Lee Hamilton: The US must collaborate with its southern neighbors

Some of the United States’ most important relationships are with other countries in the Americas. They often receive less attention than they deserve. These relationships can be challenging, but there are few challenges more important than working effectively with our neighbors.

The promise and challenge of forging meaningful collaboration with Mexico and the nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean were on display last month at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. This was the ninth summit and the first hosted by the U.S. since the inaugural summit in 1994. The meeting, attended by 23 heads of state and other government and private sector leaders, produced important dialogue and agreements. But the progress was sometimes overshadowed by controversy, including disagreements over who would be invited and who would attend.

And that’s a shame, because the vast area that we call Latin America needs and deserves serious focus. A region that has on occasion suffered from a lack of strong leadership, it always seems to be on the cusp of turning the corner but never quite makes it. These nations are lands of real promise, with talented people, rich history and great natural assets. But many have been plagued with unstable or corrupt governance, economic stagnation and polarized politics. There’s always a sense, in much of Latin America, of great societies waiting to be born.

The triennial Summit of the Americas is a chance for leaders from across the hemisphere to work on shared issues and concerns, but politics and conflict seem inevitable. This year, Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, boycotted to protest the U.S. decision not to invite the autocratic rulers of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The Mexican president did send representatives to the summit and met with President Joe Biden at the White House on July 12.

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In 2018, Donald Trump canceled a trip to Argentina for the summit and sent Vice President Mike Pence. The decision upset some leaders and reinforced the sense that Trump didn’t care about the region except as a target for his rhetoric about illegal immigration.

There’s also a lot of history that contributes to distrust and can feed anti-American views. In the past, U.S. troops occupied several countries in Latin America. The CIA has meddled in the affairs of others. We have had an economic embargo of Cuba for 60 years. And, of course, the U.S. secretly funded anti-government fighters in Nicaragua in the 1980s in the Iran-Contra affair.

Despite that history, leaders and diplomats produced agreements or action plans on important issues during the 2022 summit. They created a plan for health, focused on strengthening systems and preparing for pandemics. They agreed to an economic prosperity plan with an emphasis on trade, supply chains and clean-energy jobs. And they agreed on actions to respond to climate change, a critical issue for Caribbean nations threatened by rising sea levels and more powerful storms.

Importantly, the summit produced a joint declaration on migration, perhaps the region’s most urgent issue. Americans tend to notice migrants when they try to cross the Mexico-U.S. border. In fact, many migrants fleeing poverty, gang violence and political unrest pass through or seek to settle in several countries in the region, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize and Colombia.

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The summit’s statements and agreements look good on paper, but the proof will be in the implementation. This will take cooperation and persistence, and it’s an area where U.S. leadership can make a difference. President Biden told summit participants, “None of us will be able to fully realize our ambition for the region on our own.” That’s true the world over, but it’s doubly true of the United States and our neighbors in the Americas.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.