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Guest Voz: Sen. Chris Dodd warns it’s time to change how U.S. thinks about Latin America

LatinaLista — On Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2010, Sen. Chris Dodd from Connecticut delivered his final remarks as a 30-year member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Earlier this year, Sen. Dodd announced his retirement from Congress which will take effect this month.

Chris-Dodd.jpgBeing a Peace Corps volunteer long before he set foot on Capitol Hill, Dodd’s affection and concern for Latin America has long been apparent whether he was visiting South American countries as a U.S. senator or running for President in 2008 and campaigning in Spanish in Latino communities across the United States.

Sen. Chris Dodd

In his following remarks, Sen. Dodd reflects on the progress he has seen in Latin America over the last 30 years and how he feels U.S. public policy must now proceed in a region that is literally the backyard of the United States and which has a deep impact on the security, economy and future of the nation.

(Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of Sen. Dodd’s full remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.)


In 1966, I arrived in the rural village of Moncion in the Dominican Republic as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. Today, nearly half a century later, I’m chairing my last hearing as Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs.

And, in that time, Latin America has undergone remarkable change — much of it positive. We are now seeing the development of a new middle class, the consolidation of democracy, the propagation of effective fiscal and social policies, and the rise of new global powers.

Over the course of my service in the Senate, I’ve tried to play a role in shaping American policy towards our neighbors to the south. And although we’ve made progress, as I leave the Senate, it is long past time for a fundamental shift in how we think about and relate to the region.

Because Latin America is not our backyard — it is our neighborhood.

And when we focus exclusively on the challenges still faced by our neighbors — and the related dangers we, ourselves, face — we run the risk of missing out on the opportunities their progress has created.

First and foremost, democracy is becoming more widespread and more durable. In Colombia and Chile, citizens recently exercised their right to vote in successful, peaceful, fair elections.

In Brazil, where President Lula has led so well, they have just elected their first female president, Dilma Rousseff. Her election along with President Cristina Fernandez, President Laura Chinchilla, as well as former President Michele Bachlet, among others, sends a strong message to a generation of Latin American women that they too are part of the region’s future.

Meanwhile, the Latin American economy, long defined as “emerging,” has finally emerged. In the five years leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis, Latin American economies experienced growth rates of 5.5 percent, while keeping inflation in single digits. And when the crisis did hit, Latin America stood strong, weathering the crisis better than any other region in the world.

While income inequality remains a significant issue (as it does in the United States, I might add), 40 million Latin Americans were lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2008.

It’s not just the increasingly stable economy that is providing opportunity for historically poor Latin Americans. Governments are beginning to deliver the education, health care, and social services necessary for sustaining growth and progress.

Conditional cash transfers like Mexico’s Oportunidades program and Brazil’s Bolsa Familia have reduced poverty, increased school attendance, and provided hope for a generation of low-income families that otherwise would have remained marginalized.

There is still work to do, of course.

Drug trafficking and related violence plagues our Mexican neighbors to the South. In many parts of Central America, citizens are forced to live and work behind barbed wire and blast walls — El Salvador and Honduras have some of the highest murder rates in the world.

Kidnapping, rape and other violence is soaring. And corruption and ineffective judicial mechanisms, including police, remain serious, systemic problems.

Despite what are tremendous and positive gains, Colombia still has one of the highest rates of internally displaced persons in the world. While Brazil’s economic growth and poverty reduction are remarkable, systemic violence still plagues that country — as demonstrated by recent efforts to regain control of Favelas from drug gangs in and around Rio de Janeiro.

Venezuela and Cuba remain examples of democracy denied. Haiti’s desperate poverty and its struggle to recover from the devastating earthquake and recent cholera outbreak is heart wrenching.

Out of the spotlight, there are still developmental challenges: productivity is growing too slowly, saving is too low, and too much of the labor force remains in the informal economy. Women and the indigenous still face discrimination, and the poor are still too often excluded.

But that old metaphor — Latin America as the United States’ backyard — is indicative of the American habit of viewing the region solely in terms of problems to be solved, not opportunities to be celebrated. In turn, our neighbors too often see us as paternalistic instead of recognizing our commonality.

What a shame. Because despite these challenges, there is so much opportunity to be found in Latin America.

After all, we are #2 in the world in Spanish speakers. Our enormous and influential Latin community has brought cultural and familiar ties to the forefront along with our geographical proximity. And not only do we share a common colonial history, there’s reason to believe that our paths forward may converge, as well.

But to harness these opportunities, each of us has a role to play.

Latin American and Caribbean nations have concerns about sovereignty, and I appreciate those concerns. But the challenges we face respect no border.

We must be able to encourage our neighbors to strengthen their social programs, invest in infrastructure, and trust in democracy and to work together in doing so.

The Obama administration’s work to integrate the Central American Regional Security Initiative and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative with the Mérida Program is a step in the right direction, as is the administration’s new, though long overdue, focus on vital institution building and civil society programs in Mexico.

But, the militarization of our response to the challenges we face in Mexico is a huge mistake. And I remain deeply concerned that not enough effort, creativity, and attention is being focused on tackling the root causes of these problems in Mexico.

I’ve also urged our government to continue its policy of encouraging the social and economic development that has brought Latin America so far along.

On my recent trip to Panama, I saw first-hand the good work USAID is doing. I applaud the work we’re doing to help women entrepreneurs through the Pathways to Prosperity program, and at-risk youth through the Obra Initiative. And I want to see more programs like them.

We must look beyond the elites with whom we traditionally engage, and work with new and emerging leaders, including the dynamic mayors, governors and other local leaders who have emerged in a region where 75 percent of the population lives in urban centers.

This outreach must also include women, the indigenous, the poor, minorities, and those who have traditionally been excluded from the public square. I know this is a priority for Secretary Clinton and I applaud her leadership on this front.

And, to strengthen our economic ties, I urge Congress to pass the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements. Our expertise can also come in handy as our partners restructure their tax systems and collection mechanisms, helping to address inequality.

In Venezuela, where there is real cause for concern, we cannot bury our heads in the sand. We must address this challenge in a smart and sophisticated way.

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human rights released a report that raised serious concerns regarding the further degradation of human rights in Venezuela. The situation is unacceptable. But this is not a case of the United States vs. Venezuela, but rather Venezuela vs. democracy.

Simply refusing to talk to Caracas won’t do a thing to empower moderates and democratic advocates, loosen political restrictions, or encourage the Venezuelan people and its neighbors to push for change.

The same principle applies in Cuba. I returned from Cuba a few weeks ago, stunned to see that the country is finally making some of the critical changes in its own society that all of us, including the Cuban people, have wanted for so long.

The Cuban Government recently announced that one million Cubans have been let go from the Government payrolls and instead will be allowed to run their own businesses. With the help of Cardinal Ortega and the Spanish Government, political prisoners are being released.

No, you don’t have to approve of the way Cuba is run — and I certainly don’t. Cuba clearly still has a long way to go to, and nobody is arguing to the contrary. But the simple truth is that Cuba is changing.

So the question I have to ask is, why aren’t we?

Why don’t we, Americans, have the courage to change 50 years of failed policy toward the island? Why are we stuck in an anachronistic policy that reflects the world of 1963 better than 2010? We must summon the courage and the wisdom to change course on Cuba. We must look forward.

I count my extensive travel through Latin America as one of the great privileges of my life and my time as a Senator. I’ve seen so much change, so much progress, and so much hope. And even though my public service may be coming to an end, I feel strongly that we are just at the beginning of a new era in this special relationship.

The future truly is bright in our neighborhood.

The following is a recording of Sen. Dodd’s farewell address to the Senate:

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