Advice for John Kerry

In his new position as U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry has a golden opportunity to make up for President Obama’s first-term neglect of Latin America. As a longtime observer of Latin American affairs, I believe Kerry’s top priorities in the region should be (1) reviving an aggressive free-trade agenda, (2) boosting U.S. support for law-enforcement institutions in violence-plagued countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, and (3) making the Organization of American States (OAS) a more effective vehicle for promoting and defending democracy. These initiatives would send the right signals to Washington’s democratic allies and partners.

By the same token, Kerry should not waste too much diplomatic time or energy trying to improve relations with the quasi-authoritarian, anti-U.S. governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. He should resist any concessions to the Castro regime until Havana releases USAID contractor Alan Gross, who has been kept in a Cuban jail on bogus charges since December 2009. And no matter when Hugo Chávez dies of his cancer, Kerry should not pursue a rapprochement with Caracas until Venezuelan officials stop helping Iran beat sanctions, stop collaborating with drug traffickers, stop persecuting their political opponents, and stop building a dictatorship.

On hemispheric trade, the Obama administration is now negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral agreement spanning Asia and the Americas that was originally launched by the Bush administration. Yet the administration’s overall trade record is quite disappointing. During his first two months in office, Obama signed a stimulus bill that contained a protectionist “Buy American” provision, and he also canceled a NAFTA-inspired Mexican trucking program. (A new pilot program was started in 2011.) To make things worse, he took much too long to finalize the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements (FTAs), which were signed in 2006 and 2007 but weren’t sent to Congress by the Obama administration until October 2011. For that matter, the president has shown very little passion for further hemispheric trade liberalization. Last year, Uruguayan president José Mujica spoke for many Latin American officials when he said, “I do not think that the current administration in Washington is interested in FTAs at this moment.”

And yet, the economic opportunities in Latin America have never been greater. After all, the region now boasts the fastest-growing economy in the OECD (Chile), plus an economy that has been expanding at Chinese rates and will soon become much more important to U.S. trade interests (Panama), plus another fast-growing economy that is rapidly increasing its oil production (Colombia), plus an economy that has dramatically slashed poverty and is experiencing a historic boom in mining investment (Peru), plus an economy that is now one of the world’s six or seven largest and that over the last decade has added tens of millions of people to the middle class (Brazil). Meanwhile, just across the Rio Grande, there is an economy whose recent growth and future potential have prompted some to label it “an Aztec tiger” (Mexico). Kerry’s main goals on Latin American trade should be to integrate the U.S. FTAs that have already taken effect, and also to expand TPP to include as many Latin American countries as possible.

He also should pay particular attention to U.S. economic relations with Mexico. Bilateral goods trade has doubled since 2000, and last year the United States exported more goods to Mexico than it did to China, India, and Japan put together. “Better integration of Mexico’s manufacturing and innovation prowess into America’s is a win-win,” writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “It makes U.S. companies more profitable and competitive, so they can expand at home and abroad, and it gives Mexicans a reason to stay home and reduces violence.”