A Latin America Game Plan

April 6, 2009

President Obama’s visit to Mexico and then his participation later this month in the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad, will be his first visit to Latin America, not only as president but ever. That he is making the trip during his first 100 days in office is an important statement to the region, especially given the economic crisis that rightly consumes his administration.

The summit offers the president an exceptional opportunity to improve the substance of US-Latin American relations. It comes at a crucial time for our nation, with so many challenges at home and abroad, but it also comes at an opportune time. Latin American leaders are eager to meet and be associated with Obama, whose remarkable popular appeal is evident in the region, as it is in many parts of the world.

Obama can make excellent use of this opportunity, if he takes some steps before the summit, keeps a few key points in mind, and uses the meeting as much to listen as to speak. Here are seven recommendations for the president:

Solidify our representation in the region. Follow through on your campaign commitment to appoint a special envoy for the Americas. Be sure that the person chosen is one of recognized stature and that he or she has your personal confidence. Resist the pressure to name someone for mainly domestic political reasons. At the same time, retain Thomas Shannon, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, an experienced career Foreign Service officer with valuable knowledge and relationships.

Address Cuba beforehand. Announce, before you leave for the summit, that your administration aims for an end to 50 years of mutual hostility with Cuba. Do not limit change in Cuba policy to relaxing the restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans, but transform the US goal from regime change to expanded cooperation on shared concerns (such as narcotics, migration, and environmental pollution) without abandoning the US commitment to human rights.

Make clear your overall approach to the region. Emphasize in Trinidad that the United States fully recognizes the great diversity in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the shared commitment to effective democratic governance, and that all face common challenges: the economic downturn and unemployment rates, the need for secure and renewable energy, citizen insecurity, reducing the harm caused by the narcotics trade, combating social inequities, and improving education to help individuals achieve their potential and countries to be competitive.

Acknowledge that government institutions, in the United States as well as Latin America, need to become more competent, more effective, and more accountable to deal with broad societal issues such as poverty, crime, and competitiveness. Recognize the increasing demographic, economic, cultural, and political interdependence of the United States with its closest neighbors: Mexico and the countries of Central America and the Caribbean.

Address Brazil specifically. It is the fifth-largest nation in the world – by both land mass and population – and it deserves special attention. Without excessive rhetoric, make it evident that your administration seeks broad strategic cooperation with Brazil on energy security, regional stability, protecting the environment and public health, liberalizing and expanding international trade, and strengthening global governance.

Avoid confrontation. In the spirit of “no drama,” avoid confrontation and finger-pointing with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or any of his friends in Central and South America. Seek ways to work directly with each country, when possible through multilateral modes, on specific issues of shared concern.

Avoid promising too much. Do not pledge that the United States will pay much more attention to Latin America. Show, instead, that your administration will improve the quality of attention devoted to the Americas: by changing mind-sets, understanding and respecting distinct perspectives, and focusing on opportunities for cooperation.

Above all, listen. That respect will help build confianza, the essential trust on which Western Hemispheric cooperation will ultimately depend.