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Time for a Democratic New Good Neighbor Policy

Investing in immigration reform, fair trade, gun control, poverty reduction and environmental concerns in Latin America

If the United States were to take a leadership role in poverty reduction and addressing environmental concerns, it could begin to restore its reputation in Latin America and around the world. (Photo: Andes)

If the United States were to take a leadership role in poverty reduction and addressing environmental concerns, it could begin to restore its reputation in Latin America and around the world. (Photo: Andes)

As we begin to contemplate life after Trump, the Democratic Party candidates for the White House are scrambling to distinguish themselves.  But beyond shared opposition to building a southern border wall, the candidates have so far said little about the future shape of U.S. policy for Latin America.  It is time to set a forward-looking Democratic vision for our hemisphere. Those candidates who can first articulate a thoughtful and progressive agenda on this will be at a competitive advantage with the increasing number of voters who are concerned about both Americas, North and South.

The U.S. has at present two misplaced fixations regarding Latin America:  unauthorized immigration and illegal drugs. Neither should be U.S. policy priorities.  Certainly Latin Americans do not see these issues as their foremost concerns.

Latin Americans naturally have great empathy for the plight of immigrants seeking to come to the United States.  They are horrified by the loss of life--at least 400 die crossing each year. They rightly feel deeply offended by President Trump’s obsession for building a wall to stand against them. 

The U.S. policy remedy on this challenge has been obvious for years:  comprehensive immigration reform.

Yet the U.S. policy remedy on this challenge has been obvious for years:  comprehensive immigration reform. This means permitting lawful immigration for those who can show that they have a job waiting for them when they arrive, and where their future employer made a good faith effort to first hire U.S. residents. This, plus a path to U.S. citizenship for those unauthorized immigrants already here, were the key provisions of the reforms proposed by President George W. Bush. Any Democratic candidate should be willing to pledge to do at least this much.

Latin Americans see illegal drugs as a U.S. concern, not really their problem.  American consumers make up the world’s largest market for cocaine and heroin. This, Latin American observers are quick to point out, is what drives global demand.  Coca leaves, from which cocaine is made, can be lawfully chewed or brewed in tea throughout Peru and Bolivia. If you travel there you will be offered a cup of coca tea when you check into your hotel. 

Bolivia no longer cooperates with the U.S. in drug interdiction and eradication efforts, while Peru and Colombia are at best reluctant, foot-dragging partners in the U.S.-led war on illegal drugs.  The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by three conservative former Latin American presidents, has called for an end to drug prohibition, emphasizing that the war on illegal drugs has been a costly failure.  The U.S. spends over $2 billion USD year after year on this losing effort. Democratic candidates should join with Latin American leaders in framing drug addiction as a public health issue, not a law enforcement one. Addicts do not deserve jail, they deserve our compassion and help. 

Latin American leaders would prefer serious talks on other issues, beginning with halting the steady flow of U.S. guns into the region. Most weapons recovered from crime scenes in Mexico originated in the U.S.

Illegal drugs and immigration are not Latin America’s top policy concerns with the United States.  Rather, Latin American leaders would prefer serious talks on other issues, beginning with halting the steady flow of U.S. guns into the region.  Most weapons recovered from crime scenes in Mexico originated in the U.S. Last year Mexico recorded its highest number of homicides ever. Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Venezuela suffer some of the worst homicide rates in the world.  The weapons used in these murders nearly always come from the U.S. Latin America desperately wants this illegal inflow to stop. Real gun control would save both South and North American lives.

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Second, Latin Americans want to see the setting of fairer trade conditions.  Above all they seek a reduction in U.S. farm subsidies, the over $20 billion USD annual taxpayer-funded profit enhancers that flow mostly to American agro-businesses.  These subsidies function to make it all but impossible for Latin American producers to compete evenly in international markets. Latin American farmers see U.S. subsidies an unfair block to free trade, and they are right.

But a new Good Neighbor Policy must do more than stop the U.S. from harming Latin America.  There should be a positive agenda.

One positive priority should be poverty reduction.  According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean nearly a third of the 656 million people in the region live in poverty.  But when it comes to non-military foreign aid as a percentage of total GDP, the U.S. is among the most stingy of the developed nations.

The U.S. should do more to help.  Latin America has deployed and greatly expanded Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programs in recent years, targeting funding to needy families, but conditional on meeting key provisions, such as keeping their children in school and making sure that they get their vaccinations.  The data is clear: the CCT programs are working to reduce poverty. The more funding they have, the more they help.

The U.S. should likewise help Latin America go green.

U.S. aid to support these programs would be more than welcome.  Like the CCTs, American aid can be conditional and targeted, requiring honest accounting and proof of meaningful results.

The U.S. should likewise help Latin America go green.  Latin Americans are concerned about the environment, but the costs of reducing carbon emissions can too often be beyond their means.  Here U.S. aid could be targeted too, opening new markets for clean energy companies, many of the best of which are in the U.S.

Assistance with the clean-up of Latin American water sources is also good place to begin.  For every increase of 1 percent in potable water coverage, the infant mortality rate will fall by one.  Nothing could be more important.

If the United States were to take a leadership role in poverty reduction and addressing environmental concerns, it could begin to restore its reputation in Latin America and around the world. The gains that result may not always be easy to quantify, but they are no less real. Furthering these goals makes the world becomes a safer place, makes the world becomes a better place. These must be the goals of a Democratic New Good Neighbor policy for our hemisphere.

Ronn Pineo

Ronn Pineo is a professor of Latin American History at Towson University in Baltimore. He writes frequently for the Journal of Developing Societies.

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