Ted Piccone on Latin America:
Not surprisingly, neither candidate had anything substantive or new to say in any of the debates about our closest neighbors. Why does Latin America and the Caribbean rank so low in the foreign-policy agenda of either party?
Latin America, of course, is made up of diverse countries developing at different speeds. In general, however, the 32 countries of the hemisphere are growing at an above-average rate, due largely to Asia's growing demand for its natural resources. The United States has generally fared well in trade and investment terms, with exports doubling since 2000 under a web of free trade agreements promoted by both parties. Getting Congress to approve trade pacts with Colombia and Panama in 2011 was a major breakthrough.
From a trade and jobs point of view, President Barack Obama was right to push Congress to act. The United States already exports more to the region than to Europe, twice as much to Mexico as to China, and more to Chile and Colombia than to Russia. More exports means more good jobs in the United States. America's energy security is also in play: A third of U.S. oil imports come from our neighbors and Canada is our No. 1 supplier, reducing our dependence on the Middle East. On the downside, America's share of the region's market has declined significantly in the last decade, with China and Europe stepping in with cheap goods and favorable terms. So Republican nominee Mitt Romney is to be applauded for touting the idea to promote trade even further (though he may exaggerate the upside).
While both candidates, not surprisingly, call for expanded trade with the region, neither has a clear diplomatic or political roadmap for achieving it. Ever since 2003, when Brazil torpedoed Bill Clinton's vision of a free trade area of the Americas, the United States has pursued a series of smaller agreements that, while helpful, leave wide swaths of the region's growing markets (mainly Brazil) up for grabs. Domestic constituencies in the labor and human rights movements fought hard for years to block the agreement with Colombia. Other sectors that could be hurt by reduced subsidies (think corn and cotton industries) and competition (think trucking) are quick to mobilize their friends in Congress to slow things down.
So the trade agenda with Latin America, because it plays to both candidates' arguments about reviving the economy, does at least get a nod. Otherwise, except for the obligatory teeth-baring toward Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers, the region is simply ignored. That's because the big issues on the agenda between the United States and the region -- drugs, guns and crime, migration, and Cuba -- all touch on hotwired domestic political issues that leave little room for winning votes.
Latin America is a nuclear-free zone of peace with small militaries, democratizing politics, and liberalizing economies. But its societies are riven by violent crime, drug trafficking, and guns. The United States is a responsible party on all these issues. We buy the cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana that flow across our borders, and we sell the weapons that fuel the traffickers' gruesome attacks. To tackle these challenges, any president must spend some hefty political capital to make the case for a new strategy geared more toward public health treatments for drug addiction, reduced penalization for minor drug possession, and serious restrictions on gun trafficking from north to south. He would need to take on the gun lobby, the prisons lobby, and the "tough-on-crime" politicians. Easier said than done.
On immigration, the candidates face angry voters who see migrants from Mexico and Central America as aliens who are after decent jobs and free public benefits. Romney played his hand in the primaries, embracing a get-tough approach that may well cost him the election if Latinos come out and vote in bigger numbers. Meanwhile, Obama has walked a fine line between tough enforcement and record deportations of migrants, on the one hand, and ordering legal residency for children of illegal immigrants under certain conditions, on the other. Comprehensive reform, however, remains unfinished business that will demand a heavy lift by the White House.
And then there is Cuba, which happened to get the moderator's opening line about the 50th anniversary of the nuclear missile crisis. How fitting, since U.S. policy remains stuck in a Cold War time warp. To break that logjam, the next president will need to raise his sights beyond electoral politics and calculate that direct engagement with an evolving Cuba will protect America's national interests better than embargoes and isolation. While Cuba's system remains tightly controlled, it is opening new doors to liberalize the economy, religious freedom, and travel for its citizens. This should be enough to allow the White House to go beyond Obama's initial steps to liberalize travel and remittances for Cuban Americans by further supporting Cubans' independence from the state and thereby securing his historic legacy. It would also win kudos from our partners throughout the region -- all of whom ridicule the embargo -- and help restore American credibility around the world. He will, however, have to contend with the noisy and well-financed hardliner factions in Florida and New Jersey that want an abrupt and destabilizing collapse of the Cuban regime. It can be done if the next president has the wisdom and the courage to take Latin America seriously.
Ted Piccone is senior fellow and deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings.