The United States’ hesitant response to the events currently underway in Venezuela highlights a continuing difficulty of U.S. policy towards the region: a dearth of new ideas.
While some of the brightest minds in the United States have spent the last decades wrestling with the Middle East and the war on terrorism, it is difficult to remember the last time the U.S. government articulated a compelling vision about our Latin American neighbors. There is no other part of the world whose fate is more intertwined with the United States, from the millions of immigrants in the United States with family in the region, to U.S. companies which sell their products to Latin Americans.
It is difficult to think of another power that has spent so little time thinking about neighbors so critical to its own prosperity, while spending so much time, money and creativity on problems so distant. For more than a century, Latin America was ancillary to an Atlantic-centered world dominated by the U.S. and Europe.
The region was a tapestry of contrasts between the cities and the neglected countryside. Even the internal wars and social conflicts which tore Latin America apart during the Cold War were part of an “Atlantic-centered” world, shaped by a struggle between Western democratic capitalism, and a westernized version of communism.
But, in less than a generation, the “globalization” of Latin America has changed each of these dynamics and choices. As most of Latin America thrusts into the broader world economy and embraces the telecommunications and Internet revolutions, no one to our south is truly “off the grid.”
The dichotomy between those “plugged in” to modernity, and those unseen, is breaking down, even if the inequalities associated with it persist. Today, the street vendor in Mexico City can be in daily contact via prepaid cell phone with family in Chiapas, and an immigrant from El Salvador in Washington, D.C., can send money to her mother and video chat with her daughter in San Vicente.
In addition to the “cellphone-smartphone-Facebook-Twitter” revolution, the region’s immersion into the “Community of the Pacific” has changed where its leaders and populations put their attention. New patterns of trade with the Chinese and other Asian countries, has fed the commodity boom, and with it changed the region profoundly. Today, Latin America is China’s second-largest overseas investment destination after Europe, and ranks among the leading export markets for much of the region.
The new economy of the Pacific means new options for Latin America, and challenges for which the U.S. has no playbook. While democracy, justice and human rights remain paramount, the U.S. needs new thinking to address the circumstances of the region today. A contemporary approach to the region should include:
• Focus on the new “Pacific Community.” The U.S. should work to ensure that this new center of global economic vitality is shaped by principles that will ensure its stability and prosperity, regulatory transparency, free trade, and respect for physical and intellectual property. It should support and encourage new regional groupings embodying these values such as the Pacific Alliance, and join those in Asia aspiring to the same through initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
• Embrace a comprehensive Immigration Policy. The United States is intimately connected to the region through the millions of Americans of Latin American descent with families there. A U.S. immigration policy grounded in the rule of law, but recognizing that the millions currently lacking legal status are part of our extended family, is a powerful way to demonstrate the cultural bond that the United States shares with Latin America, as well as the sincerity, respect for and compassion towards its people.
• Presidential level advocacy. For the United States to convince Latin American countries of its commitment to the region, the message must come consistently from the top. The president must develop personal relationships with those leaders trying to propel their countries forward.
Our regional partners must know that we understand how the region is changing, and that we want to partner as equals, with those willing to partner with us. However, a modern day partnership must not only be raised at Latin American summits or “Latino” forums around the U.S., but also during the day-to-day work of a U.S. government equipped to help, but perceived to lack foresight, or to be too distracted to notice or care about the region.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. R. Evan Ellis is associate professor at the National Defense University.