Latin American Policy

Too much of the presidential debates, both the GOP nominating debates and this coming autumn’s debates between President Obama and the eventual GOP nominee will be consumed with trivia. Large and important issues will be ignored. One such issue is U.S. relations with Latin America but, in this instance, we might be grateful that the candidates will not address the issue because it is doubtful either party would advocate the kind of policies that would warm a Catholic heart.

U.S. policies towards Latin America largely fall into three categories: narcotics, immigration and trade. Thankfully, we are not likely in the near future to be adding what was once a fourth issue, U.S. military involvement. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration became embroiled in the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, wars that killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, and witnessed many martyrdoms such as that of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Those of us in Washington will long remember that Cardinal Hickey, our Archbishop from 1980 until 2000, kept on the wall of his chapel the photos of Catholic missionaries, whom he had sent to El Salvador, and who were murdered by the regime: Sr. Dorothy Kazel, Sr. Ita Ford and Sr. Maura Clarke, along with a laywoman Jean Donovan, were gunned down by U.S. backed para-military forces in El Salvador in 1981. Hickey courageously opposed the Reagan administration’s policies in Latin America, and as payback, the Reagan administration successfully opposed Hickey’s getting a red hat for three consecutive consistories.

Mercifully, the issues facing the U.S. today regarding Latin America are not drenched in as much blood, with one significant exception: drugs. The drug violence in Mexico and Colombia is especially acute and has threatened the very stability of the governments in those two countries. And why? Because Americans can’t kick their narcissistic drug habits. I remember in the 1980s when it was not uncommon to go to a party and find people snorting cocaine and smoking pot. I don’t go out so much anymore so perhaps such parties still go on. At the time, it was convenient to refer to drug use as a “victimless crime,” unlike, say, assault or murder. Of course, if you have helped a friend kick an addiction, you know that drugs is not victimless, but even then, when I was in my “live and let live” twenties, I recognized that America’s drug habit was destroying societies south of our border. To be clear: We Americans have a right to pursue happiness and some people may think that such pursuit includes a right to use drugs. In last night’s debate, Cong. Ron Paul took a shot at the war on drugs which, admittedly, has largely failed. But, we need to keep trying because we Americans emphatically do not have a right to destroy the social fabric of Mexico and Colombia and other Latin American countries where drug profits are used to undermine their police forces and criminal justice systems. Whatever else it is, drug use is profoundly selfish.

Immigration did come up in last night’s debate, in a question directed to Mitt Romney who stuck by his “deport ‘em all” stance on the issue of illegal immigration. As I discussed last week, the Obama administration has staked out a different approach, not only arguing for comprehensive immigration reform, something that is highly unlikely with the current GOP-led House, but changing the rules by which waivers are granted to those undocumented immigrants who have spouses and other immediate family members who are citizens. Adopting comprehensive immigration reform is not only humane, it is pro-family. And, if we could re-direct our border control efforts away from a focus on immigrants who are no threat to the country and pay more attention to the drug smugglers, we could improve life on both sides of the border.

A word of advice to Mr. Romney and the rest of the GOP field. They have televisions and the internet in Latin America. They listen to the offensive characterization of immigrants, the dismissal of the importance of their family ties, to the racially tinged rhetoric. Developing better relations with our neighbors to the South will not be made easier by feeding red meat to the anti-immigrant right in this country. Romney is no Tom Tancredo, to be sure, but he is getting uncomfortably close. By way of contrast, read what Pope Benedict XVI said about immigrants just last week: “Migrants are not numbers…but men, women and children, young and old, looking for a place to live in peace.” Voicing such a sentiment at a GOP primary debate would get the pontiff booed of the stage.

The issue of trade between the U.S. and Latin America is, sadly, one on which I wish there were greater disagreement between the two parties. Ever since Bill Clinton endorsed NAFTA as the model for trade relations, we have been stuck with a model that is frankly inhumane. Free trade makes life easy and great for multinational corporations but, too often, free trade perpetuates the myth of economism, the heresy that holds that the only way to judge an economy is not in human terms, but in terms of maximizing profit. Again, Pope Benedict had something to say on this recently when he said, “There is no justice where profit is the number one criterion.”

In some Latin American countries, profit is not the only criterion and their economies are doing just fine. Brazil overtook Great Britain as the sixth largest economy in the world last year. In 2010, Brazil experienced a 7.5% growth rate and that growth has been accompanied by social policies that have actually closed the level of income disparity, the divide between the rich and the poor. 20 million people in Brazil have been lifted out of poverty in the past decade. They have raised the minimum wage and, contra the claims made by some conservatives in the U.S., an increase in the minimum wage is not a death blow to the economy. They have introduced social welfare policies that have successfully encouraged poor families to keep their children in school.

Latin American countries possess a Catholic culture. They are not immune, but they have not been as afflicted by, the U.S.’s commitment to the Protestant work ethic and to spread-eagle capitalism. You only have to be in a Latin American country about five minutes to realize you are in a Catholic, not a Calvinistic, culture: Look at how they interact with children. The importance of family trumps consideration of profit, and I hope that this truly pro-family culture will be able to resist the materialistic temptations that come with an expanding economy and which too often rip apart the social fabric.

But, as I say, none of this is likely to be addressed during this year’s campaign. Latin America tends to be an after-thought for most Americans, including most American presidents. It is a shame because we have much to learn from our neighbors to the South.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to the students in Deb Fitzgerald’s “Global Issues” class at St. Bernard High School in Montville, Connecticut. Over Christmas, I visited with Mrs. Fitzgerald who, with her husband Paul, are my favorite cousins. I had been thinking I needed to spend more time writing about foreign issues, and when she told me she was teaching this new class, I took that as an invitation to pay more attention to foreign policy issues. Over the next few months, I will try and post something about foreign policy at the beginning of each week.

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