Yesterday the White House brought Latin America back to the forefront of the Bush administration’s agenda as it hosted the Conference on the Americas. Unfortunately, progress in the administration is being undercut by a lack of initiative in Congress. A review of the June 19th Foreign Affairs Committee hearing titled, “The United States and South America: How to Fix a Broken Relationship,” displays how many members in the House of Representatives continue to back track and embarrass our allies in the Southern Hemisphere.
It is interesting to note that the two Democrat-invited expert panelists who testified at the hearing begged the members of Congress to “uphold U.S. agreements” and not make a “terrible mistake” in the region by failing to ratify signed trade agreements. All of the expert witnesses seemed to agree that there is still a viable relationship between our countries that must be salvaged.As the U.S. administration continues to work with various South American counties on trade agreements and stability measures, it will be the U.S. legislature that turns its back on the relationship if we do not follow through on the negotiated agreements.
One hearing panelist, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, explained that halting the current Free Trade Agreements will decisively hurt Latin American countries. Dr. Jaime Daremblum, former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States, agreed with Mr. Shifter saying “Latin American countries cannot find a way to expand job opportunities and growth without being tied to the international market.”Consensus calls for our Southern Hemisphere to be devoid of gangs, violence, drugs, dictatorships and inequality, yet how can we ever expect burgeoning democratic societies to overcome such challenges if we fail to act on these job-creating initiatives? Even worse, the ensuing damage of failing to pass the negotiated trade agreements will harm U.S. interests in addition to isolating vulnerable countries in Latin America. For example, after Canada established its Free Trade Agreement with Chile, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) estimated that tariff rates cost U.S. exporters $800 million per year in sales, affecting 10,000 U.S. jobs. This unsatisfactory status quo was maintained until the United States struck its own FTA with Chile. If the United States continues to send mixed messages with our international trade policy, various sectors within our economy will absorb the hard-hitting costs of such actions.
While many Democrats in Congress spend their time blaming the Bush administration’s lack of involvement in the hemisphere for all current evils in the region, the president has been gearing up for yesterday’s White House Conference aptly themed, “Advancing the Cause of Social Justice in the Americas.” The president is addressing root problems through substantive discussions on investing in education, meeting health care needs, expanding economic opportunity and building public-private partnerships.
On the other hand, breaking promises, labeling the relationship as “broken” and turning away from opportunities for job growth appears to be the approach many Democrats would advocate. With that approach, I would agree that we could soon see the dire consequences of a doomed Western Hemisphere foreign policy. Fortunately, there is still hope; those pointing fingers in Congress should first take note of how President Bush is moving ahead in a productive manner, and second, utilize their ability within the House and the Senate to pass the current trade agreements and effect real change by facilitating new opportunities for joint investment with our Latin American neighbors.
Rep.Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and serves on the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.