Why the U.S. can't afford to ignore Latin America
President Obama speaks with Guatemala President Otto Perez, right, and Chile President Sebastian Pinera, left, in April.
June 13th, 2012
11:47 AM ET

Why the U.S. can't afford to ignore Latin America

Editor's note: Christopher Sabatini is the editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at Americas Society/Council of the Americas. Ryan Berger is a policy associate at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. The views in this article are solely those of Christopher Sabatini and Ryan Berger.

By Christopher Sabatini and Ryan Berger, Special to CNN

Speaking in Santiago, Chile, in March of last year, President Obama called Latin America “a region on the move,” one that is “more important to the prosperity and security of the United States than ever before.”

Somebody forgot to tell the Washington brain trust.

The Center for a New American Security, a respected national security think tank a half-mile from the White House, recently released a new series of policy recommendations for the next presidential administration. The 70-page “grand strategy” report only contained a short paragraph on Brazil and made only one passing reference to Latin America.

Yes, we get it. The relative calm south of the United States seems to pale in comparison to other developments in the world: China on a seemingly inevitable path to becoming a global economic powerhouse, the potential of political change in the Middle East, the feared dismemberment of the eurozone, and rogue states like Iran and North Korea flaunting international norms and regional stability.

But the need to shore up our allies and recognize legitimate threats south of the Rio Grande goes to the heart of the U.S.’ changing role in the world and its strategic interests within it.

Here are three reasons why the U.S. must include Latin America in its strategic calculations:

1. Today, pursuing a global foreign policy requires regional allies.

Recently, countries with emerging economies have appeared to be taking positions diametrically opposed to the U.S. when it comes to matters of global governance and human rights. Take, for example, Russia and China’s stance on Syria, rejecting calls for intervention.

Another one of the BRICS, Brazil, tried to stave off the tightening of U.N. sanctions on Iran two years ago. And last year, Brazil also voiced its official opposition to intervention in Libya, leading political scientist Randall Schweller to refer to Brazil as “a rising spoiler.”

At a time of (perceived) declining U.S. influence, it’s important that America deepens its ties with regional allies that might have been once taken for granted. As emerging nations such as Brazil clamor for permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council and more representatives in the higher reaches of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. will need to integrate them into global decision-making rather than isolate them.

If not, they could be a thorn in the side of the U.S. as it tries to implement its foreign policy agenda. Worse, they could threaten to undermine efforts to defend international norms and human rights.

2. Latin America is becoming more international.

It’s time to understand that the U.S. isn’t the only country that has clout in Latin America.

For far too long, U.S. officials and Latin America experts have tended to treat the region as separate, politically and strategically, from the rest of the world. But as they’ve fought battles over small countries such as Cuba and Honduras and narrow bore issues such as the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement, other countries like China and India have increased their economic presence and political influence in the region.

It’s also clear that countries such as Brazil and Venezuela present their own challenges to U.S. influence in the region and even on the world forum.

The U.S. must embed its Latin America relations in the conceptual framework and strategy that it has for the rest of the world, rather than just focus on human rights and development as it often does toward southern neighbors such as Cuba.

3. There are security and strategic risks in the region.

Hugo Chavez’s systematic deconstruction of the Venezuelan state and alleged ties between FARC rebels and some of Chavez’s senior officials have created a volatile cocktail that could explode south of the U.S. border.

FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group based in Colombia, has been designated as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker” by the U.S. government.

At the same time, gangs, narcotics traffickers and transnational criminal syndicates are overrunning Central America.

In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a controversial “war on drugs” that has since resulted in the loss of over 50,000 lives and increased the levels of violence and corruption south of the Mexican border in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and even once-peaceful Costa Rica. Increasingly, these already-weak states are finding themselves overwhelmed by the corruption and violence that has come with the use of their territory as a transit point for drugs heading north.

Given their proximity and close historical and political connections with Washington, the U.S. will find it increasingly difficult not to be drawn in. Only this case, it won’t be with or against governments — as it was in the 1980s — but in the far more complex, sticky situation of failed states.

There are many other reasons why Latin America is important to U.S. interests.

It is a market for more than 20% of U.S. exports. With the notable exception of Cuba, it is nearly entirely governed by democratically elected governments — a point that gets repeated ad nauseum at every possible regional meeting. The Western Hemisphere is a major source of energy that has the highest potential to seriously reduce dependence on Middle East supply. And through immigration, Latin America has close personal and cultural ties to the United States. These have been boilerplate talking points since the early 1990s.

But the demands of the globe today are different, and they warrant a renewed engagement with Latin America — a strategic pivot point for initiatives the U.S. wants to accomplish elsewhere.  We need to stop thinking of Latin America as the U.S. “backyard” that is outside broader, global strategic concerns.

The views in this article are solely those of Christopher Sabatini and Ryan Berger.


soundoff (155 Responses)
  1. Marty

    They can't be ignored mainly because of the smell.

    June 15, 2012 at 12:50 am | Reply
  2. Mateo

    The governments are democratically elected, but that never stopped the US from sending in the CIA and overthrowing a president like they did in Guatemala. Because of the "economic interest" of our Secretary of State and CIA director (John Foster and Allen Dulles) we decided that land reform was Communism and persuaded our president to send in the CIA and make them our slaves for life. We deserve what we get. Our economy is in decline while theirs is continuing to grow. Little by little the master will become the slave.

    June 15, 2012 at 2:43 am | Reply
    • Elana

      #1 – Cite your sources.
      #2 – There is nothing of worth in Guatemala that would compell the US to stealit's alleged "wealth"...GUataemala is a nation of tiny people with herpes and goats for wives. What exactly do you think we "stole" from there. You skumwad.

      June 15, 2012 at 6:06 am | Reply
      • Charlesthemason

        They got the herpes from US doctors testing on them. Lookup the lawsuit filed against the us in regards to this matter.

        June 16, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  3. Whatever

    How CAN the US ignore Latin America? We are being colonized by them.

    June 15, 2012 at 4:54 am | Reply
    • Charlesthemason

      EXACTLEY

      June 16, 2012 at 1:11 am | Reply
  4. Elana

    of course they cannot be ignored. They are welfare siphons.

    June 15, 2012 at 6:04 am | Reply
  5. Jason K

    We have hundreds of nukes how about we drill some holes, bury them and, set them off along the southern border. Effectively we can seperate from South America right at the northern Mexican Border, problem solved.

    June 15, 2012 at 7:28 am | Reply
    • fritz

      Not sure that will work. After the dust settles, the survivors south of the border will just zipline across the nuke craters to get into our country.

      July 14, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
  6. Lee Oates

    The best thing that could happen to South America is for the US to stay out of its affairs. We have been disrupting their governments, supporting our hand-picked Dictators, and retarding their social growth for the last 200 or so years. We should concentrate on our own growing up, and the needs of our own middle class.

    June 15, 2012 at 8:17 am | Reply
  7. Ab4qqy

    In response to "latuya" above. Yes most of Latin America is democratic, that's not the problem, the problem is that they are SOCIALIST, just like the majority of Europe, and Socialism is the problem, EVERYwhere goverment has that much control of private industry and economy we're seeing financial crises. Greece, Spain, Italy all socialist. And if I remember not too long ago Columbia and Brazil were in a similar boat. Yes in 2008 it happened here, why? Because of a SOCIALIST president in the United States. If you want a Good improving economy keep the government OUT of it. Bring back Laissez-faire (YES folks Captialism DOES work when properly implemented!!!

    June 15, 2012 at 9:58 am | Reply
  8. Pedrito

    Yes, ignore us for a change, PLEASE, it's not like we have it so easy we can afford to whine because some mayor takes away our big gulps like you, and your "crusade to spread democracy" of the '60s, '70s and '80s left us with a wealth of puppet dictatorships, atrocities, CIA kidnappings and gunrunning, drug trade and commodities monopoly cartels and a host of other backed up issues we need to address. How about letting us pick up the pieces as best we can and staying out of our business??

    June 15, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  9. capnmike

    Speaking of "ignoring", it is strange to find this article in CNN News after CNN COMPLETELY IGNORED the huge demonstrations in Venezuela just this past week in favor of Capriles and against Chavez. Kinda hypocritical, huh?

    June 15, 2012 at 11:52 am | Reply
  10. infidel83

    Hmm... lets think of another time a few hundred years ago. When a government took advantage of the low and middle class, disarmed them, taxed them to death... any of this sounding familiar yet?

    June 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • fritz

      Wow! Interesting post! Could you be talking about France in 1789?

      July 14, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  11. Apophis

    NO, WE ARE NOT IMPORTANT. THERE ARE JUST MONKEYS, BANANAS, CUCARACHAS ETC IN THE REGION. STAY AWAY OF LATIN AMERICA!!!

    June 16, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  12. johnpicarra

    " controversial “war on drugs” that has since resulted in the loss of over 50,000 lives "

    There is nothing controversial about the war on drugs!
    Does the writer not see that otherwise the drug dealers were taking over the country?
    If you can not see that, you cast serious doubt about the credibility of the rest of your report, with which I agree.
    By the way, in South Africa we have had 380 000 murders with NO DRUG WAR! No Iraque and No Afghanistan!
    Here 200 000 illegal nigerian immigrants sell drugs and traffic humans in total impunity!
    Best wishes to the mexican forces of law and order!

    June 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  13. oldbikerbeatch

    I just hope the US government doesn't do much with South America until this bozo in the White House is GONE. God knows he doesn't have the respect of ANY foreign leader nor the ability to represent the United States in anything or anywhere. We'll have to wait until Mr Romney takes the Oath of Office and we again have an AMERICAN in the White House to represent us. Yes, "Latin America," as you so quaintly refer to Central and South American countries, contains an enormous wealth of natural resources that can be equitably developed and a group of nations with leaders that can be allies (apart from the ailing Chavez). But I don't trust the bozo that is currently SQUATTING in our White House to be able to do anything other than ruin our diplomatic chances with Central and South America.

    June 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
  14. Jack

    Don't ignore the ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS, round them all up and ship them back where they came from.
    OPERATION WETBACK, 1954, worked just fine. Problem solved.

    July 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  15. Economystic Extraordinaire

    The NUMBER ONE political issue to tackle, which incidentally will solve five major national financial problems at once, is ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. The best way to CREATE JOBS is to deport all illegal immigrants NOW. First that will create thousands and thousands of seriously needed immigration and border patrol agent jobs right off the bat. Second, as the illegal immigrants are removed and deported the jobs they leave will be available for TRUE AMERICANS. Third, by having TRUE AMERICANS employed then the TAXES WILL BE PAID to the government (instead of the employers of illegal immigrants keeping that money to avoid being detected for employing illegal immigrants). Fourth, by deporting illegal immigrants we SAVE OVER A TRILLION DOLLARS A YEAR as a nation since hard working TRUE AMERICANS currently pay taxes to support THE HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE BEING USED BY THE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS WHO WILL NO LONGER BE HERE. (NOT COINCIDENTALLY THIS IS ALMOST EXACTLY EQUAL TO OUR ANNUAL NATIONAL BUDGET DEFICIET) Fifth, we won't be spending real taxpayer dollars on health (including anchor babies) education and welfare on multiple fraudulent/fake identifications for each of these individuals. And finally, as a BIG BONUS it will prove to America and the rest of the world that we are serious about getting our country back on our feet which is the biggest inducement (GLOBAL CONSUMER CONFIDENCE) that will be immediately affected. America and the world need to witness this confidence.

    July 14, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
  16. MANUEL POLANCO

    THE PROBLEM WITH THE DRUGS HAVE TO BE WITH THE PEOLPLE IGNORANCE,,,UNLEES THE THE GOVERMENT WILL PROVIDE EDUCATION TO HIS OWN PEOLPE THE PROBLEM NEVER WILL STOM.

    July 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
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    August 17, 2012 at 1:03 am | Reply
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    Fastidious answer back in return of this question with firm arguments and telling everything about that.

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    October 6, 2012 at 12:48 am | Reply
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