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November 24, 2008

First on the Agenda: Latin America?
Posted by Jake Colvin

Jake Colvin is a fellow with the New Ideas Fund and a Vice President with the National Foreign Trade Council, a non-profit trade association based in Washington, DC.

In Miami a few weeks ago, a woman visiting from Colombia told me that the entire world is waiting for a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy to begin.  There is a good case to be made that a new approach to foreign policy should start in this hemisphere.

It is the case that the Brookings Institution made today in a new report, “Rethinking U.S.–Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World.” The task force that Brookings set up, which was co-chaired by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and former U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, suggests that that United States should cooperate with Latin America on a new energy relationship, migration issues, further economic integration, and counternarcotics. 

The task force also suggests that the United States pursue a new relationship with Cuba.  It recommends removing certain travel restrictions by U.S. citizens, improving cultural exchanges with the Cuban people, reengaging diplomatically with the Cuban government and our allies and removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Thomas Pickering, a former Undersecretary of State and co-chair of the report, told me earlier this year that, “It’s long past time that we … get dramatic about Cuba, which could help us in the hemisphere. You can use this election as an opportunity to change. We’ve been in a rut that hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

Pickering’s point -- that changing Cuba policy could help the United States more broadly -- is an important one. It is difficult to suggest that Latin America will or should be as urgent a priority for the next administration as stabilizing Afghanistan or solving the global credit crisis.  At the same time, certain easily-attainable policy changes towards Cuba could have a disproportionately large impact on U.S. national security and foreign policy.

The appeal of Brookings report is that its recommendations are, to use their words, “modest” and “pragmatic.”   While other foreign policy issues may take years to resolve in cooperation with the international community, with respect to Cuba, it would be relatively easy to demonstrate the kinds of immediate changes Brookings recommends through a Federal Register notice and a new diplomatic approach to Cuba and our allies.  (In addition to Brookings’ recommendations, as I argue in a report which will be released next month, the next administration should also ease the resource burden on the Treasury and Homeland Security Departments by mandating general licensing of authorized categories of travel to Cuba and redeploying resources internally to focus on more urgent priorities such as investigating criminals and terrorists.)

Even these small changes to policy and rhetoric would send a strong message to U.S. allies who will be looking for early signs from the next administration and have the potential to improve U.S. national security.  Compared with difficult challenges such as stabilizing Afghanistan or containing Iran, Cuba is an easy place to showcase change. “The next administration needs to have an early win,” former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Peter Romero told me last month.  Romero, who was a key player in the Clinton administration’s second-term efforts to increase people-to-people exchanges, added, “We’ve been on a losing streak for so long, something that breaks the paradigm and shows bold strokes would have an enormous impact. I think you can do that with Cuba.”

The United States could also improve its national security by reversing Bush-era policies.  After 9/11, the Bush administration actually increased the burden on key government agencies responsible for keeping the United States safe from terrorism by ordering the Departments of Treasury and Homeland Security to increase its enforcement of the Cuba embargo.  Today more attention and resources flow to enforcing and administering the Cuba embargo at rather than more urgent pursuits such as halting flows of money to al Qaeda and keeping terrorists and criminals out of the United States. As one former Treasury Department official said to me, “The Cuba program puts extraordinary demands on government resources.” Reversing this trend of stepped-up enforcement, and finding ways to streamline routine administration of the embargo, should be a priority of the next administration. 

As the Obama-Biden transition team reviews the list of Bush administration regulations, it should stop to focus on the changes that have been made to the Cuba program over the past eight years.  Immediately reversing these rules on Cuba could have a tremendously positive effect on U.S. foreign policy and national security.


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If the incoming Obama Adminstration regards all the nations to its south as trading partners, friends and equals, recognise their right to determine their internal politics, to trade and make alliances with who ever they wish, it will be warmly welcomed by all, whatever the political hue of the nations' leaderships.

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