The U.S. is MIA in Latin America

The U.S. is MIA in Latin America

An end-of-the-year assessment of U.S. policy towards Latin America could possibly qualify for the world’s shortest blog.  For a President who has clearly established that foreign policy is not something that gets him up in the morning (or appears to keep him awake at night), Latin America must rank just above Antarctica in descending areas of interest.

This uneven, sporadic focus on the region has led to only adverse consequences for U.S. interests.  What effort the administration does expend seems only directed toward placating a smattering of hostile populist regimes, while ignoring the interests of our friends.  Indeed, the predictable response is that we have only emboldened our enemies and despaired those in the hemisphere who share the U.S. vision of open political systems, free markets, and robust trade. 

Radical populists in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have run roughshod over democratic institutions and the best Washington can come up with is asking for the terms under which a U.S. ambassador would be allowed to return to their capitals.  In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is likely chuckling at the feeble U.S. response to his recently rigged re-election.

It also appears that the administration has lulled itself into complacency over a cancer-stricken Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, ground zero for regional instability, seemingly content to wait and see what happens after Chávez passes from the scene.  But even as his circus antics continue, he is leaving behind what my colleague Roger Noriega calls a mountain of toxic waste that will take years to clean up.

Chávez’s days may indeed be numbered, but his friends in Iran, Russia, China, and Cuba are certainly taking the long-term view of things.  All four have been great beneficiaries of Chávez’s political solidarity and oil-fueled largesse and can be counted on to want to maintain that access with or without him in power.  In other words, don’t count on them to support a democratic transition away from Chavismo, only a succession.  Every day, the United States stands idly on the sidelines, the chances they will succeed improve. 

The administration’s complacency may also be due to the current economic boom the region is experiencing, as commodity producers are riding the great wave of Chinese demand.  If the U.S. profile in the region has diminished, does it really matter?   Times are good, government coffers are relatively full, and poverty is declining.

The problem with this scenario is that Chinese demand will not always be there.  The Chinese economy as it exists today will not be the same one a decade from now.  Moreover, long-term regional prosperity is not going to be built on producing raw materials for the development of the Chinese economy today.  All the current boom is accomplishing today is masking over the deep structural changes that are still desperately needed in most of the region’s economies.

There will be many who will cheer-lead that Latin America is finally out from underneath the United States’ long shadow and doing great "on its own" – but such sentiments are short-sighted.  Many challenges remain:  transnational criminal organizations involved in the drug trade continue to wreak havoc, making a mockery of rule of law along with corruption in many countries; too many citizens in the region are shut out of their country’s economies through excessive regulation and other barriers; and doing business in the region is still too difficult to draw the kind of investment that is flowing to Asia.

It’s not the United States has all the answers for what ails the hemisphere, but what we can offer is steady partnership over the long-term to confront the challenges together.  For security, economic, energy, and political reasons, we have a vested interest in the fortunes of our neighbors to the south.  And they in ours.  It’s time we elevated those relationships to reflect that reality.