Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Let’s Get Engaged

Reading Time: 7 minutes[i]Panama’s Ambassador to the U.S. on why the region needs to address security challenges collectively.[/i]
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Mexican President Felipe Calderón (center) speaks during the inauguration of the Unity Summit in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Photograph by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The future of inter-American affairs is anything but certain. Our divisions and struggles are not new, but our troubles and interests have become increasingly intertwined. The challenges facing our hemisphere—poverty and inequality, political stability and citizen insecurity—have not dissipated. But for too long, we have been unable to settle our differences to find common ground and create a path for a better future.

The state of inter-American affairs today is an unmistakable outcome of our turbulent struggles of years past. Despite a renewed sense of hope for the region this past year, we have been unable to coalesce around the goodwill that was created. Instead of constructively working together to resolve many of today’s difficult challenges, we are left with a sense of loss.

Every member of our community of nations plays a key part in the inter-American system. But, more importantly, it is the role each country assumes that defines its scope for success and that of the hemisphere as a whole. That is not to say that the success of countries hinges completely on the international system, but our international efforts reinforce our domestic policies by bringing greater prosperity and stability at home.

At the end of the Cold War, a future of deteriorating cooperation was not the expected path of the Americas. Exhaustion from political turbulence for some, troubled finances for others, and the collective yearning for a new era in Latin America triggered a shift away from the polarizing politics of earlier decades. A bold vision of democracy, social justice and respect for human rights, together with the economic prescriptions of the Washington Consensus, promised to usher in a new era of prosperity and peace in the hemisphere.

Panama, which I represent as Ambassador to the United States, adjusted its fiscal and monetary policies, redirected public spending to education and investments, deregulated its industries, and strengthened property rights. Other countries did the same. A driving desire for openness and macroeconomic stability, which to this day remains one of the most powerful and dynamic factors bridging North, Central and South America, spurred a period of intense bilateral and multilateral commercial negotiations to open new markets and secure access to financing. Social concerns and a common commitment to prosperity and security paved the way for a regional transformation and greater interdependence within the inter-American system. This dynamic brought us closer together—until new periods of strife and a further fracturing in the hemisphere emerged.

Today, leadership in the Americas is often lacking or focused elsewhere, and countries are now increasingly distrustful and reluctant to work through our shared challenges. We seem to be adamant in our positions, slow in our recognition of shifting dynamics and rigid in our adjustments. You have only to look at border disputes that arise from illegal cross-border activities like drugs and arms trafficking to realize that instead of finding the mechanisms to resolve the issues at hand, the region’s countries have appeared to lapse into inane bickering about the violation of territorial sovereignty.

Backed by a reliable foundation at home, the countries in the Americas have also become both more selective and assertive, relying on the international system when advantageous and unafraid to voice opposition when appropriate. Emerging actors like Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile have rightfully made their case for greater leadership in the hemisphere. Although the inter-American system is increasingly diverse and participatory, whether we will become more effective in resolving substantive issues is still open to debate.

Regional Insecurity Demands Regional Security Cooperation

Collaboration in hemispheric affairs should not be equivalent to inaction, opportune scorekeeping or lack of leadership. Instead, it assumes a greater understanding of countries’ roles and responsibilities, and requires that every country engage proactively to deliver practical solutions to issues like social justice, poverty and inequality, human rights, and insecurity.

Few issues on the Americas agenda are as crucial to the peaceful development of our region as the security of our citizens. Combating the scourge of narcotics trafficking, suppressing the brutality of organized crime syndicates and curbing the flow of illicit weapons cannot be fought by one country or region. It must be addressed collectively by working together to eliminate this threat against the very foundations of our institutions.

The Mérida Initiative, Plan Colombia, the Sistema de la Intergación Centroamericana (SICA)-U.S. Security Dialogue, and even the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) have all provided timely assistance to enhance the capacity of states to improve public security and law enforcement and to curb illicit drugs and arms trafficking. However, these initiatives have been limited in scope in one way or another. There is no denying that the Mérida Initiative and Plan Colombia have challenged and, to a great extent, weakened the power bases of criminal groups and drug traffickers in Mexico and Colombia. However, rather than resolving the problem, the successes in those countries have merely caused the crisis to balloon elsewhere in the Americas. Today, Central America and the Caribbean is that elsewhere.

These mobile, criminal networks are not only recruiting our youngsters, weakening our social institutions, undermining the rule of law and exacerbating the violence on our streets; they are also undercutting our ability to attract the foreign investment, tourists and retirees that our continued development relies on.

If we are to gain ground effectively on criminal activity, every country must first recognize that the security challenges we face are interconnected. Taking inventory of existing subregional security initiatives with the objective of having all affected countries be part of a mutually reinforcing effort against drug trafficking and criminal activity in the region could be a place to start. A new hemispheric security initiative that is both comprehensive and balanced among affected nations is imperative, as is the need to incorporate every one of the countries of the Americas.

We must establish a strategy that can coordinate the efforts of our policing and security forces, streamline the sharing of intelligence and ensure collaboration between our justice systems—thus giving us the ability to respond to this common security threat as a single cohesive entity. Simply moving criminal operations from one country to another should not be an option.

A multilateral fund, with established goals and benchmarks, could allocate resources based on the priorities of the entire region as well as serve as a vehicle where other countries and international financial institutions could make contributions. However, this requires broad-based political will to move beyond the ideological rifts that have hindered our efforts in the past.

Law and Order:
Necessary But Not Sufficient

Although effective international collaboration on security matters is an essential factor in this effort, we must take a more holistic approach when it comes to the stability and security of the region. If we must boost our capabilities to counteract the gains of organized crime, we must also furnish the economic opportunities, institutional legitimacy and protection of human rights that will provide for the well-being of our citizens.

First, we must lift millions out of poverty through fair-paying jobs, improved education standards and access to higher learning. Economic gains must be translated into higher living standards for all citizens.

We still live in one of the world’s most inequitable regions and too many people still live in extreme poverty. In Latin America, 50 million people cannot read or write, and 44 percent of the region’s population struggle to survive on less than $2 a day. Collaborative work between our governments and civil society organizations, and access to financing through institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank that support the region’s social and economic development, must be prioritized in order to jointly and effectively advance our established goal.

Second, we must continue to promote democratic institutions and understand the importance of safeguarding basic human rights, civil liberties and strengthening the democratic process, not only within our borders, but also throughout the region. Democratic progress in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Panama, Brazil, and Peru corroborates the successful evolution of democratic institutions.

The Organization of American States (OAS) is widely known as a platform for dialogue and negotiation. That is particularly valuable in time of crisis—though the tendency toward looking for consensus can also be controversial in its effectiveness. Most recently, in Honduras a number of countries led a multilateral effort to look for practical solutions to the June 2009 coup. The conflict in Honduras was a complex legal and political circumstance, but it did highlight the need for a more comprehensive institutional framework.

Perhaps it is time for the OAS to concentrate on solidifying the roots of democracy instead of pruning the tree. By this I do not refer to observing elections. Rather the OAS—and by implication its member states—should commit to doubling initiatives focused on strengthening democratic institutions in the Americas. These can range from sharing best practices in the areas of judicial security and instituting constitutional reform to developing collective mechanisms to safeguard democratic institutions and rights that increasingly suffer from the abuse of power of an elected official. Through these persistent, collaborative efforts, we can cement the foundations of our democracies.

Third, the development of our individual economies is inextricably linked to the collective success of the Americas and to our ability to provide our citizens with a decent future. We cannot ignore that to be competitive in our global commercial activities, the governments in the region need to integrate their markets. In spite of the lamentable failure of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, many countries continue to search for alternatives to promote their open market policies.

The world economy has gone through seismic changes in the past 18 months, with tremors still being felt throughout every country. The loss of jobs and capital has translated into a loss of trust in many of our policies. Yet we must not fall prey to protectionist practices, hindering our ability to create growth and decent jobs.

Panama, in particular, understands the strategic role it plays in connecting markets, facilitating the distribution of goods and services and allowing countries to gain a sharper edge in the competition for global markets. We continue to open our borders to trade and foreign investment and support the expansion of jobs, exports and businesses across our borders—especially those that can lay the groundwork for greater cooperation between our nations, spur the transfer of technologies and best practices and bring prosperity throughout the hemisphere.

Transcending a pattern of distrust is easier said than done, but as we stand at a crossroads in our own future, we must overcome our own predispositions and adapt to the ever-changing nature of our problems. Starting with the wave of violence afflicting our region, we need to adjust our existing efforts by creating new instances of collaboration, setting realistic benchmarks, allocating funds more efficiently, and improving our countries’ human and institutional capacities. Above all, this also requires reinforcing our economic, political and social institutions at home. 

Ongoing hemispheric meetings such as the annual Rio Group Summit and the Summit of the Americas, along with the concerted efforts to aid Haiti and Chile following the earthquakes in those countries, demonstrate our ability to advance issues of common concern.  These are also golden opportunities to set aside our petty differences, to stop blaming one another for all our evils and to take control of our own fate.  While we may take pride in the unity, reconciliation and achievement that informed our response to such events, unless there is consistency in our actions, concrete goals and tangible results, the promise of the Americas will never be fulfilled.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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