Report

Re-Thinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World

Editor’s Summary: With the opportunity of a new U.S. administration and Congress, Brookings’s Partnership for the Americas Commission released its final report noting the need for a new hemispheric partnership to address key transnational challenges and providing specific policy recommendations on five key areas: energy and climate change, migration, trade, organized crime and drug trafficking and U.S.-Cuban relations.


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Developments in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have a very significant impact on the daily lives of those who live in the United States. Yet because of a lack of trust, an inability to undertake stable commitments by some countries, and different U.S. priorities, the United States and Latin America have rarely developed a genuine and sustained partnership to address regional—let alone global—challenges.

If a hemispheric partnership remains elusive, the costs to the United States and its neighbors will be high, in terms of both growing risks and missed opportunities. Without a partnership, the risk that criminal networks pose to the region’s people and institutions will continue to grow. Peaceful nuclear technology may be adopted more widely, but without proper regional safeguards, the risks of nuclear proliferation will increase. Adaptation to climate change will take place through isolated, improvised measures by individual countries, rather than through more effective efforts based on mutual learning and coordination. Illegal immigration to the United States will continue unabated and unregulated, adding to an ever-larger underclass that lives and works at the margins of the law. Finally, the countries around the hemisphere, including the United States, will lose valuable opportunities to tap new markets, make new investments, and access valuable resources.

Today, several changes in the region have made a hemispheric partnership both possible and necessary. The key challenges faced by the United States and the hemisphere’s other countries—such as securing sustainable energy supplies, combating and adapting to climate change, and combating organized crime and drug trafficking—have become so complex and deeply transnational that they cannot be managed or overcome by any single country. At the same time, the LAC countries are diversifying their international economic and political relations, making them less reliant on the United States. Finally, the LAC countries are better positioned than before to act as reliable partners.

This report does not advance a single, grand scheme for reinventing hemispheric relations. Instead, the report is based on two simple propositions: The countries of the hemisphere share common interests; and the United States should engage its hemispheric neighbors on issues where shared interests, objectives, and solutions are easiest to identify and can serve as the basis for an effective partnership. In this spirit, the report offers a series of modest, pragmatic recommendations that, if implemented, could help the countries of the region manage key transnational challenges and realize the region’s potential.

The report identifies four areas that hold most promise for a hemispheric partnership: (1) developing sustainable energy sources and combating climate change, (2) managing migration effectively, (3) expanding opportunities for all through economic integration, and (4) protecting the hemisphere from drug trafficking and organized crime. The next section of this report explores the growing need for a U.S.-LAC partnership. The subsequent four sections offer an analysis of each promising area for the potential partnership and provide concrete recommendations for U.S. policymakers—which are previewed below. The last section addresses U.S. relations with Cuba. Though this issue is of a smaller order of magnitude than the other four areas, it is addressed here because Cuba has long been a subject of intense interest in U.S. foreign policy and a stumbling block for U.S. relations with other countries in the hemisphere.

The report puts forward these recommendations for the next U.S. administration and Congress:

Develop sustainable energy resources and combat climate change:

  • Establish a regional subgroup for cooperation on climate change to coordinate positions in the context of the global climate change negotiations.
  • Establish an informal group to discuss and coordinate hemispheric efforts to adapt to climate change. The group would focus on identifying the challenges posed by climate change and on outlining how hemispheric cooperation and investments can be mobilized.
  • Reduce and gradually eliminate the 54¢-per-gallon tariff on ethanol imports, as well as subsidies on corn-based ethanol.
  • In partnership with other governments in the hemisphere, establish a Renewable Energy Laboratory of the Americas to promote hemispheric cooperation on developing solar, wind, and cellulosic-biomass technologies.
  • Intensify hemispheric cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
  • Help finance the integration of electric grids across the LAC region, especially in South and Central America.
  • Promote regulatory regimes that are open to private energy investment and trade in energy technology and services.

Manage migration effectively:

  • Establish groups at the working and ministerial levels to discuss migration issues regularly with key migrant-sending countries, including Mexico and El Salvador.
  • Establish a three-part visa system made up of temporary, provisional, and permanent visas to encourage circular migration patterns.
  • Establish a Standing Commission on Immigration and Labor Markets to recommend annual visa quotas on the basis of U.S. labor market needs.
  • Provide U.S. law enforcement agencies and employers with the necessary tools to enforce workplace verification laws.
  • Expand investments in technology that enhance border efficiency and security, along both the United States–Mexico and United States–Canada borders.
  • Provide a path to legal status in the United States for illegal immigrants without a criminal record.
  • Enhance joint efforts to protect the human rights of migrants.
  • Facilitate the inexpensive transfer of remittances.

Make hemispheric economic integration work for all:

  • To protect its credibility, the U.S. congress should approve the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements as soon as possible. It should then deemphasize the bilateral approach to trade negotiations.
  • Redouble efforts to pursue a successful conclusion to the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations. The United States should strive for a deal that includes meaningful agricultural reform.
  • If the Doha Round negotiations continue to drag on, the United States should consider a “third way” between global trade negotiations and bilateral agreements by deepening hemispheric economic cooperation multilaterally, through incremental arrangements.
  • Address the legitimate concerns of U.S. workers through more effective investments in social safety nets and education.
  • Expand the number of double-taxation and investment protection treaties in the hemisphere to facilitate investment.
  • Emphasize trade facilitation and trade adjustment issues in U.S. foreign assistance to the LAC countries.

Protect the hemisphere from drugs and organized crime:

  • Undertake a comprehensive, comparative evaluation of counternarcotics measures.
  • Launch a hemispheric dialogue on illegal drugs.
  • Launch pilot projects based on the most promising harmreduction approaches.
  • Increase substantially the amount of federal and state funds available to drug courts and related treatment programs.
  • Complement drug-prevention programs in schools with drug education outside the classroom.
  • Customize the messages of drug-prevention campaigns to specific target groups.
  • Combine eradication efforts with policies to promote alternative livelihoods and more effective interdiction.
  • Ratify the UN Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition.

U.S.–Cuban relations:

  • Lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba by Americans.
  • Repeal all aspects of the “communications embargo” (radio, TV, Internet) and readjust regulations governing trade in low-technology communications equipment.
  • Remove caps and targeting restrictions on remittances.
  • Take Cuba off the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List.
  • Promote knowledge exchange and reconciliation by permitting federal funding of cultural, academic, and sports exchanges.
  • Provide assistance to the Cuban people in recovering from natural and human-made disasters.
  • Encourage enhanced official contact and cooperation between U.S. and Cuban diplomats and governments.
  • End opposition to the reengagement of the international community with Cuba in regional and global economic and political organizations.
  • Work with the members of the European Union and other countries to create a multilateral fund for civil society that will train potential entrepreneurs in management and innovation.

The mechanics of partnership:

  • Consider the use of informal networks to facilitate hemispheric partnership and cooperation. To help implement all the recommendations above, and to build an institutional structure that can support sustained hemispheric partnership, consider establishing a series of informal, issue-specific, and flexible networks. The networks would help institutionalize dialogue among the countries of the hemisphere, facilitate policy coordination, and promote mutual learning without locking countries into formal negotiations.
  • Consider the creation of a hemispheric steering group, an “America’s Eight” (A8). It would be an umbrella grouping of countries from the hemisphere that would serve as a steering committee for the proposed partnership. Modeled on the Group of Eight, the A8 would set the agendas of issue-specific networks and encourage consensus building and political agreement at the highest levels of government.

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