A Latin America blueprint

World leaders, policymakers and interest groups are wasting no time in urging President-elect Barack Obama to direct his attention to their causes, sending him wish lists that include calls for him to reduce the federal carbon footprint, complete immigration reform, fix healthcare and even institute merit pay for teachers. Obama is not likely to be distracted from the economic crisis at this point, but there is one set of recommendations he should keep handy: a Brookings Institution report released Monday that urges an overhaul of U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report is distinguished not only by the heft of its contributors -- among them three former presidents, one former prime minister and the heads of five research institutes -- but by its insistence on forging a hemispheric relationship in a way the Bush administration thoroughly rejected. It’s a sign of the sad state of current affairs that taking a unified approach to joint problems -- energy, climate change, migration and drug trafficking in particular -- seems downright visionary. But such is the case. If Obama is looking for a playbook for policy in Latin America, this is a strong candidate.

Among its useful recommendations:

* Create three tiers of visas for immigrants to the U.S. -- temporary, provisional and permanent; create a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants living here; and launch more joint projects to reduce the exodus from migrants’ home countries.


* Pass free-trade agreements with Panama and Colombia, if only to save face in the region, but acknowledge that trade alone will not solve the region’s problems of poverty.

* Recognize that drug trafficking will decline only if the U.S. works as hard to curb demand as it does to eradicate supply.

* Eliminate the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on ethanol imports and subsidies of corn-based ethanol. We’d add just one caveat: Import limits also should be imposed to prevent the destruction of rain forests.

And the institute urges a reversal of U.S. policy toward Cuba. As it happens, the recommendations are in line with changes Obama has signaled he’s willing to make, such as repealing the travel ban and reviving diplomacy. The United States’ anachronistic relationship with Cuba and its insistence that its hostility be supported by other nations contort its effectiveness throughout Latin America. It’s time for the U.S. to become an integral member of the hemisphere and not just its puppeteer.