Home The Washington Diplomat October 2010 Latin America Expert Urges U.S. Not to Neglect Its Own Backyard

Latin America Expert Urges U.S. Not to Neglect Its Own Backyard

Latin America Expert Urges U.S. Not to Neglect Its Own Backyard

Foreign policy experts in the U.S. government — from the State Department, Congress and Pentagon to the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Treasury — have their collective hands full.


The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, energy interests and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, trade and economic relations with China and India, the “reset” in Russian relations — these gargantuan challenges absorb massive amounts of government time and resources.

But many foreign policy observers — including Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington — argue that some of the nation’s most vital interests lie in neighboring Latin America. U.S. leaders of all stripes, however, often fail to give this complicated region the attention and analysis it deserves.

“There are a lot of people in the government who work on Latin America or are assigned to Latin America, but it doesn’t have the kind of strategic significance that other areas of the world have,” Shifter said in an extensive, wide-ranging interview with The Diplomat at his office in downtown Washington.

“Latin America tends to kind of be an afterthought and fall through the cracks a little bit,” Shifter added. “It doesn’t get the kind of high-level attention and strategic thinking other regions get.”

Shifter and his colleagues at the Dialogue are working to change that. Whether by briefing members of Congress on challenges and opportunities in Latin America or giving the region’s leaders a platform to be heard by U.S. policymakers, the respected think tank is continually shining a light on America’s neighbors to the South, and to a lesser degree, the North.

“The Dialogue is a forum that brings together people from Latin America, the United States, Canada and the Caribbean to talk about the issues on the agenda, to share different impressions, and come up with some proposal and solutions,” Shifter explained. “It’s a space to discuss policy ideas. We try to reflect different points of view. We also try to provide a platform for Latin American perspectives for the Washington policy community.”

However, Shifter insisted throughout the interview that the Dialogue doesn’t “advocate” for Latin American countries, so much as “give them the opportunity to make their case.”

“Our role is to give them space and that platform and see if they can get in better sync with Washington policies,” he said.

Shifter’s own perspectives are consistently in demand by a mass media trying to better understand Latin America. He’s frequently quoted in America’s top newspapers and magazines and occasionally pens his own columns for Foreign Policy magazine. Shifter is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The New York native, who holds a degree in sociology from Harvard University, came to Washington in 1993 after stints living in Lima, Peru, and Santiago, Chile, where he advocated on behalf of the poor, securing legal services and other assistance.

“That work was very gratifying,” Shifter recalled. “I was privileged to work with a lot of very committed, dedicated, smart Latin Americans. They were working really hard on these issues and they needed support.”

When he came to Washington, Shifter, who lives in Adams Morgan, took a job with the National Endowment for Democracy, a private nonprofit that aims to strengthen democratic institutions around the world.

A year later, he moved to the Inter-American Dialogue, which was launched in the early 1980s. Concentrating heavily on the Andean region of South America, as well as the complicated country of Colombia, Shifter excelled in the Dialogue, eventually becoming vice president for policy.

In December 2009, the Dialogue’s board of directors — a heavyweight group that includes the former presidents of four Latin American nations, and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as a co-chair — appointed Shifter president of the organization.

Since then, he’s been trying to elucidate and educate Americans about what’s really happening in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico beyond the daily headlines and the post-Cold War prism through which many still view the region.

For instance, writing about the inauguration of new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Shifter warned about placing countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil into neat political categories of left and right.

“The right-leaning Juan Manuel Santos will take over from President Álvaro Uribe, South America’s most conservative president in recent years. Add this to the recent election in Chile of the conservative Sebastián Piñera and the possible victory of Brazil’s conservative presidential candidate, Jose Serra, in an October election, and it would be easy to assume that — less than a decade after Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales moved the region far left — Latin America is now swinging back to the right,” Shifter wrote for Foreign Policy.

But in the article, titled “Latin America’s Shift to the Center,” he argues that “the reality is more complex,” citing a survey by Latin American Barometer, which showed that since 1995, the region has made a marked shift toward the center. In 2002, 29 percent of Latin Americans identified themselves as centrists. By 2008, that number had jumped to 42 percent.

“It’s not surprising, given the region’s history, that some measure of political moderation should have taken over in more prosperous times. During the decades of 20th-century Cold War meddling and harsh military dictatorships, Latin America was nothing if not ideologically charged,” he wrote. “These days, the region is governed more by pragmatism than any set of beliefs. So-called left and right candidates largely agree on how to run economic and social policy. To be sure, ideology has not disappeared, but it has taken a back seat to governments’ abilities to actually run their countries.”

Shifter told The Diplomat that this political evolution often goes unnoticed in Washington, where the analysis of Latin dynamics tends to be black and white.

“There are a lot of policy mistakes made because of a lack of understanding about how Latin Americans may be looking at the U.S. and what may be happening in their own countries,” he said. “It’s a region that is changing fast and we try to provide that function.”

To that end, he wants U.S. policymakers to see opportunities they may be missing.

“There is an expanding middle class in Latin America, so there is a growing market in terms of U.S. jobs, which is important,” he said. “There are really a lot of opportunities the United States is not taking advantage of as it should.”

Shifter argues that America takes Latin countries for granted, in part because of an over-familiarity. Latin America and the United States share not only a border, but a religious alignment and general commitment to democracy. These similarities, he believes, present unique opportunities that cannot be found elsewhere.

“For the U.S. to advance its global interests, having allies in Latin America is relatively easy compared to other regions of the world,” he said, citing the Middle East, Asia and Africa. “Other regions are much more conflicted, they have deep-seated religious and ethnic conflicts, and there isn’t an appreciation of democracy as there is in this hemisphere.

“It makes a compelling case that Latin America really deserves to get more attention and be treated on its own terms as we deal with Europe and other regions of the world,” he added.

One example of U.S. neglect that Shifter finds baffling is in Colombia, where a free trade agreement has been languishing since the George W. Bush administration.

The Obama administration has been pushing Congress to ratify a new agreement with Colombia but is having trouble making its case, largely owing to widespread unemployment at home, but also partly because of union complaints about the Uribe government’s brutal repression of unionists. According the California Labor Federation, over the last 20 years, at least 2,754 union workers in Colombia have been murdered in retaliation for organizing and demanding collective bargaining. In 2009, 48 Colombian union workers were killed, and 29 have already been murdered this year.

Although he generally campaigned against FTAs during the presidential election, Obama contends that the trade pact, signed by President Bush in 2006, would be good for U.S. workers.

To that end, Obama is also working to revive stalled free trade talks with South Korea, which would probably take precedence over the stalled accord with Colombia. It’s all part of an initiative the president began in March with the formation of the U.S. Export Council, which is pushing to double American exports to about $3.1 trillion by 2015 — something the administration says could create an extra 2 million jobs.

“The more American companies export, the more they produce,” Obama said in September. “And the more they produce, the more people they hire and that means more jobs — good jobs that often pay as much as 15 percent more than average.”

But convincing Congress — in an election year — that free trade can be beneficial has been a political nonstarter.

Shifter said he hears regularly from colleagues in the United States and Latin America who scratch their heads in confusion over Congress’s refusal to ratify the Colombian trade pact. He points out that the United States has invested billions in Bogota to fight the drug war and further other initiatives, so why leave a mutually beneficial trade deal languishing?

“The Colombians feel that as a close ally that has paid a heavy price for the drug war … they really should have a free trade agreement with the United States,” he said.

But what about the oppression of organized labor?

“It may be true that there are concerns about impunity and a lack of prosecution of people who commit human rights abuses,” in Colombia, Shifter conceded. “But Colombia’s view is that this is something that other countries have — free trade agreements with the United States — and they also have problems. Why is Colombia being singled out?”

Feeling slighted, Bogota has stopped actively lobbying for the U.S. FTA and seems to be moving on. And other countries — China, in particular, and to a lesser degree India and Iran — are happily stepping in to fill the void, eager to tap the region’s vast natural resources.

“Latin America is much more connected to the rest of the world now,” Shifter explained. “They have a lot more options now than just the U.S. The U.S. is important but not as important as it used to be. That should bring about an adjustment in the U.S. approach.”

But perhaps no issue in Latin America is getting as much U.S. attention at the moment than Mexico — and for good reason, Shifter said. Violence has exploded across America’s southern neighbor as vicious drug cartels fight Felipe Calderón’s government for control of trafficking channels. The violence is estimated to have killed more than 28,000 people since December 2006, mostly members of rival gangs but also many civilians, including several mayors and a number of journalists.

In fact, Juarez, on the Mexican border with Texas and New Mexico, is now ranked among the world’s deadliest cities, and U.S. policymakers are fearful of that violence spreading across the border. Yet for all the billions the United States has poured into the drug war — not to mention the tens of thousands of soldiers Calderón has invested to the cause — it’s estimated that customs inspectors are seizing less than 1 percent of the billions of dollars in drug sales smuggled across the border every year.

“Mexico is absolutely fundamental for the United States,” Shifter said. “I don’t think there is any country that has more interest for the United States than Mexico — on every issue.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently raised eyebrows though when she described the violence in Mexico as the makings of an “insurgency,” comparing it to the battle Colombia faced 20 years ago. President Obama later tried to take the sting out of those remarks.

“You have to be very careful in making these comparisons,” Obama said. “I think sometimes people in Washington are a little to quick to say this is a model that can be applied. The situation in Colombia is very different than Mexico. Colombia was fighting a politically armed conflict. They produce cocaine; Mexico doesn’t—– it’s a point of transit and trafficking. It’s just a very different context and environment.”

Meanwhile, Shifter says that if the United States is concerned about Mexico, it can take steps at home to address the violence. Dealing with the nation’s voracious drug appetite is one thing. Another is cracking down on the steady flow of arms moving from the U.S. south across the border. The Calderón administration confiscated more than 34,000 weapons last year, the bulk of which came from the United States.

“If you ask the question, ‘What can the United States do to be of help in Mexico’s situation?’ — the first thing is get its own house in order,” Shifter said. “For all the generalizations about neglect, Mexico is a place the United States can’t afford to ignore.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.