Today, I spoke to the students, faculty, and staff from Central Connecticut State University, including members of their Latin American Association and the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Center. I laid out my vision for the future of U.S — Latin America relations, calling for a fundamental shift in the United States’ Latin American policy to reflect the region’s changing economy and evolving democracy.
The Future of Latin America: Opportunities and Challenges for U.S. Policy in the Hemisphere:
I’ve been a Senator for a long time–but I’ve been passionate about Latin America for an even longer time.
In 1966, I arrived in the rural village of Moncion in the Dominican Republic as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. Today, nearly half a century later, I’m the chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for Latin American policy.
In between, I’ve had the privilege to take part in the implementation of the Guatemala City accord, lead the US-Mexico Senate Interparliamentary Group, and work to bring Latin American issues to the forefront of our foreign policy agenda.
And, in that time, Latin America has undergone remarkable change–much of it positive.
In a part of the world long defined by violent political instability and crushing poverty, we are seeing the development of a new middle class, the consolidation of democracy, the propagation of effective fiscal and social policies, and the rise of new global powers.
Over the course of my service in the Senate, I’ve tried to play a role in shaping American policy towards our neighbors to the south. The history of our relationship has too often been fraught with tension and mistrust, paternalism and exploitation. And although we’ve made progress, as I leave the Senate, it is long past time for a fundamental shift in our Latin America policy.
Because Latin America is not our backyard. It is our neighborhood. And when we focus exclusively on the challenges still faced by our neighbors–and the related dangers we, ourselves, face–we run the risk of missing out on the opportunities their progress has created.
Two hundred years ago this fall, a Mexican priest named Miguel Hidalgo rang his church bells to signify the beginning of the Latin American fight for independence.
And while independence from the Spanish crown soon followed, the intervening centuries have not always been kind. Bloody civil unrest, authoritarian repression, widespread drug trafficking and violent organized crime–all these factors have held Latin America back.
But the Latin America I finished visiting recently, in my last visit as a Senator, looks very different.
First and foremost, democracy is becoming more widespread and more durable. In Colombia and Chile, citizens recently exercised their right to vote in successful, peaceful, fair elections. In Brazil, where President Lula has led so well, they have just elected their first female president, sending a strong message to a generation of Latin American women that they, too are part of the region’s future. President Lobo of Honduras is helping to renew his country after their recent, outrageous coup.
Meanwhile, the Latin American economy, long defined as “emerging,” has finally emerged. In the five years leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis, Latin American economies experienced growth rates of 5.5 percent, while keeping inflation in single digits. And when the crisis did hit, Latin America stood strong, weathering the crisis better than any other region in the world. This year, the Latin American economy will resume a strong 5-percent-or-higher growth rate.
And while income inequality is still a significant issue, years of stable democracy, economic reform, well-regulated banking systems, increased trade and investment, and fiscal responsibility have paid off. Forty million Latin Americans were lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2008. The region is developing a middle class that can stand on its own.
It’s not just the increasingly stable economy that is providing opportunity for historically poor Latin Americans. Governments are beginning to deliver the education, health care, and social services necessary for sustaining growth and progress. Conditional cash transfers like Mexico’s Oportunidades program and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia have reduced poverty, increased school attendance, and provided hope for a generation of low-income families that otherwise would have remained marginalized.
There is still work to do, of course. Mexico and Colombia still struggle with crime and drug trafficking. Venezuela and Cuba remain examples of democracy denied. Haiti’s desperate poverty is heart wrenching. Out of the spotlight, there are still developmental challenges: productivity is growing too slowly, saving is too low, and too much of the labor force remains in the informal economy. And even where the challenges can be more easily classified as simple growing pains, the tumultuous history of Latin America warns us that gains can be fragile.
But that old metaphor–Latin America as the United States’ backyard–is indicative of the American habit of viewing the region solely in terms of problems to be solved, not opportunities to be celebrated. In turn, our neighbors too often see us as paternalistic and bossy instead of recognizing our commonality.
What a shame. Because there is so much opportunity to be found in Latin America.
After all, we are #2 in the world in Spanish speakers. Our enormous and influential Latin community has brought cultural and familiar ties to the forefront along with our geographical proximity. And not only do we share a common colonial history, there’s reason to believe that our paths forward may converge, as well.
We want new markets for our exports. Latin America’s growing industrial economy and newly-empowered middle class represent just that.
We want to see democratic values prosper around the world. Latin America can be an important foothold for freedom.
We want to see new ideas for smart policy. Latin America is a fantastic policy incubator, producing Brazil’s sugarcane-based energy program and Bogota’s urban bike paths, in addition to the cash transfer programs I mentioned.
We want a world in which regional and global powers adhere to principles of democracy and capitalism. Latin America’s most powerful country, Brazil, can be an effective regional and global force on these issues, leading by example and demonstrating that economic growth and political freedom can rise together. Brazil is a natural ally and partner of the United States, because like us, it is a large and diverse democracy, with a dynamic economy. Partnering with Brazil will not mean convincing its leaders to do what is in our interests alone; instead, it will mean working collectively towards a common agenda that will benefit Brazilians and Americans alike.
To harness these opportunities, each of us has a role to play.
Latin American and Caribbean nations have concerns about sovereignty, and I appreciate those concerns. But the challenges we face respect no border. We must be able to encourage our neighbors to strengthen their social programs, invest in infrastructure, and trust in democracy And it’s time we worked through our discomfort and actively engaged with every country in the region, and encourage our neighbors to work with one another.
I’m pleased with the work President Obama has done on this front, deploying Secretary Clinton to the region and supporting my work as chair of the Senate subcommittee in charge of Latin American policy. The President has hosted Mexican President Calderon for a state visit and welcomed many Latin American leaders to Washington.
Meanwhile, we’re working with the Organization of American States to address the aftermath of events like the coup in Honduras and the earthquake in Haiti, and keep these potentially destabilizing incidents from derailing Latin America’s path towards progress.
The MÃ©rida Initiative with Mexico, begun under President Bush, is another important effort towards eliminating a troublesome problem–drug-related crime and trafficking. The Obama administration’s work to integrate the Central American Regional Security Initiative and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative with MÃ©rida is a step in the right direction, as is the administration’s focus on vital institution building and civil society programs.
These initiatives require both visionary leadership on the part of our government and trust on the part of our friends in Latin America. The more comfortable our relationship, the more good we can do together.
That’s why I’ve urged our government to continue its policy of encouraging the social and economic development that has brought Latin America so far along. On my recent trip to Panama, I saw first-hand the good work USAID is doing. I applaud the work we’re doing to help women entrepreneurs through the Pathways to Prosperity program, and at-risk youth through the Obra Initiative. And I want to see more programs like them.
Meanwhile, to strengthen our economic ties, I urge Congress to pass the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements, and I hope the president will continue to seek further opportunities to bolster our trade relationship and create mutually beneficially economic partnerships. Our expertise can also come in handy as our partners restructure their tax systems and collection mechanisms, helping to address inequality, boost foreign direct investment, and provide a stronger, more stable foundation for the Latin American economy.
And in Venezuela, where there is real cause for concern, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. We must address this challenge in a smart and sophisticated way.
Earlier this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human rights released a report that raised serious concerns regarding the further degradation of human rights in Venezuela. The situation is unacceptable. But this is not a case of the United States vs. Venezuela, but rather Venezuela vs. democracy. Simply refusing to talk to Caracas won’t do a thing to empower moderates and democratic advocates, loosen political restrictions, or encourage the Venezuelan people and its neighbors to push for change.
The same principle applies in Cuba. I returned from Cuba a few weeks ago, stunned to see that the country is finally making some of the critical changes in its own society that all of us, including the Cuban people, have wanted for so long. The Cuban Government recently announced that one million Cubans have been let go from the Government payrolls and instead will be allowed to run their own businesses. With the help of Cardinal Ortega and the Spanish Government, political prisoners are being released.
No, you don’t have to approve of the way Cuba is run–and I certainly don’t. Cuba clearly still has a long way to go to, and nobody is arguing to the contrary. But the simple truth is that Cuba is changing.
So the question I have to ask is, why aren’t we?
Why don’t we, Americans, have the courage to change 50 years of failed policy toward the island? Why are we stuck in an anachronistic policy that reflects the world of 1963 better than 2010? Why are we sitting on the sidelines when the very first signs of the change we all so desperately want, are finally beginning to happen? Why are we not taking critical steps that are in America’s interest?
We must summon the courage and the wisdom to change course on Cuba.
We must look forward.
Now, I’ve talked a bit about what the administration, the Congress, and our foreign partners should do to strengthen our relationship in the years to come. But, as you may have been thinking while listening to me talk about legislative steps, I am leaving the legislature.
You’ll also notice that I’m making these remarks here, at a place where people come to learn and teach, and not on the floor of the Senate.
That’s because it’s not just our policymakers who have a role to play.
Just as, for too long, America has thought of Latin America as our backyard instead of our neighborhood, too many Americans–even those with a strong interest in foreign policy–see this particular region as, well, minor, compared to Europe or Asia or the Middle East.
It’s time to start majoring in Latin America.
Students who want to pick up another language are increasingly turning to French or Chinese–I encourage you to learn Spanish. Traveling abroad? Lots of Americans spend a semester in London or Germany–why not spend yours in Quito or Santiago? In the market for a good foreign investment? Look to Brazil. A fan of Al Jazeera or the Guardian? Why not read Argentina’s Clarin, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the world?
The strength of our ties with Latin American comes not from political calculation or economic self-interest, but from the familial and cultural influence of the region on our own communities. And it is in our communities that we can begin to shift the paradigm of our relationship with our neighbors.
From my days as a Peace Corps volunteer to my days as a Senator, I count my extensive travel through Latin America as one of the great privileges of my life. I’ve seen so much change, so much progress, so much hope. And even though my public service may be coming to an end, I feel strongly that we are just at the beginning of a new era in this special relationship. The future truly is bright in our neighborhood.