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Latin America Deserves More Attention

From both Democrats and Republicans.

10:30 AM, Oct 20, 2011 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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* Last week, New York Times correspondent Simon Romero reported that Brazil could become the world’s fourth-biggest oil producer by the 2020s, with its daily output more than doubling to reach over 5 million barrels.

* In early September, researcher Ana-María Poveda Garcés published a study showing that Colombia’s outward foreign direct investment grew from $3 billion to $23 billion (in inflation-adjusted terms) between 2000 and 2010.

* According to a February 2011 Congressional Research Service report, U.S. merchandise trade with Latin America increased by 82 percent between 1998 and 2009. The equivalent figure for Asia was 72 percent, and for the European Union it was only 51 percent.

* In a May 2010 report on Guatemala, Duke University scholar Hal Brands pointed out that “the influence of nonstate criminal actors rivals or exceeds that of the government in up to 40 percent of the country.”

* A new study from the National Autonomous University of Honduras finds that “Honduras stands to break world records with its murder rate,” as Agence France-Presse notes.

* This past April, a Brazilian magazine reported that al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are all operating in Latin America’s largest country.

* A few months later, Gen. Francisco Contreras, the former chief of staff of the Peruvian military, told the Jerusalem Post that “Iranian organizations provide support to other terrorist organizations” in South America.

* Not only have Iranian officials established a strategic beachhead in the Americas, they were apparently plotting with Mexican gangsters to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

The failed assassination scheme should mark a turning point in U.S. attitudes toward Iranian activity in the Western Hemisphere. But will it mark a turning point in Washington’s overall treatment of Latin America? Beyond Iran’s strategic push and the drug violence in Mexico and Central America, there are plenty of other hemispheric questions that deserve greater prominence in the national political conversation. For example: At a time when Latin America needs a robust democratic forum to combat leftist autocrats in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, how can we improve the Organization of American States? Now that the Colombia and Panama free trade deals have finally received congressional approval, how can the United States revive its broader hemispheric trade agenda? How can we better manage relations with Brazil? How can we secure the release of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor unjustly imprisoned in Cuba? Should Venezuela be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism?

Each of these questions highlights a significant U.S. foreign policy challenge. It would be nice if one of them came up at the next Republican presidential debate. It would also be nice if the Obama administration took its rhetoric about Latin America more seriously.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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