The U.S. Congress is as relevant as the executive branch on many specific issues that affect U.S.-Latin American relations, from trade to immigration. Yet individual Members of Congress rarely pay sustained attention to policy toward the region as a whole. Instead, Capitol Hill’s focus tends to be narrow, reflecting the domestic sources of foreign policy and the constraints of lobbying interests in the exercise of its oversight responsibilities.
There are of course exceptions to this congressional trend, and among them, Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) stand out. That’s why both received the Council of the Americas Chairman’s Award for Leadership in the Americas last week.
Senators Menendez and Lugar are both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—Menendez is the Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and Lugar is the Ranking Minority Member of the full Committee. It’s not easy to find bipartisan comity these days in Washington, but in fact these awards were richly deserved and widely praised.
Senator Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants to the United States and has been a champion of the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to the U.S. economy and society. As a long-serving Congressman and now U.S. Senator since 2006, he has been a particularly effective advocate of foreign assistance to the region, even during difficult economic times, understanding that the well-being of our nearest neighbors directly impacts our own well-being here at home. He has demonstrated commitment to strengthening U.S. development policy and increasing counter narcotics cooperation. He has been a strong voice for the improvement of the Hispanic community in the United States, and has been a leader on efforts to reform immigration policy. And he has been steadfast in his concern for human rights in his native Cuba. He is a Senator who both talks the talk and walks the walk.
For his part, Senator Lugar is the most senior Republican in the Senate, for more than three decades serving as a leading authority on foreign policy and a true example of integrity and consensus-building leadership. His consistent efforts to defend democracy and safeguard regional security date from his time as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the mid- to late 1980s, when he advocated for a return to democracy in Chile and Central America. More recently, he has been a champion of expanding commerce with the region, including pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, clean energy with Brazil, and an Enterprise Fund for Haiti, among other initiatives. As a strategic thinker, Dick Lugar sees the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, and he has consistently and effectively promoted sound U.S. policies for the region.
In receiving this award, the Senators join a growing cadre of democratically-elected leaders who have had a positive and lasting impact on hemispheric relations on a bipartisan basis. Since the award was initiated in 2004, recipients have included Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) and Congressmen Eliott Engel and Gregory Meeks (both D-NY), as well as David Dreier (R-CA) and Kevin Brady (R-TX). Foreign leaders have included Secretary General of the OAS Jose Miguel Insulza, former head of the Inter-American Development Bank Enrique Iglesias, and in 2010, the then-mayor of Lima, Peru, for his work to improve conditions locally.
Both Senators truly deserve praise for their commitment to the region, for their support for sound policies, and, of course, for their leadership in the Americas. In this era of partisan divide, both are examples to their fellow legislators and to the region as a whole.
*Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is Vice President of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.