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Third Annual Latin America Conference: Strategic Cooperation in a New Era

U.S. Senator Mel Martinez

March 16, 2007


On the heels of U.S. President George W. Bush’s return from Latin America, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas brought together expert speakers and panelists to discuss the implications of his trip for hemispheric relations and the overall U.S.-Latin America agenda. Noting the President’s positive message, speakers cautioned that regional growth and prosperity will hinge on sustained, positive commitment to the region. 

Ambassador Charles Shapiro, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, delivered the opening remarks and U.S. Senator Mel Martinez of Florida gave the keynote address. Our roundtable discussion featured Ambassador Ira Shapiro, Of Counsel at Greenberg Traurig, LLP and Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and Senior Fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. Christopher Sabatini, Senior Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas and Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly served as the moderator. This summary provides an overview of the main points from the conference.


The President’s trip marked his first journey south since the November 2005 Summit of the Americas. Over the course of six days—his longest trip to the region—the President visited Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Among his chief goals, Bush hoped to strengthen relations with key allies and reinforce U.S. relations in the region. According to a January 2007 BBC World Service poll, 64 percent of Argentines, 57 percent of Brazilians, and 53 percent of Mexicans have a "mainly negative" view of U.S. influence. Better hemispheric relations will require collaborative solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing both the U.S. and Latin America.


Speakers agreed that the U.S. should use the President’s trip as a building block in its efforts to step up engagement with the hemisphere. Throughout Latin America countries are divided—one segment of the population lives in a booming, technology-driven world while the other sees only increased despair and few development opportunities. According to Amb. Charles Shapiro, with 220 million Latin Americans living in poverty, disillusionment can threaten stability and democratic governance. The U.S. has an obligation to work with countries to ensure the open markets and policies create jobs and alleviate poverty.

U.S. commitment to the region

Monetary assistance to Latin America originates from a variety of public, private, and non-governmental sources. In fact, according to Charles Shapiro, the $11 to $13 billion of annual private sector investment in Latin America dwarfs bilateral and multilateral assistance from all sources (U.S., EU, etc.). On top of that, the U.S. provides financial assistance through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and direct bilateral aid. U.S.-originated remittances provide another $45 billion to the region each year. Senator Martinez emphasized that U.S. foreign assistance to Latin America has doubled to $1.6 billion per year since Bush first came to office.

For the U.S., priorities in the Americas range from creating jobs and improving education to strengthening health systems and solidifying good governance. According to Senator Martinez, foreign firms play an important role in job creation, with 1.6 million new positions directly tied to these corporations. Further, the U.S. government is improving basic health with new initiatives such as the establishment of a Panamanian health care professional training center. A new medical ship also is being sent to the region, with the expectation that it will treat 85,000 patients. 

Importance of bilateral free-trade agreements

Passage of the Colombia and Peru Trade Promotion Agreements makes both economic and political sense. U.S. approval would highlight our support for countries that are consolidating democratic governance and undertaking difficult reforms at the same time that it would open new investment and trade opportunities. Senator Martinez noted that free trade is crucial to creating jobs. For him, the alternative to a free-trade agreement (FTA), with the corresponding investment protections, is decreased foreign investment, fewer jobs, and the radicalization of the population.

The key question for our panelists and speakers was whether the U.S. Congress would approve the pending Andean agreements. Amb. Ira Shapiro sees the Colombia agreement closely aligning with U.S. interests and noted congressional support for the Colombian President, Álvaro Uribe. Further, he added that the Democrats support trade but want to use the FTAs to leverage other key issues—a tactic similar to that used by the Ways and Means Committee during the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations in 1993. The United States Trade Representative (USTR) is negotiating with key congressional members to break the current impasse over FTA passage.

Immigration reform

Perhaps more so than any other issue on the U.S.-Latin America agenda, a broad-based solution to the immigration debate requires careful analysis of both the domestic and foreign factors behind the recent influx, both legal and illegal. The high levels of immigration today rival that of few other periods in U.S. history. According to Doris Meissner, society, both then and now, questioned the implications of the surge in immigrants. The difference today is that we are living in an aging society with fewer new, young workers. 

Over time, urban immigration has been relatively consistent, but in the last decade rural and semi-rural areas have begun to experience inflows of immigrants. These cities and towns, often somewhat insulated, are trying to accommodate newcomers without the necessary additional government resources. For example, public schools must adapt curricula for non-native English speakers at the same time that many educational systems are facing budget cuts. This strain on public systems is a key reason behind the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. Doris Meissner noted that sensible immigration reform would ease the plight of both migrants and their communities.

Will immigration reform pass in the 110th Congress? In the last Congress, a comprehensive, bipartisan bill failed to pass but did offer a workable solution that balanced security and citizenship. Senator Martinez believes that the door has opened for immigration reform and that the President will be presented with a bill that he can sign by the August recess.

This summary is published by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, non-partisan organizations founded to promote better understanding and dialogue in the Western Hemisphere, working in collaboration to advance their respective missions.  The Americas Society is a public charity described in I.R.C. Section 501(c)(3), and Council of the Americas, a business league under I.R.C. Section 501(c)(6). The positions and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors or guest commentators and speakers and do not represent those of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas or its members or the Boards of Directors of either organization.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.