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The U.S. Congress and Latin America: A New Slate for the 111th

January 15, 2009

The U.S. Congress and Latin America Update: A New Slate for the 111th

This is the second of a two-part series. The U.S. Congress and Latin America: The 110th Comes to a Close was featured in the December 18, 2008, issue of News & Views.

Last week, 54 first-time representatives and nine first-time senators were sworn in as members of the 111th U.S. Congress. This brings new opportunities for legislative leaders to respond to some of our hemisphere’s most pressing socioeconomic, security and development priorities and usher in a new era of U.S. relations in the Americas.  

The U.S. approach to hemispheric relations should be multifaceted, rather than focus on just the hot-button topics. Core policy objectives should focus on continuing to expand open markets, helping partners strengthen democracy, and providing opportunities for individual prosperity. Successful U.S. relations will not be achieved by ad-hoc accomplishments; rather the goal should be simultaneous movement in each area. To make this reality, the 111th Congress must take action on pressing legislation that has slipped by previous congresses.

Approve the Social Investment and Economic Development Fund

U.S. foreign assistance to the region has been modest for decades and is inadequate to ensure necessary levels of growth. Congress should increase Western Hemisphere-focused budget allocations, but must also approve the Social Investment and Economic Development Fund for the Americas.  This legislation—previously introduced with bipartisan support by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ)—is a pivotal vehicle for the United States to promote growth and opportunity while providing a multi-prong approach for development in the Americas. As previously introduced, it would invest $2.5 billion over 10 years toward initiatives that reduce poverty, expand the middle class, and foster increased economic opportunity.

The 111th Congress must open markets

The last Congress approved an important trade deal with ratification of the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement.  However, passage of already-signed agreements with Colombia and Panama continue to be delayed by precarious circumstances.

For Colombia, the trade agreement was agreed to and signed in 2006. Yet, a Republican-controlled Congress (January 2005 – January 2007) could not must the time or attention to devote to seeking consensus on a bipartisan deal for its approval. In the Congress that just concluded (January 2007 – January 2009), Democrats, the new majority, were unsuccessful in finding common ground with the Bush administration on the issue of labor protections for Colombian union leaders. One thing is certain: both sides of this political battle have dug in their heals. The newly sworn-in Congress must find a path forward which considers both the economic and human rights merits of the agreement. Common ground is achievable and must be attained.  

Panama also has suffered from a drawn out and convoluted ratification process. But consideration, albeit perhaps unfair, has rested on the Colombian agreement first being passed. Panama’s situation was further complicated by the ascension of Pedro Miguel González, implicated in the 1992 murder of a U.S. Army Sergeant in Panama City, to the head of the Panamanian National Assembly. He did not seek reelection to the post and stepped down in September. By itself, the Panama trade agreement faces limited opposition. Congress should ask President-elect Obama to promptly send the agreement to Capitol Hill for a quick approval.

Ratification of these two agreements in early 2009 would be a win-win situation: increased economic opportunities for our partners as well as removal of trade barriers for U.S. exporters during these rough and uncertain economic times.

Continue and expand successful policies

U.S. commitment toward improving hemispheric security must be preserved through continued support of the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia as well as expansion of parallel policies in the Caribbean and across Central and South America. As witnessed by Colombia’s economic growth, a secure environment is vital for creating the conditions necessary for prosperity. Congress must continue to provide funds and oversight to ensure continued success in Colombia and in other countries in the hemisphere burdened by the illegal narcotics trade. This includes steadfast support for Mexico in its fight against violent narcotraffickers.  

In addition, Congress should support and encourage the incoming Obama administration to pursue the Pathways to Prosperity. Through it, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Peru have joined the United States in working to sustain and broaden economic growth in the Americas. Pathways to Prosperity seeks to further promote, integrate, and advance the hemispheric economic and development agenda by creating a viable framework for cooperation in the decades to come.

Furthermore, the energy partnership forged between the U.S. and Brazil is central to bringing together willing partners to work on a common agenda. The efforts to reduce energy dependency from resources outside the hemisphere while strengthening infrastructure and development in poorer nations has provided a blueprint to expand connectivity and a precedent to work on broader pieces of the hemispheric agenda.  The U.S. Congress should work to solidify recent gains in energy security.

With the April Summit of the Americas on the horizon, Congress should act now to reassure the hemisphere of U.S. commitment. The 111th Congress can and should work with President-elect Obama to successfully pass into law measures of increasing hemispheric importance.