Good Neighbor Policies and the U.S. Presidential Election

Barring a major international crisis, the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election will have very little to do with foreign policy. It certainly won’t have much to do with U.S. policy toward Latin America, a region that both President Obama and Governor Romney have largely ignored in their campaign speeches.

All of this is understandable, but also rather unfortunate. Leave aside the obvious foreign-policy challenges in the Middle East and Asia (Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, China, and so forth): The next administration will surely have to make important decisions about our own hemisphere.

For example, Washington must decide whether  its current approach to Mexico’s drug war is working. It must decide how aggressively to seek free-trade agreements with countries such as Brazil and Uruguay. It must decide whether to maintain the 50-year-old embargo against Cuba. It must decide how to punish the Venezuelan regime for its ongoing violation of global sanctions against Iran, and how to punish specific Venezuelan officials for their collaboration with the Colombian FARC and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

For that matter, even if we ignored Hugo Chávez’s alliance with Iran, his support for narco-terrorists, his attempts to subvert democracy across Latin America, and his declared hostility toward the United States, Venezuela would still be a serious concern for U.S. policymakers. Indeed, the militarization of Venezuelan society has fostered the conditions for any number of violent scenarios, including a pro-Chávez coup, a Tiananmen-style bloodbath in the streets, and perhaps even a full-blown civil war. As I wrote in this space a few months ago, Venezuela has become a powder-keg that could easily explode if Chávez steals Venezuela’s October 7th presidential election, or if he loses the election but refuses to leave office, or if he dies of cancer and is replaced by a military junta.

It would be bad enough if Chávez had simply created a military regime (which he effectively has). But the Venezuelan strongman has also created his own version of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Known as the Bolivarian militia, this paramilitary force reports directly to Chávez and is tasked with defending his revolution. It is unclear just how many fighters belong to the militia — which enjoys access to a vast arsenal of Russian weaponry — but a prominent Venezuelan opposition figure, lawmaker María Corina Machado, recently told the newspaper El Universal that she has obtained a document indicating that the government’s goal is to have a million militia members by 2013.

Caracas is already among the most murderous cities in the world, and Venezuela’s national homicide rate is by far the highest in South America. The independent Venezuelan Observatory of Violence reports that there were more than 19,300 murders in 2011, compared with fewer than 6,000 in 1999, the year Chávez took power. The country has become a magnet for all sorts of drug traffickers, crime networks, and terrorist groups (not only the FARC and Hezbollah, but also the Spanish ETA). Several prominent Venezuelan generals have been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for their ties to the FARC, and the imprisoned drug lord Walid Makled has said that dozens of Venezuelan military and government officials played a role in his criminal enterprise.

Speaking of narco-trafficking, Central American officials urgently need more outside assistance in their battle against Mexico-based cartels and other drug gangs. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the ultra-violent Zetas cartel (a cartel formed by Mexican special-forces troops) may control as much as 80 percent of the territory in Guatemala’s northern department of Petén, which borders Mexico and Belize. A new IISS report points out that Central America now has “three private [security] guards for every police officer.” The report also cites an estimate by the Honduran defense minister that 87 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine travels through Honduras, which has the world’s highest murder rate. Over a three-month period between April and July, the U.S.-led “Operation Anvil” interdicted some 2.3 tons of cocaine in Honduras. Unfortunately, the operation made headlines not for its interdiction success but for a number of drug-raid shootings, one of which may have killed several innocent civilians.

Given the harsh budget realities facing lawmakers on Capitol Hill, it is unrealistic to expect a massive new U.S. aid program for the violence-plagued countries in Central America’s northern triangle. But the United States could and should be doing more to help the likes of Guatemala and Honduras build stronger, more reliable police forces and judicial systems. Between 2008 and 2011, Washington provided more than five times as much anti-drug aid to Mexico as it did to Central America, according to IISS. With the Zetas and other powerful Mexican cartels rapidly entrenching themselves in neighboring countries south of the border, the Central American crisis deserves greater U.S. attention, especially since democratic institutions are also being threatened by domestic political actors. (Witness the recent attempt by the leftist FMLN party to hijack El Salvador’s supreme court.)

Compared with the northern-triangle nations, Panama has a relatively low homicide rate and relatively little drug violence (though it still has serious crime problems). It also has the world’s most famous canal, which is currently in the midst of a $5.25 billion expansion. Scheduled for completion in 2015, the canal expansion will make Panama much more significant to the world economy in general and the U.S. economy in particular. (Panama is already the “most globalized economy in Latin America,” according to the Latin Business Chronicle, and McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson notes that “major multinationals, including Caterpillar, Procter & Gamble, Dell and Mexico’s Cemex have turned to Panama as a headquarters for regional operations.”) This means that a stable and well-governed Panama has never been more important to U.S. interests.

Likewise, it has never been more important for the United States to develop a strong and trusting relationship with Brazil. When Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff visited with President Obama this past April, one Brazilian journalist observed that there was “a considerable lack of mutual respect” between the two countries. (This was partly a legacy of former Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s 2010 attempt to undercut U.S. sanctions against Iran by negotiating a uranium-swap deal.) Building greater mutual respect will go a long way toward moving Brazilian foreign policy in a more pro-U.S. direction. Indeed, if Washington wants Brazil to become a more robust champion of human rights and democracy in Latin America, it must cultivate a deeper, more mature bilateral relationship.

Again, I understand why these are not top-tier campaign issues. But President Obama and Governor Romney should both be saying more about the many challenges and opportunities in Latin America.

(This article is available in Spanish here.)