When Donald Trump takes office in January, he will inherit a relationship with Latin America vastly different from the one Barack Obama faced when he entered the White House eight years ago. The Obama administration has made tremendous progress when it comes to our neighbors in the Americas, and the president-elect would be wise to sustain that progress by building bridges rather than walls.
Part of our changing relationship with our neighbors is due to events beyond our control. In the last few years, the region has moved away from populism and towards pragmatic leadership. And Fidel Castro’s recent death dealt a serious blow to his leftist ideology that shaped the way the United States viewed the Americas for decades. But much of the credit for progress over the past eight years is also owed to President Obama’s reinvigoration of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.
I traveled with President Obama to his first Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago shortly into his first term. At the Summit, the president laid out his vision for an “equal partnership” with “simple engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and values.” Eight years later, he and Vice President Biden have pursued that vision with great results.
In Colombia, steadfast U.S. support has aided peace negotiations. In Argentina, President Obama seized on the opportunity of President Macri’s election and has breathed new life into our long dormant bilateral relationship. In Central America, we now are addressing the root causes of child migration by investing in programs to reduce violence and poverty. And of course, U.S.-Mexico relations are stronger than ever.
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The president-elect’s number one goal in the Americas should be to shore up the Obama administration’s big gains. But there are also two key areas of unfinished business for the new administration and Congress.
First, we must prioritize working with our neighbors in the Caribbean. I introduced legislation with U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which passed the House of Representatives in June, calling for a new multi-year strategy for Caribbean engagement. As Venezuela’s petrodollars continue to dry up, our friends in the Caribbean will need us more than ever. But we should not be involved just because Venezuela’s influence is waning; we should be involved because the Caribbean matters deeply to the United States, particularly when it comes to energy and security matters.
Greater involvement in the Caribbean starts by actually being there. We do a real disservice to our country by having no physical diplomatic presence in five of the countries of the Eastern Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. They say you cannot conduct diplomacy from a bunker, and it’s also true that you cannot conduct diplomacy from hundreds of miles away. How can our diplomats develop relationships with key officials and judge what is happening on the ground? The answer is, they can’t. That’s why we must have a U.S. embassy or consulate in each country.
The second area demanding attention is U.S. drug policy in the Americas. After spending billions of dollars on counter-narcotics programs with mixed results, at best, the U.S. government must reevaluate our supply-side drug policies in Latin America and the Caribbean. We need to take an honest look at what has worked and what has failed as we consider how to spend our counter-narcotics dollars going forward. With heroin use on the rise here at home, our children deserve no less than a fair evaluation of our drug policy.
We have so much important business here in our own neighborhood that often does not get the attention it deserves. But with constant foreign policy crises throughout the world, getting it right in Latin America and the Caribbean should be relatively easy for the president-elect. President Obama has already set the course. The next administration should make it a priority to keep moving forward.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., is the ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.