Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Ask many observers of Latin America and the Caribbean why the hemisphere is floundering, and they will say that the United States has neglected the region since September 11 and the war in Iraq, thus leading to a downward spiral. It is time to put such superficial analysis aside.

In the past year alone, a trade agreement with Chile has been signed and implemented, negotiations concluded for a trade agreement with Central America and launched with the Dominican Republic (and shortly, Colombia and Peru), and the first steps toward immigration reform announced. Meanwhile, hemispheric growth in 2004 is expected to double year on year, and countries, including Guatemala, are making concrete strides to strengthen democracy.

This is not to say all is well in the Americas. Clearly, that is not the case, as leaders convened in Monterrey, Mexico, amid mutual recriminations, for a “special” hemispheric summit in mid-January to find answers to the current malaise. But just as expectations outran reality prior to September 11, the pendulum has now swung too far toward pessimism, with perceived U.S. responsibility a convenient and comfortable thought.

Rather than pointing fingers, casting blame or playing the offended sovereign, however, in the wake of the Monterrey summit, the best thing that hemispheric leaders can do for their own citizens is to focus intently on the nuts and bolts of good governance and economic development. As the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, the Council of the Americas and others found in a recent study titled “Unfunded Mandates in the Western Hemisphere,” regional leaders are good at making commitments, but not so good at meeting them. The Monterrey agenda must be more than a wish list to be ignored now that the TV lights have been cut. U.S. attention is not the issue; only the leaders can implement the commitments they themselves have made.

Leaders should be held to account: Are basic rights, including property, respected, are per capita incomes increasing and is money sound enough to buy a house and plan for the future? If not, the eventual loser will be democracy itself as citizens seek alternatives.

One area calling for renewed emphasis is creation of an ambitious and commercially meaningful Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Regrettably, however, Monterrey showed that posturing and politics have taken hold to the point that some countries aren’t even sure anymore if they want such an agreement, despite strong U.S. commitment. FTAA is the most grandiose hemispheric project in history, but it is unclear how it can be completed by the self-imposed 2005 deadline absent increased goodwill engendered by the leaders and their actions.

Monterrey helped smooth U.S. relations with Mexico, Canada and others, but more must be done. For example, Latin and Caribbean leaders rightfully object to massive U.S. agriculture subsidies that hurt U.S. taxpayers worse than foreign exporters. Even so, they should acknowledge that the United States will only negotiate agriculture subsidies at the World Trade Organization and work in partnership toward this common goal; continuing to raise the issue in the FTAA context without suggesting alternatives is little more than an irritant designed to make a point, not progress. Hemispheric leaders should also take a higher-profile, proactive role to support democracy, as in Venezuela, Haiti, or Cuba, not turning a deaf ear to U.S. entreaties, then complaining about “unilateralism.”

Similarly, the United States should acknowledge that some leaders see the world differently, seeking to nurture relations where possible, not automatically disregarding concerns or linking cooperation in one area to cooperation overall.

As Monterrey again showed, it is unrealistic to expect a comprehensive accommodation for all time among sovereign nations — even the United States and Canada sharply disagree on occasion. But it is equally harmful to assume that the lack of such accommodation signals that a community of hemispheric democracies is unworkable.

Rather, a focus on steady, incremental progress by all summit leaders will lead to the ultimate goal we collectively seek: a democratic, secure and prosperous hemisphere whose future is inextricably linked. It is an outcome clearly in the U.S. national security interests to actively, and aggressively, pursue.

Susan Segal is president and CEO of the Council of the Americas.

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