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Getting Latin America Right

Getting Latin America Right

Mini Teaser: Obama has an opportunity to revitalize U.S. relations with its neighbors to the south.

by Author(s): Julia E. Sweig

Going forward, the passage of marijuana-legalization laws in Colorado and Washington might afford the United States greater leeway to reconsider the basic precepts of the drug war. Thus far, however, a belief within the bureaucracy in the lessons of Plan Colombia’s counterdrug strategy coupled with understandable anxiety over levels of violence near the Mexican border and in Central America, led Obama to extend, in slightly amended form, the Mérida Initiative assistance programs for Mexico he inherited from Bush. The effectiveness of these efforts has been widely questioned by human-rights activists concerned by the collateral damage accompanying a militarization of the drug war.

Combating transnational criminal cartels has dominated relations between the United States and Mexico, which have become involved in each other’s security and intelligence agencies to an extent unimaginable just a few years ago. Washington has sent more than $2 billion in aid south of the border during Obama’s first term. Yet Mexico’s conservative president, Felipe Calderón, left office deeply frustrated that Obama held back on the single most significant component of their much-lauded “shared responsibility” in addressing the roots of the violence: the interdiction of guns flowing into Mexico from the United States.

Between 2006 and 2011, some sixty thousand Mexicans fell victim to cartel-related homicides. Many of Mexico’s hideous crimes, moreover, were committed with firearms sourced in the United States. In fact, over the past four years, 70 percent of the firearms recovered by the Mexican government from crime scenes and submitted for tracing to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were found to have originated north of the border. Reinstating the assault-weapons ban (allowed to lapse in 2004) requires an act of Congress, which, fearing the presumed political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), has failed to act. In his second term, however, Obama will have room to prove that the NRA is actually a paper tiger. Recent surveys indicate that 74 percent of NRA members and 87 percent of nonmember gun owners favor some gun-control measures such as background checks on people purchasing firearms.

Despite Brazil’s higher profile, the security challenge in Mexico has represented probably the greatest priority of the United States in the region. Yet, the scandal over the ill-fated “Fast and Furious” ATF operation dominates memories of Obama’s first-term strategy south of the border. As violence increased and the Mexican economy began to thrive, public opinion increasingly questioned Calderón’s emphasis on a military approach. Some even wistfully recall the era when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexican politics for seven decades until 2000, maintained a cold peace with the leading cartels. But with more active cartels and drug factions than ever before, the PRI’s return to power under President Enrique Peña Nieto is unlikely to prompt a return to the status quo ante. Still, a new president in Mexico and Obama’s reelection could pave the way for a reset in the security strategy the two countries have pursued over the last six years.

OBAMA ROUNDED out his first term with yet another Summit of the Americas, this time in Cartagena, Colombia. Once again, the president spoke eloquently about a common regional agenda promoting employment, education, energy, the environment and infrastructure development, all with an eye toward making the region economically competitive in the twenty-first century. Yet Obama dismissed his closest regional partners’ demands that the next summit include Cuba. In an echo of remarks from 2009, he noted, “Sometimes I feel as if . . . we’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War, and this that and the other.” It’s difficult to imagine an American president telling the Israelis, Palestinians, Vietnamese, Japanese or Chinese that they are just too caught up in history. Gunboat diplomacy may indeed be a thing of the past. But Washington’s response to the coup in Honduras, the obsolescence of U.S. Cuba policy and the ineffectual drug-and-gun strategy all suggest that Washington itself is helping to perpetuate the time warp.

It’s understandable that Obama finds these fixations exasperating. But they need not become permanent features of his second term. Having won nearly half of the Cuban American vote in Florida in 2012, a gain of 15 percentage points over 2008, Obama can move quickly on Cuba. If he were to do so, he would find a cautious but willing partner in Raúl Castro, who needs rapprochement with Washington to advance his own reform agenda. Obama should move to clean up the regime-change programs and move to swap jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross for the five Cuban agents imprisoned (or, in one case, already out on parole) in the United States. He should use his executive authority to eliminate restrictions on nontourist travel for all Americans and negotiate a bilateral agreement on a host of neighborhood security and environmental issues. Finally, he should take Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terror. Cuban Americans in Congress and some other Florida Democrats will howl in protest, but the domestic political noise rapidly will be drowned out by the applause and support from pundits, the business community and the public, including increasing numbers of Cuban American business owners of both political parties. Obama’s Latin American partners and the regions skeptics alike will also cheer the president. Obama should then urge Congress to pass legislation to end the travel ban and embargo. The American tourism, agriculture, energy, construction, health care, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries will quickly support such a move, helping Obama to secure his legacy as the first president in sixty years to set the United States and Cuba on a rational course.

Even if Obama stops short of a full-throated debate about legalizing or decriminalizing drugs, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean will face fewer gun-related deaths and see the United States as a more serious partner in weakening transnational criminal networks if the president beefs up regulation and enforcement efforts pertaining to gun sales, tracing and trafficking. He should support California senator Dianne Feinstein’s plan to reinstate the assault-weapons ban, and he should push ratification of U.S. membership in the inter-American convention on arms trafficking. Despite the NRA’s predictable assertions that such moves would represent an erosion of Second Amendment rights, the president would have the bipartisan support of mayors, governors, state legislators and law-enforcement officials across the country.

With serious initiatives on Cuba and guns, backed up by his now-stated interest in pursuing a major second-term move on immigration, the president can free up considerable diplomatic capital in the region to focus on issues that really matter. The Obama administration seems to recognize that the major regional issues are not problems Washington can fix alone but rather transnational challenges that the United States faces with other nations of the Americas—whether energy security, education, social inclusion, global competitiveness, climate change, citizen security, or China’s political and economic rise. Paradoxically, at a moment when Latin Americans have never been more cognizant of their human ties to booming Latino populations in the United States, most of the resilient democracies and growing economies of the region prize their autonomy and do not—with the exception of Haiti—expect big-ticket assistance packages Washington cannot afford. Thus, by choosing to slay the domestic political dragons that bedeviled his first term, Obama can create the running room to align his analysis with policies that finally reflect new regional realities as well as his country’s national interest.

Julia E. Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies and director for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Pullquote: Latin America and the Caribbean, with a population of roughly six hundred million and a GDP of more than $5.6 trillion, continue to represent a missed U.S. opportunity, economically, politically and diplomatically.Essay Types: Essay