A Conversation with Bill Richardson

As the global financial crisis continues to alter US relations with the rest of the hemisphere, greater engagement in the region remains in the critical interest of the United States, contended Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and special envoy to the OAS, at a private dinner co-hosted by the Vidanta Foundation and the Inter-American Dialogue on October 6.

At the dinner, which was attended by Obama administration officials, Latin American ambassadors, top US and Latin American journalists, and Washington policy experts, Richardson discussed the key developments emerging in the region and made a strong case for why US leadership must break with past policies toward Latin America, characterized by neglect. “When I look at Latin America as a region, it’s clear that we don’t pay enough attention to it. But in the coming years, there are some very important developments we will see, and this neglect doesn’t make sense,” he argued.

Richardson outlined five initiatives that represent opportunities for the United States to both strengthen its ties with Latin America and see its own interests fulfilled in the region. First, he contended that US legislators must pass immigration reforms such as the DREAM act to provide opportunity to thousands of undocumented students capable of contributing to the United States’ future. While comprehensive reform may not be possible amid the deadlocked political climate, “baby steps” on this issue are crucial to fixing a broken system and improving US relations with the its southern neighbors.

Second, the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, which have recently been sent from President Obama’s desk to Congress, must be approved. “They’re ready to go. The shackles of compromise have been eliminated. Let’s move forward,” remarked Richardson.

Third, the United States must lead a hemispheric effort to devise a coordinated strategy to combat organized crime and drug trafficking in the region. Richardson contended that while decriminalization of illicit drugs is not the answer, US policymakers must rethink their approach to curbing drug consumption at home.

Richardson further noted that there are many opportunities for cooperation in the energy sector with countries such as Brazil leading global efforts to promote renewable energy.

Finally, the United States must work with Latin America to craft social policies that address the gross inequalities plaguing the region, especially its marginalized indigenous communities.

Also at the top of Richardson’s regional agenda was the need to engage the populist governments cropping up across Latin America. He argued that such regimes, represented by heads of state such as Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Ollanta Humala in Peru, are not momentary phenomenon, but are in the region to stay. Rather than alienate them, US leadership must reach out to them individually and discuss shared interests and objectives. “I believe in personal diplomacy,” commented Richardson. “You have to treat someone with respect and finds ways to seek common ground.”

Another subject of extensive discussion during Richardson’s exchange with the audience was his recent visit to Cuba to secure the release of Alan Gross, a US contractor detained since December 2009 for distributing satellite telephones to groups on the island. Richardson described his disappointment at Cuban officials’ unwillingness not only to free Gross, but even to engage in substantive negotiations for his release, which could have served as a starting point for marked improvements in US-Cuban relations. “I think both countries, especially the Cubans, lost an opportunity at the expense of a man who deserves to be freed,” he commented.

As special envoy for the OAS, Richardson reflected on the institution’s role in the hemisphere. Even as participants criticized the OAS’ waning influence in regional affairs and failure to take a stand on human rights violations and anti-democratic policies, Richardson advocated the need for continued US support, now in danger because of Congressional threats to cut funding. “The problems we have are so interconnected. I have to hope that somehow we are going to see the light,” Richardson remarked.

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