What to Watch in 2013: U.S. Policy Toward Latin America

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U.S. President Obama delivers a speech in front of banners representing Latin American nations in Santiago (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

U.S. President Obama delivers a speech in front of banners representing Latin American nations in Santiago (Jason Reed/Courtesy Reuters).

2013 could be an interesting year for U.S. policy toward the region. Up first will likely be U.S. immigration reform. The outpouring of support from Latino voters in the November presidential election, helping push Barack Obama to victory, combined with the better organization and more aggressive stance of many pro-immigration advocates may motivate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come up with legislative reforms. In fact Obama officials have already stated that they will turn to immigration early this year.

The fact that immigrant flows from Mexico are at their lowest level in twenty years (less than one fifth the 2000 numbers) and that the U.S.-Mexico border is more heavily manned and arguably more secure than in the past will help. The biggest questions and debates will revolve around how to deal with the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in the United States and how to structure a new system that avoids creating a similar situation down the road.

2013 could see a deepening of trade and economic ties with the region as well. In the presidential run up both candidates publicly recognized Latin America’s growing potential as a market for U.S. exports. The Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, could help turn this rhetoric into reality. These ongoing negotiations between the Asia-Pacific countries of Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam (and possibly Japan and Thailand in the near future) and the Western Hemisphere nations of Chile, Mexico, Peru, the United States, and Canada would, if successful, create a free trade agreement of unprecedented reach. The partnership would provide incentives for establishing and deepening regional supply chains, stretching from Montreal to Santiago. It would also likely shake up the political economy of the region, providing an alternative to the Brazilian economic hub in South America. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the TPP will be U.S. domestic politics. Though members of both parties support free trade, the TPP won’t happen unless Obama regains fast-track negotiating authority—binding Congress to vote up or down on the final agreement without amendments.

This year will also see more discussion, and perhaps evolution, in the global approach to fighting drugs. Latin American presidents—whether in or out of office—have become increasingly vocal against the status quo, demanding greater dialogue and new methods. The OAS has agreed to study the issue, and should come out with reports/studies during the year. Others are pushing forward on their own—for instance Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has stated that he will shift from focusing on drug kingpins to reducing violence and crime more generally. In the United States, recent successful referendums to legalize marijuana in Washington and Colorado (along with sixteen states and Washington DC that allow the use of medical marijuana) are changing the national discussion. With public opinion polls showing that roughly 50 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, Obama and his administration have signaled that cracking down on states that legalize marijuana (and thus go against federal drug law) won’t be a top priority. These international and domestic groundswells provide an opportunity to rethink the current international drug control regime, and perhaps begin moving away from the supply and law enforcement driven model that has dominated the last several decades.

Legislative or other actions in these three areas would lead to long term shifts in the human, economic, and security ties throughout the hemisphere, fundamentally changing U.S. relations with many of its neighbors, so keep watching.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.