By Aaron T. Bell*
Latin American governments, political parties, and business associations have a long history of turning to U.S.-based lobbying, legal, and public relations firms to advance their interests in the United States – with mixed results. Both national and multinational groups have been utilizing lobbyists since at least the 1940s, when the U.S. government began registering foreign agents. Their most consistent goal over the decades has been to influence U.S. policy on foreign trade and investment, but they have also aimed to improve governments’ sagging reputation and protect them from adverse policies. In the 1970s, a number of military regimes and right-wing political groups in Central and South America hired lobbyists to devise and implement strategies to counter criticism of their human rights record – to preserve trade and military assistance.
- Some 30 Latin American countries and interests groups in 2010-14 registered foreign agents to influence U.S. policies. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism spent the most, paying $128.9 million to promote tourism – as well as to monitor and speak with Congressional representatives about U.S. legislation related to transnational financial activities in which they are involved, such as the regulation of offshore tax havens and online casinos.
- In 2013, Mexico ranked fifth worldwide, at $6.1 million. Both federal and local governments pay firms to burnish the image of their respective constituencies. From 2010-12, for example, Mexico City worked with a firm to “enhance the image of Mexico City in light of recent negative media reports.” In 2014, the Consejo de Promoción Turístico de México hired another company to “make Mexico an attractive destination.”
- Ecuador, which at $1.1 million ranked twenty-second in 2013, spent nearly half a million dollars lobbying in support of the ultimately failed Yasuni rain forest oil drilling initiative.
- More recently, the government of Honduras – burdened with the image as one of the most violent, corrupt, and crime-ridden countries in the world – hired lobbyists to “provide ongoing strategic counsel, media relations (proactive and reactive outreach), and third-party relations.” The firm, winning an initial one-year contract for $420,000, had just completed a nine-year relationship representing Russia.
A review of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) records indicates that foreign lobbyists represent almost exclusively governments, state agencies, and the private business sector, and that more popular civil-society actors – such as labor unions and indigenous organizations – are notably absent. Even though foreign governments obviously judge the investment worthwhile, the impact of foreign-funded lobbyists is difficult to measure. The Honduran government’s new push to burnish its image has paid off on Capitol Hill, according to observers, but a new initiative to reduce Honduran corruption doesn’t appear to have gone exactly as Tegucigalpa hoped. Forced to respond to a protest wave calling for the creation of an independent investigative body similar to the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), the Honduran government agreed with the OAS to create the Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) as a collaborative effort. MACCIH indeed lacks the independence – and the potential bite – that CICIG had, but it is significantly tougher than the Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández initially proposed. In this case at least, lobbyists have helped the government gain access and public relations points in Washington but didn’t get it off the hook entirely.
January 22, 2016
* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.