The Hemispheric Divide

March 2, 2009 Regions: Americas Tags: DiplomacyKosovoCommunismWar In Afghanistan

The Hemispheric Divide

Mini Teaser: The United States is no longer the master of its hemispheric domain. Gone are the days when Washington could expect Latin America to bow down to its interests. After years of failed foreign and domestic policies, the United States will have to she

by Author(s): Julia E. Sweig

The first is helping Mexico and Central America take on organized crime. The law-enforcement, security, social and human consequences are too daunting to leave this crisis on the back burner. Central America is now experiencing the spillover of Mexico's crisis as well as the backwash of pressure exerted against organized drug cartels in Colombia. Given the history of American intervention in Central America and support for military solutions, and the weakness of government institutions owed to elite neglect, the United States will have to tread lightly, but deliberately. However, as with Mexico, Central America is both the most vulnerable to organized crime and the most linked to the United States through geography, demographics and economic ties. Formulating strategies for joint efforts on public security should not fall victim to the political stripe of elected governments there; the United States must avoid its habit of playing favorites with the leaders singing most faithfully from our songbook. As part of America's third border, the Caribbean must also participate, with U.S. assistance, in a regional strategy on organized crime.

The second issue is to review and revise Plan Colombia in the context of a broader rethink of drug policy in the Andean region. Both the United States and Colombia have suffered from the "best-friendism" of George Bush's unabashed embrace of President Álvaro Uribe, and both countries are now alienated from the Andean neighborhood, where the absence of regional cooperation to deal with transnational threats is glaring. The U.S. security investment there, if understood narrowly as an attempt to prevent a FARC takeover of the country, has largely succeeded. But even as the paramilitary has been largely demobilized, the persistence of-and impunity provided to-institutions and individuals linked to paramilitarism remain. The urgent need for rural development and real attention to Colombia's internal refugee crisis must be placed front and center in the bilateral discussion. A dialogue with Brazil, which shares a huge border with Colombia, would be one avenue into sharing the costs and burdens of Colombia's conflict.

Third, the nations of the Western Hemisphere, which including Mexico and Canada already supply 40 percent of U.S. energy imports, must become major participants in the construction of the Obama administration's global strategy for energy security and climate change. Latin America is a resource-rich part of the world. Its capacity for production of petroleum, natural gas and clean biofuels represents an opportunity for the region and for the United States. The social, environmental and financial challenges of harvesting these resources are immense, as are the sensitivities in the region to assuring that the benefits of developing such resources should be reaped by local populations. But given the Obama administration's stated intention to prioritize clean energy and reduce carbon emissions, incorporating Latin America as part of a global dialogue could open the door for new kinds of long-term problem solving in which the entire neighborhood has a stake. Of course, doing so will require taking on some of the trade issues that have vexed U.S.-Latin America relations, such as the current tariff on ethanol imports from Brazil. The special envoy for climate change at the State Department will need to work across regions and agencies; Brazil will surely be among his first stops in the Americas.

Fourth, the Obama administration must make a renewed effort at immigration reform early on. While the Bush administration's attempt ultimately failed, and a number of the approach's features were roundly criticized (such as the elimination of the family-based priority system), it nonetheless proved that a middle ground, combining some measure of temporary work programs and a path to legalizing the status of the undocumented, may be possible with a president and a Congress willing to speak over the din of xenophobic nativists. Comprehensive immigration reform is critical not only for shoring up the United States' own domestic social contract. As important, immigration reform will renew a spirit of respect in the region and encourage Latin American neighbors to cooperate with the United States in managing borders and the sources of insecurity inherent in proximity.

The fifth and most all-encompassing issue boils down to one word: diplomacy. As in its global standing, the United States has lost considerable ground in Latin America. Barack Obama's election has already begun to repair the damage by demonstrating America's capacity for redressing its own recent and very deep historical wounds. But there are certain dynamics that the election and a change in tone cannot fundamentally alter. Yet the United States should not digest a Latin American country's readiness to identify and assert its own national interest as necessarily adversarial, or anti-American. On the contrary, we should applaud this new era as a path to more reciprocal diplomatic relations. In the entire hemisphere, only Hugo Chávez seems truly committed to sustaining the pitched anti-Americanism he has honed over the last eight years. Even Bolivia's Evo Morales, who like Chávez expelled the U.S. ambassador in 2008, has indicated a disposition and need (trade preferences) to rebuild ties with Washington. Just as the practice of playing favorites with certain national leaders and demonizing others should come to an end, American embassies should likewise abolish any vestige or appearance of picking winners from government and opposition parties within countries.

As a matter of first principles, the United States should pursue diplomacy with all countries of the region-including Cuba. By implementing a road map for diplomacy with and ending sanctions against Cuba, the United States will take a long-standing and provocative irritant off of the hemispheric table and harvest a more positive diplomatic equilibrium in the process. And this is one area where President Obama will not be tied down by domestic political constraints. Once the most intractable of issues with deep domestic resonance, President Obama's win in Florida without the hard-line Cuban-American vote frees Washington to develop a policy toward Havana, rather than toward South Florida. Likewise, strengthening the bilateral relationships with Brazil and with Mexico-in the areas of public security, energy and climate change, and on an array of subregional and multilateral issues-must top the U.S. diplomatic and functional agenda. Brazil in particular, since it has its own version of exceptionalism, will be ambivalent about how closely it forges strategic ties with the United States while managing its own regional and global leadership role. All the more reason to make the investment in understanding what makes this continental-sized country of nearly 200 million people tick.


RECOVERING AMERICAN standing does not mean returning to an era when the United States dominated the region or its member states reflexively deferred to U.S. wishes. It means learning to accept, manage and operate within the ambiguity and ambivalence that characterizes contemporary political, economic and international relations in the Americas. It means leaving ideology behind to address real problems together. This is no easy task given the usual U.S. and Latin American predilections. The nations of the Americas are comfortable with their national, economic and subregional differentiation, even as they have begun to create new multilateral fora to deal with collective interests. In an environment of enduring skepticism toward the role of the United States, at times harsh rhetoric will fly. But we can get U.S.-Latin American relations onto firmer footing. In the early years of the Obama administration, withdrawing from Iraq, stepping up the American presence in Afghanistan and shoring up security operations along the border with Pakistan may well channel American military resources where they are most needed. But these crises do not necessarily carry any intrinsic promise to recover American standing. In Latin America, on the other hand, the very absence of threats of proliferation or mass terrorism offers to the Obama administration a set of interlocutors and an array of issues with whom and on which the United States can readily, and at comparatively low cost, change the tone and achieve results. In the process, we can demonstrate a capacity for American renewal not only within our own borders but across them.


Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow and director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century (PublicAffairs, 2006). 

Essay Types: Essay