How the US can improve its foreign policy toward Latin America

It is relatively easy to critique individual foreign policy decisions made by the United States with regard to specific countries and situations that arise in Latin America, but it is more difficult to suggest broad changes in America’s stance toward the region as a whole. Nevertheless, there are some overarching matters of US foreign policy toward the region that could be improved.

For instance, the War on Drugs has been one of the most fruitless and devastating US-led initiatives in that region of the world. A recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime concluded that the Americas have superseded Africa as the world’s most violent region, in part due to the persistent presence of organized crime. Moreover, despite billions of dollars in funding over many decades, top officials from both the US Southern Command and the Coast Guard have stated lately that they are only able to intercept about 20 percent of the drugs leaving Latin America destined for the US.

The militarization of the drug war has left nearly a hundred thousand dead in Mexico and tens of thousands more in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and other countries in recent years. There needs to be a complete inversion of priorities. Instead of focusing on taking kingpins out of commission and crop-dusting campesinos’ coca fields, the US should push its partners to concentrate on the factors that drive people to criminal activity – namely a lack of legitimate economic opportunities.

If the massive amounts of funding for security assistance had been directed toward helping countries in the region make improvements to infrastructure, education and social services, the benefits would have accrued not only to Latin Americans, but also to the United States’ economy in the form of improved economic relations. As it stands, US trade with Latin America, both in imports and exports, has been decreasing in recent years.

The results of the United States’ economic policies in the region have been as disappointing as those of its security-related efforts. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) forged by the United States, Canada and Mexico in 1994 has largely failed to benefit the majority of Mexican citizens. Instead, Mexico has suffered from persistently high poverty and unemployment and an economic growth rate that has lagged behind that of the region as a whole.

In Colombia, a free trade agreement concluded in 2011 has also failed to yield positive results for many of that country’s citizens. Colombia’s agricultural sector under the agreement has met a similar fate to that of Mexico under NAFTA. Agricultural imports to the country have skyrocketed in recent years, undercutting small farmers and contributing to the frustration that bubbled over into a nationwide strike in August 2013.

Perhaps more importantly, these policies have not benefitted Americans either. Rather, they have brought about a “race to the bottom,” wherein US workers are pressured to accept pay cuts to compete with their lower-wage counterparts south of the border. In sum, the promises made by the proponents of “free trade” have rarely materialized.

Finally, and perhaps most broadly, the United States should stop treating Latin America as its “back yard.” Supporting – tacitly or otherwise – anti-democratic movements and actions in countries like Honduras and Venezuela does not engender confidence that the United States is a reliable supporter of basic principles like democracy, human rights and national sovereignty.

The countries of Latin America share many aspects of their history and politics with the United States. In many cases, these nations were born of revolutionary struggles against European imperialism. They continue to wrestle with issues of race and class and gender and sexuality. Many of their citizens live and work within the US’s borders, as do many American citizens within theirs.

The US should view Latin America not as a region to be antagonized, patronized and dictated to, but rather should see them as partners on the global stage. These countries and their citizens share the United States’ values of democracy and respect for human rights. The US should seek to make the most of these similarities.

Improving US foreign policy toward Latin America is not as simple as improving US foreign policy “toward Latin America.” What is truly required is an absolute overhaul of the entire US foreign policy apparatus. However unlikely this may be, it is not impossible or unthinkable. Promoting a less militaristic approach to security issues, more sustainable and mutually beneficial economic policies and greater respect for democracy and human rights overall – these are things that can benefit not just the United States’ international partners, but America itself.


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