from immigrants working abroad and sending their earnings home. But remittances dropped 10% to 15% in the first two months of this year, after a steep decline at the end of 2008. This lifeline is fraying in part because of the recession, but also because of U.S. immigration policy, which has focused on factory raids and building a border fence that Latin America sees as a hostile U.S. attempt to wall itself off from shared problems.
We were encouraged by recent reports that Obama plans to seek immigration reform this year. At the summit, he should declare his intentions for a comprehensive reform that should include a sensible plan for granting work visas, a path to legalization for about 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and a programfor economic development in Mexico.
* Security and drugs: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hit the right note on her recent trip to Mexico when she acknowledged U.S. co-responsibility for the drug wars in Mexico. The United States provides the market for drugs, as well as the weapons used by traffickers against Mexican authorities. During his stop in Mexico on the way to the summit, Obama should vow continued security funding and coordination, a sustained and coherent effort on the part of the U.S. to crack down on money laundering and weapons trafficking, as well as stepped-up attention to drug use in this country.
* Cuba: Cuba's absence from the summit is, one might say, the elephant in the room; 33 of the 34 countries attending have diplomatic relations with Cuba -- only the United States does not. Fidel and Raul Castro's meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus last week is a reminder that the Cuban government continues to reach out to American representatives who might be receptive. Obama already has moved to lift restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba, but he should not stop there. The U.S. trade embargo has failed in its goal of bringing democracy to Cuba. Ostracism of Cuba has failed. Engagement is a better way to advance human rights and democratic reform.
Meeting the neighbors
At the Summit of the Americas, Obama has the chance to offer leadership without unilateralism.
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