3 February 2016

The year ahead for Congress and Latin America


2016 is a gift to Congress according to a recent report by Ana Quintara, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, giving the US the chance to improve its foreign policy approach to Latin America. For the first time since Venezuela’s Socialist Party came into power 17 years ago, the centre-right opposition party has won control of the National Assembly. The same happened in Argentina’s recent elections, with a political shift to the right, ending 12 years of socialist control over the government. And in Guatemala, former president Otto Pérez Molina was peacefully forced to resign after his alleged role in a government-run bribery scheme.

Things aren’t all perfect though. In Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – economic and social insecurity is rife. Now into its fourth year, negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who are considered terrorists by the US government, are continuing to weigh heavily into FARC’s favour. This is jeopardising the successes of Plan Colombia, an American initiative aimed at fighting the drug cartels. And despite Obama’s best efforts at chipping away at the embargo on Cuba, repression of the anti-Castro opposition has reached histroic levels.

But Congress has a unique opportunity to address these issues and uphold the interests of the US in Latin America.

With Cuba, attention should be paid to ensure that the Cuban regime isn’t benefitting financially from the Obama administration’s concessions. Democracy can be achieved on the island if the country manages a successful transition from the Castro regime. According to Quintana’s report, the embargo should be kept in place until true political change has occurred. Americans must also regain control of the assets seized from them after the Cuban revolution.

Congress has recently approved $750 million of foreign aid funds to go towards the countries in the Northern Triangle of Central America. This could potentially worsen the social and economic instability within the region, reducing the burden on regional governments and preventing them from achieving self-sustainability. The overwhelming focus on social and economic development assistance rather than security assistance must be addressed or the region will remain vulnerable, driving migration towards the US up at time when the immigration platform is in desperate need of reform.

Colombian peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government are expected to conclude in March. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will meet with President Obama to celebrate Plan Colombia, which has helped to strengthen the country’s economy. The aid plan, forged in a less polarised time, has shown clear results through the hard work of the Colombians to retain bipartisan support.

As noted by Secretary of State John Kerry, Colombia’s peace process is at a pivotal stage. The US needs to continue to support one of its biggest regional allies through a successor strategy that will be presented to Congress by President Obama, focussing on enhancing security gains and providing the means for recovery in areas vacated by FARC.

As for Venezuela, some progress is being made. Two years ago, Congress passed resolutions supporting the Venezuelan people as they protested peacefully for democratic change and an end to violence. One way for Congress to show solidarity with the democratic opposition now, according to Quintana, would be to call for a special meeting by the Organisation of American States (OAS) to discuss the situation in Venezuela, to hold the country accountable to the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Latin America continues to be important to the US, with three times as many American exports heading to the continent than to China. With Washington exhausted from the tensions in the Middle East, there has never been a better time for Congress to pull Latin America back into play. The biggest threat to US-Latin American relations is weak rule of law. Congressional priorities should be to promote the rule of law and help uphold democratic reforms, alongside encouraging economic reforms. The way forward has been mapped out for Congress, now they just need to take the first step.

Wei Tien Sng is a CapX contributor.