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U.S. policies on Latin America must change

At the Summit of the Americas, President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos stated that that the U.S. will fold on the issue of lifting the embargo with Cuba within three years. (credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Defense Department on Wikipedia) At the Summit of the Americas, President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos stated that that the U.S. will fold on the issue of lifting the embargo with Cuba within three years. (credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Defense Department on Wikipedia)
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The recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, has drawn media attention because of the Secret Service scandal. Unfortunately, what was discussed at the summit has not received as much scrutiny by the U.S. media. The event had no major achievements and, as usual, the Latin American countries stood united in pushing the U.S. to recognize Cuba.

This summit, however, differed from others because the push for Cuba’s recognition and future invitation to the next summit was led by Colombia, the United States’ closest ally in the region. This is surprising, since the Colombian president is a moderate conservative, not known for any communist sympathies. The U.S. needs to reform its policies and work with the suggestions of regional leaders like Colombia in order to achieve true progress.

The current U.S. administration needs to either recognize Cuba — thus ending a policy that injures U.S. influence and respect south of our border — or continue our embargo on Cuba in order to win the swing state of Florida. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia pointed out as much, stating that the current administration will fold on the issue in three years, presumably after the presidential and midterm elections have passed, when President Barack Obama does not need to appeal to the Cuban-American vote in Florida. Opening trade with Cuba would benefit the U.S. economy, especially southern Florida, and thus benefit the current administration, since the U.S. historically was Cuba’s No. 1 trading partner. Currently, we lag far behind China, Canada, and the Netherlands in terms of trade with Cuba.

The second unique aspect of the summit was Santos’ leadership in the push for ending or at least modifying the U.S. War on Drugs. Drug production in Colombia has decreased over the past six years, yet total drug production in Latin America has remained unchanged, with drug cultivation simply shifting borders. The war on drugs in Latin America is another failing policy for two reasons: It does nothing to affect the so-far inelastic demand in the U.S., and the criminalization of drugs creates a black market premium. Both of these reasons draw the criminal underworld throughout the Americas into the drug trade. Because of this, drug production moves from regions with U.S.-backed anti-narcotic operations to regions lacking such aid.

Colombia’s leadership on both of these issues matters to the U.S. not only because of its status as an ally, but also because — over the past decade — Colombia has risen from a near-failed state suffering a three-sided civil war to a rising star and a regional leader. Although the U.S. has had a questionable past with Latin America, we still can have a role to play if we work with our allies and support decisions made by democratic leaders of all political stripes in Latin America, even if those choices are out of line with U.S. foreign policy.

The candidate that wins the next presidential election will have to compromise with our southern neighbors, or see relations cool with them. Nicaragua and Ecuador boycotted the summit in protest, and if no change is made by the U.S., several more nations will join them in three years.