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U.S. Congress and Latin America Update: The 110th Comes to a Close

December 18, 2008

U.S. Congress and Latin America Update: The 110th Comes to a Close

This is the first of a two-part series. The U.S. Congress and Latin America: A New Slate for the 111th will be featured in the January 2009 issue of News & Views.

Latin America has rarely been the center of global attention over the past two years, even if the stakes continue to be high and the issues are important. The same is true for the region in the U.S. Congress. However, while more work could have been done to improve hemispheric ties, Congress has opened doors and made some headway in 2007 and 2008. Looking ahead, next year holds great potential for advancing key hemispheric issues.

A Democratic Congress Can Pass a Trade Deal

Passage of the U.S.-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement by Congress is as an important milestone for hemispheric trade. There now exists a path forward where environment and foreign labor protections can be included in future agreements. This helps make the case for the pending Colombia and Panama deals. Congress passed the Peru trade agreement by an overwhelming margin of 153 votes in the House and by 59 votes in the Senate. With those two votes, Congress eliminated tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. goods entering Peru. In 2007, those goods were valued at over $4 billion, which without a free-trade agreement means sizeable tariffs to the detriment of U.S. exporters. The elimination of these tariffs will make U.S. products more competitive in the Peruvian market and increase sales.

As the United States faces a prolonged recession, every area of increased growth is integral to maintaining U.S. jobs. The door remains open for Congress to pass the Colombia and Panama trade agreements in 2009—votes that would benefit the U.S. economy as well as that of our trade partners.

Hemispheric Security is a Nonpartisan Issue

This year Congress provided funding for the Merida Initiative—a cooperative security agreement between the United States, Mexico, and seven Central American and Caribbean countries—to combat narcotrafficking and organized crime in control of the flow of drugs, cash, and weapons. Over a 3-year period, the United States will provide $1.6 billion to the region for materials and assistance as well as funding to strengthen security institutions. Authorizing legislation passed the House this summer by 311 votes to 106 votes.

The bill’s overwhelming bipartisan support withstood early differences surrounding the distribution of funds. In the end, the urgency of the issue emerged and a compromise was quickly struck between the different Senate and House bills. Economic and social prosperity cannot be achieved without security and Merida is an important step in that direction. U.S. commitment and support to fighting crime and insecurity is likely to continue as long as needed.

Energy: A Key Hemispheric Issue

The price of crude topped out in June at just over $146 a barrel. With that, alternative and renewable energy instantly crept to the forefront of discussions among hemispheric leaders. One year earlier, U.S. President George W. Bush had visited Brazil to highlight its innovation in alternative energy sources and to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with his Brazilian counterpart, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to establish domestic biofuel industries throughout the hemisphere. That agreement was expanded in November 2008 to include a total of nine countries, including African partnerships with Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

The trip and its accomplishments were warmly received by Congress and two House subcommittee chairmen later followed up on it. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) led two bipartisan delegations to the region to discuss, among other things, energy development, and Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) held a congressional oversight hearing that looked at energy security in the Americas. Their efforts, working in tandem with the objectives of the Memorandum of Understanding, are among a number of initiatives in the hemisphere that are laying the framework for future collaboration. Congress can take further action by providing additional funds for energy development along with incentives for energy producers to work cooperatively within the Americas.

Moving Forward

The Peru trade agreement, multilateral security efforts, and increased energy cooperation are all pivotal policy accomplishments for the 110th Congress and of critical importance to the hemisphere. These efforts are all crucial to a more prosperous Americas based on three core principles: open markets, stronger democracy, and developmental partnerships. Accomplishments can be built on as we move ahead toward 2009 and the start of the 111th Congress. In January, the next Congress has a unique opportunity to make U.S. involvement in the Americas a priority.