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Foreign Policy In Focus » Article / Commentary

Advice for Obama from the Hemisphere

April 13, 2009 ·

Latin American leaders weigh in on how the United States can mend relations with its neighbors.

Fourteen diverse leaders from 11 countries responded with concrete initiatives or policy changes that the Obama administration could make during its first year to build productive, respectful relations.

Their specific recommendations are summarized below. Here are some of the main themes:

End the Monroe Doctrine

As Enrique Daza, a Colombian trade unionist, put it, "it's necessary to accept that the Americas will be pluralist, that the governments will have different social and economic approaches, and that every country and every people are free to choose the path that they consider best for their own development." In Colombia, for example, the U.S. government should cease coca fumigation efforts that have failed to stop the drug trade and destroyed people's food security. Other contributors called for the removal of U.S. military bases, an end to U.S. military exercises and military aid in the region, and the lifting of the Cuban embargo. Francisco Soberón, of the Peruvian human rights group APRODEH, which led the successful legal campaign to bring former President Alberto Fujimori to justice, suggested another way the Obama administration could turn the page on past U.S. meddling in the region: expedite the declassification of documents that could facilitate the prosecution of repressive leaders supported by prior U.S. governments.


Overhaul U.S. Trade Policies

Nearly every contributor called for the Obama administration to re-think its trade policies. For example, Victor M. Quintana, a Mexican peasant leader and former congressman, pointed out that under the North American Free Trade Agreement, "U.S. government-subsidized produce has forced a huge number of small Mexican farmers out of the market." He called for the renegotiation of NAFTA to foster collaboration between subsistence farmers, small and medium farmers, and agribusiness and to protect migrant worker rights. Several contributors also pointed out the links between current U.S. trade policies and immigration. Edgardo Lander, a Venezuelan professor, noted that "Massive rates of legal and illegal migration in the recent past have largely been caused by free market policies. Free trade, export-oriented growth, and the privatization of public resources have led to the destruction of small farmers' livelihoods, widespread unemployment, and increased economic inequality."

Help to Promote Development

As Omar Salazar, the head of a Costa Rican labor organization, said, in this economic crisis "it would be inadmissible for the U.S. government to inject billions of dollars to save companies and its economy while maintaining trade agreements with some governments of our countries that tie the hands of the State from intervening in the economy." Moreover, the Obama administration was urged to maintain trade preferences that create jobs. "Bush's removal of Bolivia from the ATPDEA potentially puts more than 20,000 innocent Bolivian workers out of a job," said Rodolfo Ramos, Carmen Cardozo, Natalia Alanoca Condori, and Joaquín Aquino of Bolivia — a country stripped last year of its benefits under the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act.

Cooperate to Save the Planet

Sara Larraín, a leading environmentalist and former Chilean presidential candidate, suggested that the Obama administration "begin an era of cooperation with Latin America on security and energy sustainability." As she points out, it's in the U.S. interest to help the region address climate change by supporting a shift to greater energy efficiency and use of renewable fuels through technology transfer and capacity building.

While civil society leaders throughout the hemisphere are eager to offer suggestions for improved U.S. relations, it must be noted that the great superpower to the north doesn't preoccupy the region to the extent that it once did, particularly in South America. During the past decade, voters in many countries have put in power new leaders who campaigned on promises to pursue greater economic and political independence. There's a new focus on building up regional institutions and economic cooperation, for example through the Bank of the South, a regional alternative to the World Bank and IMF, as well as UNASUR, a nascent body representing all of the South American countries modeled to some extent on the European Union.

As Jorge Carpio, Executive Director of the Citizens' Justice and Human Rights Forum (FOCO) in Argentina, told us, "We must work together to construct a global system of equality and solidarity, which enables us to confront the serious challenges of climate change and global poverty — and to create lasting peace."

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