Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Latin America Policies Are Taking Shape in Congress?

In the past month, members of the U.S. Congress have created new caucuses to improve the environment for U.S. businesses in Latin America and to strengthen the relationship between the United States and Peru. Are such caucuses effective in promoting business, investment and closer ties between the United States and Latin American countries? What are the top issues and debates that U.S. lawmakers currently face relating to Latin America? How big of a force has Congress been recently in shaping U.S. policy with Latin America and the Caribbean, and what action can we expect from Congress in the coming sessions?

Jim Kolbe, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona: “Don’t look too closely, but a fair wind is blowing through Congress when it comes to its relationship with Latin America. In large measure, this is a reflection of the tragic and distracting acts of domestic violence in the United States and Europe, the economic upheaval in Europe following in the wake of Brexit and the political uncertainty of China’s military moves in the southeast Pacific. Nonetheless, there are many winds buffeting the relationship between the United States, the rest of North America as well as Central and South America. Two stand out in this regard. Despite a current administration committed to the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both Republican and Democratic nominees for president have said the agreement—the largest and most far-reaching of its kind—won’t be approved without significant changes–a virtual impossibility considering the number of countries that would have to endorse any changes. Immigration remains a very sensitive topic with Mexico, Central America and parts of the Caribbean and will surely spring back to life as a legislative issue after the election. The role Congress is likely to play in this three-dimensional game depends on the outcome of a three-dimensional House, Senate and presidential election. If Congress remains in Republican hands, there will be no comprehensive immigration legislation. On the other hand, Congress might prod the administration to make it more active on the trade front. A Republican Congress and Democratic president is certain to bring on a lethal, ugly debate with an ultimately unsuccessful legislative outcome.”

Jerry Haar, professor of business at Florida International University and visiting fellow of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “The June 21 announcement by the House of Representatives that a new caucus focusing on Latin America will be created could not come at a more opportune time due to two reasons: one positive—it will focus greater congressional attention on the region; and one negative—the growing anti-trade milieu in the United States. In recent years, Latin America and the Caribbean has not only taken a back seat, but the last seat on the bus, as foreign policy priorities—including economic and security issues—focus on Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Except for Mexico and Cuba, along with drugs and immigration, the Americas will continue to be an afterthought in U.S. policy. The silver lining in all this is that Connecting the Americas is the name and mission of the new caucus—and that means this legislative group working with U.S. businesses, including small and medium-size firms, not just multinationals, to identify obstacles and opportunities for them to enter markets in the Americas. Rather than pontificating on high policy, this bipartisan caucus could—and should—focus on facilitating trade, investment and finance in consultation with the executive branch, chambers of commerce and business associations. Considering that less than 10 percent of small and medium-size firms export and that the demand in the region for U.S. goods and services continues unabated, the moment is propitious for a vigorous role by Congress, via the new caucus, to advance business opportunities for American firms.”

Carlos Mateo Paz-Soldan, member of the Advisor board and partner at DTB Associates: “Congressional caucuses can be important tools for highlighting issues of concern to a specific country, community or interest group, and can be platforms for spearheading legislative initiatives responsive to such concerns. The recent establishment of the Peru Caucus is reflective of the excellent relations between the United States and Peru, as well as the growing clout of the Peruvian-American community in various, vote-rich battleground states. Assembling the caucus required a concerted effort between the Peruvian Embassy and representatives of the Peruvian-American community. A key objective was to develop a caucus whose members were reflective of the United States’ great diversity, thereby assuring strategic linkages to other groups and providing additional capabilities to respond to future bilateral challenges. It also allows the caucus to serve as a potential launch pad for coalition building on issues of concern both to Peru and the Peruvian-American community. Many of the top issues facing Peru and other Latin American countries in the U.S. Congress, such as trade policy or immigration reform, are mired in the broader legislative gridlock and partisanship. This gridlock is unlikely to ease in the near future. However, on country-specific issues involving labor and environmental concerns, investment disputes, the opening with Cuba, or the Colombian peace process, Congress has had an important voice in transmitting the concerns of its constituents and therefore in shaping U.S. foreign policy. A caucus can both enhance these interactions, and serve as a forum for containing or addressing areas of friction.”

Riordan Roett, director of the Latin American Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies: “U.S. congressional relations with the region are ‘on hold’ until the November elections. If the Democrats win the White House, and possibly a majority in the Senate, I would expect a positive trajectory, given the Obama administration’s positive record in the hemisphere. Given Senator Tim Kaine’s experience in the region, and his fluency in Spanish, there will be an advocate in the Hillary administration for continued efforts to address immigration, trade and investment opportunities. I expect the Latino community in the United States will play a pivotal role in the November elections, and that will give them an important place in policy discussions with a Democratic White House. It remains to be seen how large—or small—a majority Speaker Paul Ryan will have in the House, and that will be a factor in whether or not new initiatives prosper. I have seen no evidence that the Trump campaign sees beyond the wall that the Mexicans will supposedly pay for if he is elected. Given his touted position on trade accords such as NAFTA and the TPP, I doubt there will be a great deal of interest in or initiative to work to improve relations with the region. By inference, Trump’s position on Mexicans, and by extension other social groups in the region, does not bode well for an enlightened foreign policy with regard to Latin America unless he discovers an affinity with Maduro in Venezuela as he has apparently done with Putin in Russia.”

The Latin America Advisor features Q&A from leaders in politics, economics, and finance every business day. It is available to members of the Dialogue’s Corporate Program and others by subscription.