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Waking up From the Big Sleep in Latin America

President Obama is facing multiple crises in Latin America. But for the most part they are not very noticeable to the American public. That region was, as most observers agree, notoriously neglected during the eight years of the Bush presidency. And it was not a topic of any serious discussion during the presidential campaign. But, as in Mexico, we are already engulfed in one of those many crises.

The Americas are crucial to the US future - especially in today's calamitous economic downturn. Just look at the statistics - from 1996 to 2000, total US merchandise trade with the Hemisphere grew by 139 percent compared to 96 percent for Asia and 95 percent for Europe. The US depends critically on Latin sources for its oil supplies - it gets 30 percent of its imports from the region as opposed to 20 percent from the Middle East. And the Latin continent is where most of the illegal narcotics come from. Finally Latinos now constitute 15 percent of the US population, representing nearly 50 percent of recent US population growth.

But we as a nation, especially during the Bush presidency, spent scant time working on strengthening its trade or commercial relations over the past decade. While Washington has signed bilateral free-trade pacts with eleven Latin nations (two are still awaiting congressional approval), it has, as of yet, no deal with Brazil, the continent's largest country as well as our second largest Latin trading partner (after Mexico), and it has not effectively pursued a region-wide free trade agreement covering all 34 countries of the Hemisphere. Instead, Washington has heralded as its main Latin-related policies the following: helping Columbia's fight against its FARC insurgency; tightening the US embargo on Cuba; seeking to break-up of Al Qaeda cells in Paraguay; cracking down on drug smugglers in Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia; and arresting and deporting illegal aliens. And the Bush administration has spent an inordinate amount of its political energy on attempting to counter the more militant leftist leaders in the region, especially those in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, using diplomatic threats and suspension of aid and other retaliatory measures. This has ratcheted up tensions to the point, in the case of the first two of those governments, US ambassadors have been expelled and, in the case of Ecuador, a US anti-drug operation is being shut down.

This intense focus on security has come at the expense of the more pressing needs of the Latin region, namely helping to develop its economic and social structures and raising living standards and creating a more stable Latin middle-class as well as stemming out migration and reducing drug-related violence. The new administration must begin to reorient American power toward a more measured and realistic approach to dealing with Latin America.

First, the new president must devise a comprehensive plan to help elevate living conditions throughout the Hemisphere via broad-based trade pacts and targeted US aid. As of today, forty percent of Latins still live in poverty. Consideration should be given to resurrecting the broad-based social programs like those that have worked in the past with the Latin community - e.g., FDR's Good Neighbor policy and JFK's Alliance for Progress. Second, Washington must begin to reduce its unhealthy reliance on military programs in the Americas. Third, America must also start to reach out to nations and leaders that don't necessarily like us on the grounds that, while we can disagree, we can still co-exist with one another. This especially applies to Cuba, where President Obama has recently eased travel to the island for Cuban-American families.

President-elect Obama gave a lengthy speech last May which suggests that he is aware of this situation. In his address, he called for a new "Alliance for the Americas" in which he promised to support the consolidation of democracy around the Hemisphere, including giving financial backing for independent judiciaries, free press, progressive police forces, religious freedom and the rule of law. He also said he would continue the battle against drug smuggling, but confront it not just with military force but with corruption prosecutions of and crackdowns on drug lords. In addition, he advocated comprehensive immigration reform and stated he would coordinate a new level of economic aid in order to elevate living standards, helping to fulfill the UN's Millennium Development goals of halving poverty by 2015. Finally he vowed to appoint a Special Envoy for the Americas in the White House.

Even in face of the abysmal state of US-Latin relations over the past eight years, there is still a lot of good will to build on - especially given the remarkable democratization of the continent, with the rapid spread of freely elected governments throughout the Hemisphere. Just in the last three years, 21 new leaders have been elected in the Americas. Thus the Obama administration is in office in a favorable climate in which to advance a pro-Latin policy. But President Obama still has to take the hard steps toward working in a multilateral fashion and treating Latin states as partners. He will be able to strike a new note when he attends the 2009 fifth Summit of the Americas where he will be able to reiterate his pledges of last Spring.

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