A New US Agenda for Latin America

MEXICO CITY – For the next American president, fixing the international mess inherited from the Bush administration will be no simple task. While Latin America will not be a priority for either an Obama or McCain administration, continuing the United States’ neglect of the last seven years is no longer viable.

Two distinct political/diplomatic challenges stand out: Cuba’s imminent transition or succession crisis, and the continuing ascent of the region’s “two lefts,” one represented by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and the other by Brazil’s increasingly influential President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The next US administration will only prove successful if it grasps that Latin America is living through a moment that combines the best and worst aspects of its history: the fastest economic growth since the 1970’s, with poverty and inequality diminishing, and more democratic and respectful of human rights than ever before, but becoming more politically polarized.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro’s eventual passing from the scene represents an immense challenge. The US cannot continue with the failed policies of the past half-century. Demanding a full-fledged democratic transition as a pre-condition for normalizing US-Cuban relations is both unrealistic and unpalatable to Latin America. Yet the US cannot set aside the question of democracy and human rights in Cuba while it awaits the departure of Fidel’s brother, Raúl.

Realpolitik and fear of another exodus of Cuban refugees across the Florida Straits may tempt the US to pursue a “Chinese” or “Vietnamese” solution to Cuba: normalizing diplomatic relations in exchange for economic reform, while leaving the question of internal political change until later. But the US should not succumb to this temptation. The US, Canada, Europe, and Latin America have constructed a regional legal framework, which must not be abandoned, to defend democratic rule and human rights in the hemisphere.