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A Leadership Vacuum in Latin America

Last week, Callahan and I (along with Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center) discussed the situation in Nicaragua before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Numerous lawmakers asked us: Why have other Latin American countries not been more forceful in denouncing such obvious Sandinista election cheating? The chief reason, I believe, is the aforementioned hemispheric leadership vacuum. When U.S. diplomats are insufficiently engaged with the various layers of government in Latin America, it is harder to mobilize regional officials to voice alarm about illegitimate elections and push back against creeping authoritarianism.

Speaking to the April 2009 Summit of the Americas, President Obama pledged to “launch a new chapter of engagement that will be sustained throughout my administration.” In practice, unfortunately, Obama has treated Latin America mostly as an afterthought. He deserves praise for (belatedly) securing Congressional passage of the Colombia and Panama free-trade deals, and also for expanding anti-drug aid to Mexico and Central America. But in each of those cases, Obama was merely continuing or building on a policy he inherited from George W. Bush, rather than spearheading a new initiative of his own.

Unlike Ronald Reagan (who established the Caribbean Basin Initiative, or CBI), George H. W. Bush (who started the NAFTA negotiations), Bill Clinton (who signed NAFTA and enhanced the CBI trade preferences), and Bush 43 (who signed trade pacts with Chile, Central America and the Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia, and Panama), Obama has not promulgated a clear vision for trade liberalization throughout the hemisphere. As a result, the U.S. trade agenda in Latin America remains stalled.

In terms of supporting democratic institutions and addressing the rise of leftist autocrats in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, the Obama administration has yet to champion a robust agenda for OAS reform. The 63-year-old institution has become increasingly irrelevant, though not for the reasons listed by Chávez and his fellow populists. As I have written elsewhere, U.S. policymakers should aim to fix the structural deficiencies that have made the OAS a relatively ineffective tool for defending democracy.

More specifically, they should propose (1) turning the Inter-American Democratic Charter into a formal treaty and giving Inter-American System of Human Rights (IASHR) the authority to ensure compliance; (2) strengthening the IASHR, the OAS drug-control panel, and the OAS terrorism commission, all of which are functioning well and doing important work; and (3) downsizing the bloated OAS bureaucracy (in order to deploy resources more efficiently). A stronger, better-managed OAS would be good news for regional cooperation, good news for democratic stability, and bad news for the likes of Chávez and Ortega, who have taken advantage of OAS sclerosis and grossly undermined democracy in their respective countries.

OAS reform should be just one part of a broader U.S. re-engagement with Latin America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rightly called the region “vital” to U.S. interests. If U.S. officials hope to prevent further democratic backsliding in Nicaragua and elsewhere, they must act on Secretary Clinton’s words and make the Western Hemisphere a much higher priority.

Read this article in Spanish here.