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Latin America in the Elections: Time for a new ‘strategic vision’?

President Barack Obama delivers an address in Chile. March 21, 2011.

President Barack Obama delivers an address in Chile. March 21, 2011.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Address to the Diplomatic Corps of Latin America (March 13, 1961)

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Over fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy proposed an “Alliance for Progress – Alianza para Progresso” with Latin America “to build a hemisphere where all people can hope for a sustainable, suitable standard of living, and all can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom.” In his address announcing the Alliance for Progress, President Kennedy said:

Our unfulfilled task is to demonstrate to the entire world that man's unsatisfied aspiration for economic progress and social justice can best be achieved by free men working within a framework of democratic institutions. If we can do this in our own hemisphere, and for our own people, we may yet realize the prophecy of the great Mexican patriot, Benito Juarez, that ‘democracy is the destiny of future humanity.’

The program was meant to improve relations, which were at an all-time low when Kennedy assumed office, and to combat Communism. Many in the region were dissatisfied with American economic assistance after World War II. In addition, the United States was concerned with the growing Communist influence in the region. The ten-year program included a multi-billion dollar U.S. investment for economic aid, military assistance, food aid, education, and cultural initiatives.

President Kennedy’s dual approach of combining soft power and military assistance in many ways set the direction for subsequent administrations, particularly when regional relations were cast under the shadow of the Cold War. But American policy in the region hasn’t always been successful. By the time the Alliance for Progress faded away in the 1970s, 13 governments in Latin America were replaced by military rule. And often U.S. policy in and toward the region has been controversial – from support for covert actions, to the Iran-Contra Affair and human rights violations at the School of the Americas, just to name a few.

Latin American policy has also the subject of presidential debate. For example, during the 1984 foreign policy debate between President Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale, questions arose about crucial issues related to Central America. Mondale criticized the president for not using sufficient diplomatic means to solve problems and for embarrassing the United States by using covert actions in the region. Mondale said:

Our objectives ought to be to strengthen the democracies, to stop Communist and other extremist influences, and stabilize the community in that area. To do that we need a three-pronged attack: one is military assistance to our friends who are being pressured; secondly, a strong and sophisticated economic aid program and human rights program that offers a better life and a sharper alternative to the alternative offered by the totalitarians who oppose us; and finally, a strong diplomatic effort that pursues the possibilities of peace in the area.

But President Reagan retorted that there wasn’t really difference between Mondale’s approach and that of his administration:

I thought for a moment that instead of a debate I was going to find Mr. Mondale in complete agreement with what we're doing, because the plan that he has outlined is the one we've been following for quite some time, including diplomatic processes throughout Central America and working closely with the Contadora group.

Policy toward Latin America is one of the central issues this election. While containing the communist threat and civil wars are no longer the central focus of U.S. policy, the next administration will confront other ongoing critical challenges, including drug and gang violence, building economic ties, and immigration. Some critics contend, however, the United States no longer has a “strategic vision” for policy in the region as embodied in programs like the Alliance for Progress or the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Critics have also charged both the administrations of George W. Bush and the Barack Obama for declining American clout in Latin America, though partisanship may be one reason presidents have not been able to achieve their policy goals.

While President Obama has made numerous trips to the region, he also has noted that President Kennedy’s challenge endures. In March 2011, President Obama claimed great progress in the vibrancy of democracy, the recession of conflicts and the development of economic growth in Latin America.  He has promised to confront the enduring problem of cartels and gangs by addressing “the social and economic forces that fuel criminality.” President Obama has also stressed strengthening our economic partnership with the region, which would in turn create more jobs at home. President Obama also expressed a need to open more global markets and increase exports in order to expand the U.S. economy. Acording to the president:

We now export more than three times as much to Latin America as we do to China, and our exports to the region will soon support more than two million jobs here in the United States.

Mitt Romney has charged President Obama with several policy failures in Latin America. Romney contends that President Obama “neglected our democratic allies in the region;” waited too long to present “free trade agreements with our allies Colombia and Panama” to Congress for ratification;” “relaxed sanctions on Cuba while demanding no reforms in return;” and “allowed the march of authoritarianism to go unchecked.” In addition to courting Latino voters at home on economic and immigration issues, Romney says he will chart a new course for American policy toward Latin America. He plans to launch a “vigorous public diplomacy and trade promotion effort in the region — the Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America (CEOLA).” Romney also plans to build on “existing anti-drug and counterterrorism initiatives to form a unified Hemispheric Joint Task Force on Crime and Terrorism.” Finally, he plans to enhance military-to-military training cooperation and intelligence sharing with Mexico to go after drug cartels operating across the border. Romney has also promised to finish building the border fence.

The Miller Center has recognized that long-standing issues – including economic development, drug trafficking and immigration – will remain at the forefront of U.S.-Latin American policy concerns. Check out our special Forum series on Latin America for in-depth expert analysis of current regional issues:

 

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