One week after the historic election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president, the Americas Society and Council of the Americas brought together leaders from civil society, business, and diplomacy to celebrate the release of the Fall 2008 issue of Americas Quarterly— Memos to the President-Elect. Panelists, three of whom were also contributors to the Fall issue, discussed their hopes and recommendations for the next president’s agenda toward the Americas.
The Fall 2008 issue, which features memos from Presidents Michelle Bachelet, Oscar Arias Sánchez, Leonel Fernández, and Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim, among others, represents a wide range of voices from the hemisphere. Contributors urge the next president to act on issues as diverse as poverty eradication, the environment and global warming, regional integration and trade, and human rights.
The program, titled “The New Administration and the Future of Hemispheric Relations” included the following speakers:
· Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank (Keynote speaker)
· H.E. Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Ambassador of Brazil to the United States
· H.E. Arturo Sarukhan, Ambassador of Mexico to the United States
· Viviana Krstecivic, Executive Director, Center for Justice and International Law
· Alberto Vollmer, President and CEO, Ron Santa Teresa
Christopher Sabatini, Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and AS/COA Senior Director of Policy, moderated the discussion, and Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of the Council of the Americas, presented welcoming remarks.
Luis Alberto Moreno opened the program with an overview of the region’s accomplishments and challenges in the past eight years. Citing an average 5.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth, relatively low inflation during that period, and private sector growth, Latin America, he said, is a more stable and dynamic region than it was a decade ago. Moreno also noted stable democracies and increased respect for the rule of law as factors in making the region increasingly prosperous.
However, Moreno cautioned that the world financial crisis threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made. Commodity prices (namely, oil, copper and soy) are falling, credit is becoming tighter and currencies are prone to fluctuate. These are signs that Latin American economies will not be exempt from what is ailing the rest of the world.
Moreno outlined four main regional challenges for President-elect Obama when he takes office in January:
· Cuban transition or succession;
· the regulation of migratory flows within the hemisphere;
· the quest for more secure energy supplies; and
· the need to reform free-trade.
U.S. Engagement with the Region
Panelists agreed that given the global financial crisis and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Latin America is unlikely to be a high priority for the incoming administration. However, shortly after taking office President-elect Obama will be attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April. There, he will have a chance to address regional leaders and discuss opportunities for hemispheric cooperation. Panelists noted that the region has made important strides in the last eight years, and that should affect the new administration’s approach.
Security and Regional Cooperation
For two of the panelists, security was a top concern. In addition to continuing to work on stronger trade relations and immigration reform, Ambassador Sarukhan discussed the need for greater U.S.-Mexico cooperation to address the increased violence associated with narcotics trafficking in Mexico. To date, 467 police sergeants have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón escalated the country’s fight against narcotrafficking. The United States, Amb. Sarukhan argued, cannot extract itself from Mexico’s current situation: violence is largely concentrated on the U.S. border, much of the narcotics being trafficked is en route to a North American market, and many of the arms (Amb. Sarukhan noted the presence of 12,000 legal gun shops in Arizona and New Mexico alone) used by traffickers are purchased in the United States.
Alberto Vollmer, in addition to being President and CEO of Ron Santa Teresa, also founded Proyecto Alcatraz, a rehabilitation program for criminals. He shared his experience in the context of regional security, saying that President-elect Obama should prioritize regional security. Vollmer, who founded Proyecto Alcatraz after gang members invaded his Hacienda Santa Teresa, spoke of his first-hand experience with crime and rehabilitation. He added that addressing crime and security would be a multi-layered approach focusing on the root causes of crime, like poverty and inequality.
A New Approach to the Region
All panelists said they looked forward to renewed U.S. engagement with the region. Viviana Krsticevic said U.S. re-engagement with the inter-American system would send a strong signal that the new administration would not be pursuing unilateral foreign policies. She also cautioned against an over-emphasis on crime, saying that human rights must continue to be respected. Krsticevic urged the next U.S. president to ratify inter-American human rights treaties.
Rather than highlight security and other negative issues, Ambassador Patriota encouraged the President-elect to take a fresh approach to the region. He pointed out an increasing diversity in the region. The U.S.-Brazil partnership, for example, should continue to look at substantive areas of engagement such as biofuel development.
Panelists dismissed concerns that President-elect Obama lacks experience with the region. Ambassador Saruhkhan, in addressing the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, noted that President Calderón was the first Latin American head of state to speak to the president-elect. It is clear that despite President-elect Obama’s minimal experience in the Americas, the president-elect “asks the right questions.” Ambassador Patriota added that President-elect Obama may be the first President to have grown up (Obama spent part of his childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia) in the developing world—giving him first-hand knowledge of the developing world and a unique perspective that could be translated to his dealings with the region.