By MARK LANDLER
Published: November 23, 2008
WASHINGTON — With the election of Barack Obama, the United States has a
fresh chance to reinvigorate its relations with Latin America, according
to a new report that recommends Washington overhaul its drug policies at
home and pursue a rapprochement with Cuba.
The report, compiled by prominent former policy-makers from the United
States and Latin America and scheduled for release on Monday by the
Brookings Institution, called on the new administration to put Latin
America at the center of its foreign policy radar screen.
Among the most striking recommendations is a near-total reversal in
policy toward Cuba. The report advocates lifting all restrictions on
travel by Americans, promoting more contacts with Cuban diplomats and
taking Cuba off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"This may make the over-40 generation of Cuban-Americans in Miami
jump-up-and-down mad, but there is a whole generation of Cuban-Americans
who want to change this relationship," said Thomas R. Pickering, a
longtime diplomat and former under secretary of state.
Mr. Pickering, who once served as American ambassador to El Salvador, is
co-chairman of a commission that produced the report, along with the
former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo.
Younger Cuban-Americans, Mr. Pickering said, are less interested in
isolating the Castro government than in bettering the conditions of
their families still living in Cuba. Lowering barriers between Cuba and
the United States, the report says, would enable other voices to emerge
The report sets out several other specific and general measures,
including Congressional approval of free trade agreements with Colombia
and Panama and a re-evaluation of American counternarcotics policy — the
war on drugs — which it condemns as a failure.
"We've been reluctant to acknowledge this in the United States," Mr.
Pickering said. "We don't want to shine a spotlight on ourselves; we
want to shine it on places where the stuff is coming from."
Efforts to eradicate drug production in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia have
become less successful as drug traffickers have moved their operations
farther into the jungle, Mr. Pickering said. While these efforts must go
on, he said the United States needed to stem demand at home.
The number of heroin and cocaine addicts in the United States, the
report says, has not changed much since the mid-1980s, a fact that the
report attributes to a failure to reduce production and to an
ineffectiveness among American drug prevention and treatment programs.
Mr. Zedillo said in a telephone interview that drug trafficking, fueled
by such a huge and hungry market, had spread throughout Latin America
and should no longer be thought of as a Colombian, Mexican or Bolivian
The report was equally blunt about trade policy, saying that Congress
needed to pass the Colombia trade deal to maintain the credibility of
the United States. Then, it said, the United States should de-emphasize
bilateral deals in favor of reviving the moribund trade negotiations
known as the Doha Round.
The election of Mr. Obama sends mixed signals on the Colombia trade
issue. Some analysts said they believed Mr. Obama remained, at core, a
believer in globalization and free trade. But as a senator, he resisted
passage of the Colombia deal because of concerns about violence toward
union officials there.
"How a President Obama, working with a Democratic Congress, reconciles
those goals and principles is going to be tricky," said Strobe Talbott,
the Brookings Institution president.
Protectionist sentiment is likely to intensify because of the economic
crisis, Mr. Talbott said. The crisis has already hit Brazil and Mexico
hard, though Mr. Zedillo noted that they were better equipped to bounce
back than during previous upheavals because of sounder economic policies.
If the Colombia deal dies, trade experts said, it will mainly penalize
American exporters, since Colombian exports to the United States already
enjoy favorable terms. But the experts said it could undermine
Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, one of the region's most
Mr. Obama's election, experts said, could change the tenor of relations
with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whose periodic anti-American
outbursts have poisoned ties with a once-reliable ally.
"Hugo Chávez is conscious of the fact that Barack Obama is on his side
of the fence, representing the downtrodden side of American society,"
Mr. Pickering said. "Does he really want to take on Obama?"
The report does not criticize the Bush administration, though it says
that relations with Latin America have languished in recent years
because the White House has been preoccupied with other matters.
As it happens, President Bush made his last scheduled foreign trip over
the weekend to Peru, for a meeting of leaders from Asia-Pacific
countries. But in a sign of the White House's agenda, his crucial
one-on-one meeting before the conference was with China's president, Hu
China has established a foothold in several countries in Latin America
as a trading partner and investor, according to the report, which
predicted Beijing would vie with Washington for influence.
Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the assistant secretary of state responsible for
Latin America, said the report was constructive, though its call for
closer ties with Cuba did not confront the fact that this would depend
on the Cuban government's moving toward democracy, something it has not
Mr. Shannon also disputed the contention that the United States had
neglected Latin America, pointing out that Mr. Bush's trip to Peru was
his ninth to the region as president.