What is happening right now in Latin America matters a great deal to the United States.
Venezuela is collapsing into violence, economic chaos and authoritarianism, and could become the next big international crisis on President Trump’s watch.
El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are struggling with a level of gang-related criminal violence that invites comparisons with war zones.
Coca cultivation in Colombia and elsewhere is surging. And a massive corruption scandal originating in Brazil has implicated hundreds of public figures there and around Latin America and shaken the region’s confidence in its institutions and political leaders.
As the governments in Latin America wrestle with these and other challenges, key positions in the U.S. government responsible for managing U.S. engagement with the region remain unfilled. The Trump administration has not nominated an Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs nor a new ambassador to the Organization of American States. At the Pentagon, no one has been named Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, the highest ranking civilian position in the Defense Department focused on the region.
While capable career diplomats are still in place in regional capitals, there have been no ambassadorial nominations for embassies in Central or South America.
The senior leadership of the Trump administration is understandably focused elsewhere. North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and ISIS all demand attention, no question. The urgency of crises in other parts of the world does not, however, diminish the importance of productive engagement with the Western Hemisphere. The president needs to get his team in place.
With more than 42 percent of all U.S. exports flowing to the Western Hemisphere, Latin America is immensely important to the U.S. Three of the five largest foreign suppliers of oil to the U.S. are in the Western Hemisphere: Canada, Mexico and Venezuela, whose oil reserves exceed even those of Saudi Arabia. Most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living and working in the U.S. come from Latin America and the Caribbean. The three principal producers of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived, are all in South America.
To put this into perspective, Mexico buys far more from the U.S. than China does, and Canada buys even more than Mexico does. The Trump administration may well intend to renegotiate the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement but the administration will not achieve a better deal for U.S. workers simply by declaring its intentions. And walking away from NAFTA would be a disaster – the exports we sell to our NAFTA partners in Canada and Mexico generate millions of U.S. jobs.
If the Trump administration wants to improve the terms of trade in the region, we need a regional team in place, including an assistant secretary, able to represent the new administration’s views. If we want cooperation in our continuing efforts to find a solution to drug trafficking and illegal immigration, we will need international cooperation; in a word – diplomacy.
Despite the many challenges in the hemisphere, the current political environment may well be the most promising in years for effective U.S. engagement. The largely anti-American populist surge, known as the pink tide, has receded. Leftist leaders in Argentina, Paraguay, Peru and elsewhere have been replaced by market-oriented pragmatists. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos has forged a peace agreement with the FARC. The Secretary General of the OAS and Mexico have demonstrated a determination to support of the InterAmerican Democratic Charter that promises to galvanize the organization and the region (with a small handful of exceptions) into finally taking steps to address the catastrophe that is taking place in Venezuela.
Arguably, even the sting of President Trump’s corrosive campaign rhetoric has faded – at least a little. Unfortunately, it has not yet been replaced by a positive policy message or the appointment of a team charged with engaging the hemisphere. It is high time for the new administration to do both.
Patrick Duddy served as the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela from 2007 to 2010. He retired from the Foreign Service in 2011 and is now director of Duke University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.