Focusing on Latin America Is Essential in 2016

Focusing on Latin America Is Essential in 2016
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While the attention of the United States is focused elsewhere, Latin America is entering a period of dynamic change that could reshape its future, and recast relations with its neighbor to the north. In Argentina, a notable reformer finds himself in a close election against a member of the old guard. In Venezuela, the ruling party is turning increasingly repressive in an attempt to retain its slipping grip on power. Colombia is trying to reconcile its search for peace and desire for justice. A young democracy in Panama seeks to build stronger institutions and diversify its economy. Mexico’s growing middle class is assuming a greater role in national politics, and confronting violence driven by corruption and narcotics trafficking.

These brief snapshots of Latin America reveal a region rich in history yet in a state of dynamic flux. The Middle East, Europe and Asia often top the U.S. foreign policy agenda, but Latin America is changing in ways that could fundamentally alter its unique relationship with the United States for the better. Washington policymakers would do well to take note, or else risk losing a historic opportunity.

Over the past year, we have closely studied this region to determine how the United States can harness exciting trends towards democratization, rule of law, and economic growth. Those trends offer the potential of greater economic and political integration in the Western Hemisphere. To achieve that goal the United States and its partners must look beyond the traditional paradigm of security, narcotics, and migration. We need to leverage a growing middle class in Latin America, and a new generation of political leaders in the region who have a global vision and are willing to redefine their relationship with the United States.

There is a tectonic shift underway in Latin America involving two diverging blocs. On the Pacific Rim, the nations of Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru, and Chile all seek to modernize and diversify their economies, integrating them into the global economy through freer trade. They are eager to move beyond the vicissitudes of global commodity markets. The other bloc of countries, including Argentina, Cuba, and Venezuela, still find themselves handcuffed by authoritarian and illiberal regimes who offer the false platitudes of populism, and remain at the mercy of commodity prices for raw materials. As a regional bellwether, Brazil finds itself suspended between these diverging blocs, seeking a political and economic role commensurate with its size, yet remaining hamstrung by a corrupt and opaque political class.

For the United States, the divergence underway in Latin America presents an opportunity, but also risks. Washington should move to leverage the positive trends to achieve closer regional integration and shared economic growth. Doing so, however, will require adjusting our prism for viewing this region primarily as a hub of narco-trafficking, communist encroachment, and rampant illegal migration northwards. Those still important issues have also been impacted by the dramatic change underway in Latin America, in key instances for the better.

Despite its use as a bogeyman in domestic American politics, for instance, Mexico increasingly finds itself as a destination, and not a source, for immigrants seeking safety and stability, many of them fleeing violence in Central America linked to gangs and narco-traffickers. With reforms to education systems and economic improvement, Mexico is no longer net immigrator to the United States. Furthermore, because of these reforms, Mexico presents new opportunities for companies on both sides of the border to invest in new factories and jobs to compete in a global marketplace.

In Colombia, the hard-fought struggle against communist insurgents and narco-terrorists has reached a fateful turning point as military conflict gives way to peace negotiations. The assistance the United States provided Colombia in that epic struggle was redeemed by the blood, treasure and determination of the Colombian people, who fought those scourges in order to remain the oldest democracy in the region. Today Colombia stands as a hopeful example to all countries in the region, and around the world, that face similar threats from powerful non-state actors.

In Argentina, the election of reformer Mauricio Macri (pictured, at center) offer a potential turning point for a nation that has squandered past opportunities to join the modernizing bloc of Latin American nations. With the right leadership and reforms, Argentina can find its way back in the company of nations that embrace the rule-of-law domestically and the global economy internationally, and prosper from both. Building on the lessons of its successful neighbors, Argentina can get on the right side of Latin America’s diverging blocs.

These snapshots of Latin America reveal a region that is undergoing a historic pivot, one that presents U.S. policymakers with a great opportunity. In the 2016 election-season debate, we should reward leaders who want to forge closer ties to Latin America and a more prosperous and stable hemisphere. We should reject leaders who demagogue our southern neighbors, and propose turning our back on this important region.

Mel Martinez is a retired U.S. senator from the state of Florida. Former ambassador Francis Rooney is CEO of Rooney Holdings and a member of the board of advisers to the Panama Canal Authority. Both are trustees of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress in Washington, D.C.


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