The 50 States and U.S.-Latin America Relations

By Aaron Bell

48outlineObservers seeking to fully understand U.S. relations with Latin America often focus on the federal level, but much is occurring in the majority of U.S. states as well.  Over 40 state governments have engaged with issues related to Latin America, most commonly confronting the legal aspects of immigration (particularly rights for undocumented workers who are overwhelmingly Latin American in origin), and organizing trade missions for local businesses.  Arizona, frustrated with federal policies to counter illegal immigration, enacted its own package of restrictive measures under SB 1070 in 2010, which was followed by similar legislative efforts in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.  On the trade front, after abandoning pursuit of a hemisphere-wide free trade area and then focusing on bilateral trade deals, the federal government has shifted focus toward development of a Pacific Alliance. States meanwhile have pursued commercial opportunities themselves, sending at least 17 trade delegations to Latin America over the past three years, primarily to Brazil, Mexico, and Chile.  Trade initiatives have infrequently clashed with federal policy, but a 2012 law in Florida — blocking the state government from contracting with companies with direct or subsidiary business ties to Cuba and Syria – was a rebuke of what some Floridians perceive as a weak approach by Washington. The Brazilian company Odebrecht, which has projects in Cuba that do not violate the U.S. Embargo, successfully sued the state for overstepping federal jurisdiction.  The bill’s sponsors say they intend to pursue new legal means and rally local political opposition to discourage state contracts with “sponsors of terrorism.”

Coordination initiatives by Arizona and Colorado stand out as unique models for other U.S. states.  The Arizona-Mexico Commission and its counterpart, La Comisión Sonora-Arizona, were founded in 1959 by the governors of Arizona and Sonora to coordinate local support for improvements to infrastructure, education, and security in order to benefit economic development in both states. In Colorado, the Biennial of the Americas was first organized in 2010 to highlight Denver’s role as a site of Pan-American cultural exchange.  The second Biennial, held this summer, hosted art exhibitions and roundtable discussions of social issues facing the region.

The trade and immigration focus of most of the state-level initiatives usually does not clash with Washington’s priorities and indeed are complementary of them.  When the states’ initiatives do challenge the federal government, however, the courts usually come down on the side of the latter.  Yet when states have ultimately lost out to federal power, their actions have at times brought U.S.-Latin American relations to the forefront of national debate, such as when Arizona passed tough immigration laws in 2010.  Bold initiatives from the states are rare, but there are alternatives to the standard trade-and-immigration fare.  The binational approaches of Arizona and Colorado aren’t perfect – critics of the Biennial of the Americas note that corporations use it as a platform for their own interests —but the connections they build are valuable and promote progress by connecting actors with shared interests and developing economic and cultural organizations around those ties.

 

Aaron Bell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at American University.

 

 

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: