Time for America to Turn South

Time for America to Turn SouthWhatever John Kerry does about Latin America if he is elected President of the United States in November, the election could initiate a sea-change in US-Latin American relations – even or perhaps mainly if George W. Bush is reelected. Kerry has never shown much interest in the region, while Bush has largely ignored it since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the unlikely nature of a shift in relations does not make it any less necessary. The need for change in America’s policy toward the rest of the hemisphere is two-fold. First, never in recent times has anti-American sentiment run so strong and deep in Latin America. Poll after poll shows that Latins feel more negatively about the US than at any time since the 1960’s. In contrast to that era, popular hostility is not really motivated by US actions in or toward Latin America; but today’s anti-Americanism still complicates life greatly for democratic leaders in the hemisphere, and for America itself. Second, and more importantly, the substantive issues of conflict on the US-Latin American agenda are heating up. They will not go away by themselves, and failure to address them will probably only make them worse. The list of problems facing Latin America is long, but the salient themes are easily distinguishable. First and foremost is economic growth, which for the past few years – indeed, for the past two decades – has been dismal. In countries where trade and investment is concentrated in ties with the US, this is a central issue in the bilateral relationship. At this stage, we know that free-trade agreements are useful, but are not silver bullets. The US has a much larger role to play than simply promoting trade liberalization in the region. The US must help these countries build up their infrastructure, educational and legal systems, competitiveness, and transparency. In all these areas, a pro-active policy of American support is crucial. Why should the US bother? Why should it care whether Latin American countries closely linked to it by trade, investment, tourism, and retirees do better or worse, grow or stagnate, become more competitive or lose ground globally? There are many reasons for the US to pay greater attention to Latin America, but three stand out. First, and perhaps least self-evident, is energy. Countries like Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia supply up to 40% of US oil imports, and could easily replace unstable suppliers in the Middle East. Second, America has a strong security interest in the region. Access to the US from many countries in Latin America is much easier than from Europe or Asia, owing to the volume of traffic, the number of flights, the comparative laxity of exit controls, and the porousness of borders. If the US, as its leaders clearly believe, will be threatened for years to come by terrorist groups, the latter will inevitably conclude, as millions have done before, that the easiest way into the US is through Latin America. Cooperation on security matters is desirable for America, and indispensable for the countries of the region. The consequences of a new terrorist outrage originating from any nation south of the US-Mexican border would be devastating for that country, let alone for the victims of such an attack. But the most significant issue coming to the fore in hemispheric relations is immigration. Traditionally a Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean matter, it has now reached Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and beyond. Every flight from Sao Paulo to Mexico City carries dozens of low-income Brazilians, who have already paid their pollero , or "people-smuggler," to route them on from the Mexican capital to the northern border. The New York Times recently published an exceptional description of Ecuadorian polleros transporting their human cargo to the coasts of Guatemala and then onward through Mexico to the US. Colombian displaced persons and Venezuela’s middle class are fleeing to Miami. Most dramatically, more Mexicans than ever before are risking their lives and paying up to $3,000 to enter the "promised land." Last year, I visited the main jumping-off point on the US-Mexican border: El Sasabe on the Sonora-Arizona border. In the month of May, before the summer’s searing and deadly heat, local authorities estimated a daily average of 1,000 migrants attempting to cross. Another visit this year generated a new estimate: from 1,500 to 1,800 crossings every day. America cannot stem this tide by closing its borders; but it can regulate the tide by legalizing and humanizing it, and by helping to create conditions in Latin America where life-threatening emigration is not the only way out. A first-term Kerry administration or a second-term Bush presidency must make this a high foreign policy priority. All of these issues are crucial to the US: jobs, immigration, security, energy. But Latin America is deeply troubled; it needs decisive, bold leadership at home and imaginative, unwavering support abroad. Bush or Kerry – both can deliver the foreign support. It is in America’s interest that they do.

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