Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 10/2008

U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality

May 2008

Council on Foreign Relations


Latin America has never mattered more for the United States. The region is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States and a strong partner in the development of alternative fuels. It is one of the United States’ fastest-growing trading partners, as well as its biggest supplier of illegal drugs. Latin America is also the largest source of U.S. immigrants, both documented and not. All of this reinforces deep U.S. ties with the region—strategic, economic, and cultural—but also deep concerns.

The report makes clear that the era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over. Countries in the region have not only grown stronger but have expanded relations with others, including China and India. U.S. attention has also focused elsewhere in recent years, particularly on challenges in the Middle East. The result is a region shaping its future far more than it shaped its past. At the same time Latin America has made substantial progress, it also faces ongoing challenges. Democracy has spread, economies have opened, and populations have grown more mobile. But many countries have struggled to reduce poverty and inequality and to provide for public security. The Council on Foreign Relations established an Independent Task Force to take stock of these changes and assess their consequences for U.S. policy toward Latin America. The Task Force finds that the longstanding focus on trade, democracy, and drugs, while still relevant, is inadequate. The Task Force recommends reframing policy around four critical areas—poverty and inequality, public security, migration, and energy security—that are of immediate concern to Latin America’s governments and citizens.

The Task Force urges that U.S. efforts to address these challenges be made in coordination with multilateral institutions, civil society organizations, governments, and local leaders. By focusing on areas of mutual concern, the United States and Latin American countries can develop a partnership that supports regional initiatives and the countries’ own progress. Such a partnership would also promote U.S. objectives of fostering stability, prosperity, and democracy throughout the hemisphere.

On behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations, I wish to thank Task Force chairs Charlene Barshefsky and James T. Hill, two distinguished public servants with deep knowledge of the region. Their intellect and leadership ably guided the Task Force toward consensus. The Council is also indebted to the Task Force membership, a diverse group comprising many of our nation’s preeminent scholars, business leaders, and policy practitioners focused on Latin America. Each member’s input and insight contributed much to the report. Finally, I wish to thank Julia E. Sweig, the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow and director of Latin America studies at the Council, for generously offering her support and guidance, and Shannon K. O’Neil, the Council’s fellow for Latin America studies, for skillfully and professionally directing this project. The hard work of all those involved has produced an authoritative report that examines changes in Latin America and in U.S. influence there, while taking account of the region’s enduring importance to the United States. I expect its agenda for renewed U.S. engagement to influence policy during the upcoming presidential transition and for years to come.

Richard N. Haass
Council on Foreign Relations
May 2008