Little Promise of Progress on LA Issues in the U.S. Congress

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

U.S. Capitol Building / Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol / public domain

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate appear likely to continue having diverse positions on elements of Latin America policy, but the parties are divided and the proposals – as has been said of the Obama Administration’s – appear piecemeal.  Neither the Democratic nor Republican Party is monolithic; both have diverse voices on the region – with strident internal differences registered on Cuba, Venezuela, the alleged role of Iran, and other contentious issues.  Congressional interest in Latin America tends to swirl around three interwoven areas:

  • On human rights, both parties have expressed concerns, but in very different contexts.  Conservatives continue to press the Administration to be tougher on Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and others.  Centrist and liberal-leaning members have urged reassessment of Washington’s position on human rights-related developments in Honduras and Mexico.
  • On security issues, there appears to be vague agreement to give priority to stemming transnational crime and promoting “citizen security” – and to programs that are spinoffs of Plan Colombia and the Iniciativa Mérida – but the Administration’s penchant for militaristic approaches and the concomitant need to cooperate with existing (and often corrupt) forces also draw considerable criticism.  Some members of Congress continue to insist that Iran is laying the groundwork for radical Islam and terrorism in Latin America, but the Administration, while remaining vigilant, has been reluctant to make that concern central to its programs.  Predictably, Congressmen close to former Colombian President Uribe oppose President Santos’s peace talks with the FARC.
  • The trade agenda is also contentious.  Both parties have advocates obsessed with securing trade accords as well as others who are skeptical or even hostile toward them.  With the “Free Trade Area of the Americas” vision of Presidents Bush (father) and Clinton long gone, some members continue to push for bilateral deals, but a three-region approach – linking Latin America, Asia, and the United States – seems to be gaining momentum.  Special deals under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Enforcement Act (ATPDEA) – already battered by ups and downs in U.S. bilateral relationships – have faded.

Issues like relations with Cuba and Venezuela perennially threaten the broader agenda on Latin America, and the intensity of rightwingers on those issues – including Cuban-American Senators Menendez (D‑NJ) and Rubio (R‑FL) and Representatives Ros-Lehtinen (R‑FL) and Albio Sires (D‑NJ) – tends to intimidate other members of the House and Senate.  Sen. Jeff Flake (R‑AZ) and Reps. Farr (D‑CA) and McGovern (D‑MA) have denounced the embargo, but the Committee chairs in both houses of Congress can block their legislation.  But other aspects of Latin America policy, especially on trade, may advance if the Administration pushes hard – or will wither if it does not.  The result will be a continued reliance on diverse security programs without a broader vision for Washington’s supposed partnership with the region.

 

Secretary-designate Kerry Hews to Old Line on Latin America

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: cliff1066™ | Flickr | Creative Commons

Senator John Kerry’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of State focused overwhelmingly on Syria, Iran, and Libya, but there were glimpses of the nominee’s approach – at least for now – to Latin America.  His almost-certain successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey, sees Latin America through a distinctly Cuban-American optic and asked Kerry predictably leading questions about the region.  Menendez asked Kerry how he would respond to change in the Western Hemisphere, highlighting “changing political tides,” potential transition in Venezuela, public security in Mexico and Colombia’s talks with the FARC.

Kerry’s responses did not challenge the premises of Menendez’s questions and stuck closely to recent U.S. policies.  He offered neither details nor hints of change.  Reflecting the State Department’s emphasis on a programmatic approach to the region, he highlighted security cooperation with Mexico and Central America, unspecified energy and climate initiatives with Brazil, and development assistance to Honduras and Guatemala.  Kerry praised former president Álvaro Uribe, under whose aegis most of the $8 billion in Plan Colombia funds were spent, for helping make Colombia “one of the great stories in Latin America.”  He termed Venezuela and its allies as “outlier states” and said U.S. policy should “induce people to make a better set of choices.”  When Arizona Republican Jeff Flake expressed support for a broader opening on Cuba travel, arguing that unleashing hordes of American students on spring break would pose a greater challenge to the Castro brothers than continued restrictions, Kerry smiled but remained quiet. Later, Menendez lashed back and turned the focus to Cuba’s human rights record.

As expected, Kerry did not advocate any major shifts or offer new ideas on U.S. policy toward Latin America – obviously preferring to avoid confrontation with Menendez and Republican Cuban-American Marco Rubio.  Kerry’s strategy was to ruffle no feathers.  His remarks about President Uribe, for example, appeared intended to assuage right-wingers unhappy with his focus as Chairman on the Colombian President’s dismal human rights record and lack of accountability for a host of abuses of power.  Likewise, agreeing with Menendez that President Chávez was a problem was thin gruel; eagerly awaiting the Venezuelan’s demise does little to address the shortcomings of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  

Latin America-watchers know well that Kerry and President Obama will be more focused on other regions, leaving space for the SFRC conservatives to weigh more heavily on Latin American policy than they already do.  Despite the Cuban-American community’s obvious shifts away from most elements of the right wing’s Cuba policy, Menendez and Rubio have already declared they will block any efforts toward better relations with Cuba even on a people-to-people level.  By extension, they will oppose any outreach to Venezuela before they believe regime change has occurred.  Nor did Kerry offer any departures from the U.S. war on drugs.  Stagnation on these two policies puts the United States on a collision course with even close friends in the region, who have said they will not participate in hemispheric conferences that continue to exclude Cuba and that advocate a more candid conversation about the failure of the “war on drugs.”  This approach risks continuing to undermine U.S. relevance and influence in the region.