Engaging partners in our own neighborhood

May 7, 2013 By Zach Silberman

While foreign policy debates in Washington may be obsessed with the pivot to Asia or the crises in the Middle East, President Obama’s recent three-day swing through Latin America highlights that our engagement in our own neighborhood is just as important.  Before leaving for  Mexico and Costa Rica, President Obama said one of his main goals for the trip was “to be working to deepen our economic and trade relationships across Latin America – relationships that create jobs and growth here at home, and offer our businesses growing markets where they can sell more American-made goods and services abroad.”  In addition to the economic benefits of greater engagement with Latin America, there are also national security and humanitarian benefits from engagement with our neighbors to the south.

obama costa ricaWhen thinking of our partnerships with Latin America, Plan Colombia is often the first item for discussion, which used “smart power” engagement to enhance the security and economic situation in a country mired with conflict from the drug wars.  We have a history of cooperation with Latin America, particularly through recent free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama that are already reaping significant benefits.  While the president only made stops in Mexico and Costa Rica during this trip, these two countries are key partners of engagement with the United States.

In Mexico, President Obama signed a new agreement between USAID and the Mexican Foreign Secretariat’s Agency for International Development Cooperation that demonstrates how previous aid recipients can become donors and partners.  This collaboration includes building economic growth, promoting environmental change, disaster and relief management, as well as assisting with governance and rule of law projects.  Country partnerships like these continue to bring a positive element to our global development and are another example of the power of partnerships to do good around the world.

One does not have to look too far to see common areas of interest for the U.S. and Mexico.  President Obama pointed out that the U.S.-Mexico relationship “must be defined — not by the threats we face — but by the prosperity and opportunity we can create together. And if we are serious about being equal partners, then both our nations must recognize our mutual responsibilities.”  Faced with national security threats from the drug wars, both countries still work together through the State Department’s Merida Initiative, which serves as a vehicle for assisting Mexican authorities with implementing justice sector reforms by using police training and promoting the rule of law in prosecuting drug traffickers.  The president committed to continuing the Merida Initiative, as well as pursuing other opportunities for greater economic engagement, utilizing agencies such as OPIC and the USTDA to continue powerful economic development projects.

Following the visit to Mexico, the president and leaders from eight Central American countries met in Costa Rica where they reiterated their support for the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  Through CARSI, the U.S. government assists Central American governments to improve their citizen security. Components of CARSI include the U.S. using programs through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), Feed the Future, and Pathways to Prosperity to support “economic development, combat poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, and promote greater opportunity for all Central Americans.” Programs like these utilize many tools of American diplomacy and development in order to improve the quality of life for Central American citizens.

Our engagement is already serving to help citizens of Latin America with economic growth and security.  President Obama indicated during the summit meeting with Latin American leaders that, “As governments, our job is to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to provide security and opportunity and ladders for success and prosperity for our people.  Economic growth that creates jobs, security for people so that they can be safe in their own neighborhoods and development that allows people to live in dignity.  And so that’s why we’re here.”  This trip served as a stepping stone to this commitment of engaging Latin America on these key issues, which could be only a taste of things to come in the future.