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.”

Mexico is still suffering from horrible cartel violence, but a new study from the University of San Diego indicates that drug-related murders have either plateaued or declined (perhaps significantly) since 2011. In Honduras, unfortunately, drug violence and corruption have reached truly catastrophic levels, which is why the United States established three new Honduran military bases in 2012. Honduras now has the highest murder rate in the world, and also the most dangerous city in the world (San Pedro Sula). “By many grim measures,” declared a December 2012 Associated Press dispatch from the capital city of Tegucigalpa, “the troubled Central American republic is barely clinging to its status as a functioning country.”

The situation in neighboring Guatemala is somewhat more encouraging: The Guatemalan murder rate has dropped by nearly one-quarter since 2009. However, the country is still experiencing a dire security crisis, and the notorious Zetas cartel (Mexico’s most ruthless drug gang) still controls a disturbing amount of territory in the northern Guatemalan states of Petén, Alta Verapaz, and Izabal. For all these reasons, Kerry should support a new aid package for Central America — a complement to the Central America Regional Security Initiative — that is focused on building better, cleaner police forces and stronger legal institutions. (According to an October 2012 New York Times report, such a plan is already in the works, at least for Honduras.)

As for reforming the OAS, he should aim to bolster the Inter-American System of Human Rights and also transform the Inter-American Democratic Charter into an official treaty. It is encouraging that Kerry (along with Democratic senator Robert Menendez, Republican senator Marco Rubio, and former GOP senator Richard Lugar) signed a November 2012 letter warning that the hemispheric body was “sliding into an administrative and financial paralysis” and headed for possible “irrelevance.” He should follow up on this letter by pushing for genuine OAS reforms.

Many U.S. conservatives don’t trust Kerry’s instincts on Latin America, largely because of his 28-year Senate record. In the 1980s, Kerry dismissed the U.S. invasion of Grenada as “a bully’s show of force against a weak Third World nation,” and he fervently opposed Ronald Reagan’s Contra policy in Nicaragua. For that matter, Kerry opposed pretty much Reagan’s entire Latin America strategy. As Jay Nordlinger of National Review has noted, he “was the only senator to vote against money for police training in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica” in December 1985.

During the 1990s, Kerry endorsed U.S. military intervention to restore the thuggish Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president of Haiti. In a 1994 New York Times op-ed, he wrote that Aristide “has already demonstrated his willingness to compromise, agreeing to share power with a broad-based coalition with safeguards for everyone’s rights.” Ten years later, in a 2004 interview with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, Kerry said the pro-democracy Varela Project created by the late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá “has gotten a lot of people in trouble” and “brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive.”

If he is to succeed in Latin America during his tenure as secretary of state, Kerry must show better instincts than he did during his long Senate career. Hopefully he will understand the real opportunities and real challenges facing the United States south of the border.

(You can read this article in Spanish here.)