Opportunity Knocks in Latin America

February 4, 2013 By Zach Silberman

In his second term, President Obama will face significant opportunities to expand America’s engagement abroad, and Latin America is one area of increasing strategic importance. This is a region where the United States has many allies, but where significant threats such as drug trafficking, chronic poverty, and pandemics persist and where natural disasters and the resulting humanitarian crises are likely. These are challenges that represent opportunities for U.S. diplomatic engagement and development initiatives.

Sitting in America’s backyard, Latin America presents an opportunity for additional regional engagement.  According to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “There is no part of the world that is more closely linked with who we are as Americans and what kind of future we want for our children than this hemisphere, and in particular, in Latin America.” We have a history of establishing partnerships with Latin America on innovative development projects like Plan Colombia, which go across the spectrum of national security, economic prosperity, and humanitarian issues.

Plus, the region has shown signs of improvement towards building economic prosperity as poverty declined from 49 percent to 31 percent in the last 20 years. As part of a series on Latin America sponsored by Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) on January 23, USAID Chief Innovation Officer Maura O’Neill highlighted the Haiti Mobile Money Initiative, which was implemented following the devastating 2010 earthquake. This innovative program broadens financial services to Haitians by utilizing mobile technology and has the potential to work throughout Latin America to assist citizens with easier methods to handle their finances.  In addition to these innovative efforts, the U.S. works towards improving disaster management capabilities for partners in Latin America.  USAID has collaborated with Paraguay to put an end to wildfires and has also partnered with Brazil to improve food security.

The U.S. is also working closely with Latin America on mutual national security issues. For example, programs like Plan Colombia demonstrate the success of engagement these critical areas.  The Obama administration could use the success of a Plan Columbia as a guide to build on programs that we already have in place in Latin America that will have a positive impact towards improving the lives of many. U.S. Southern Command, which has responsibility for Latin America, has worked across agencies in the past specifically through Plan Colombia and through its successor the Colombian Strategic Development Initiative.

The State Department has also provided guidance to Mexico through the Merida Initiative to build capacity against drug trafficking. In fact, according to Army Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon, U.S. Northern Command’s director for strategy, plans and policy, the U.S. continues to collaborate with interagency partners and the Mexican army through the Merida Initiative to tackle drug trafficking, noting that, “The end state for Mexico, from our perspective, is that we are their strategic partner of choice in the region, and they are a regional partner who can then assist other nations in the region or respond to other crises in the region, for example through humanitarian assistance or disaster relief.”

Latin America continues to face serious challenges that require a “smart power” response of utilizing the work of our civilian professionals to improve the lives of millions. Will 2013 prove to be a year of opportunity for the United States to strengthen its reach and influence in the region? Only a “smart power” crystal ball can say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry has already expressed hope to “build on what Secretary Clinton has done and the Obama administration has already done in order to augment our efforts in that region.”

What is certain is that we have witnessed past successes of U.S. development programs in this region, and that deploying new innovative development and diplomacy policies could build on those successes in this strategically important region.  Opportunity is knocking at the door.  Will America answer?