Six Steps on the Path to a Latin America Strategy

(Bloomberg View) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a pragmatic Texan with plenty of experience in Latin America, gleaned over his decades in the oil business. As he wraps up a five-day tour of the vibrant world to the south, he would do well to remember the words of Jorge Ramos, the sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued Univision journalist, who said of its contributions to literature: “It's no coincidence that magic realism happens in Latin America, because for us dreams and aspirations are part of life.” Finding the right balance between realism and idealism is at the heart of developing strategy, and the U.S. desperately needs one toward Latin America and the Caribbean.

Tillerson’s trip lands in a decidedly mixed set of circumstances. On the positive side, recent elections have delivered more pro-U.S., politically conservative governments in a variety of countries, notably Argentina and Brazil. The decades-long insurgency in Colombia is winding down, and the population of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has fallen to just 41 inmates, from a high of almost 800. The U.S. finally has an embassy in Havana. Economically, the region is benefiting from U.S. and global growth, and finally emerging from the 2008 recession.

On the other hand, the idea of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is a significant negative, deeply resented throughout the region in general and in Mexico especially (news flash: they won’t pay for it). President Donald Trump’s decisions to keep Guantanamo Bay open and to slow down the opening to Cuba are regarded poorly. Mexico and other nations in the region continue to find Trump’s pronouncements about “bad hombres” and his portrayal of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants as criminals utterly offensive. The U.S. market for drugs is widely regarded as the cause of narcotics-fueled violence. And the U.S. decisions to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate agreement are extremely unpopular.

With all that in mind, what is the best approach for the U.S.? Where should Secretary Tillerson place strategic emphasis?

First, we should recognize how important the region is to the U.S., and develop an interagency strategy for engagement, involving the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, plus the Central Intelligence Agency and other stakeholders. The countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have large populations with strong cultural and religious linkages to the U.S., are almost all democratic, enjoy vast natural resources, and represent the only region of the world that avoided war in the 20th century and are at peace today. We are lucky to be part of the Americas with partners like these.

Second, we have to prioritize our relationships with Mexico and Brazil. Mexico because it shares a 2,000-mile border with us, is culturally intertwined with the neighboring states, and is one of our top trading partners. Brazil because of its enormous size and global potential. Elections in both countries this year will drive our strategic relationships, but we should encourage high-level visits, diplomatic coordination on regional issues, academic and cultural exchanges, and even military-to-military exercises.

Related to our relationship with Mexico, we must work hard to preserve the North American Free Trade Agreement -- partly to ensure that Canada remains deeply engaged in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nafta needs renegotiating, but our approach should value the idea of the treaty, and find reasonable compromises. Most experts put the chances of successfully doing so at less than even. We need to realize that in addition to the economic elements of the agreement, it is a crucial strategic tool.

Third, our long-term relationship with Colombia is crucial. The success of the bipartisan Plan Colombia in ending armed conflict is remarkable, and the nation represents a enormously important economic and security partner for the U.S. We should be working with both Colombia and Mexico to address the drug problems in Central America. The violence levels in some countries are breathtaking (much higher than Afghanistan, for example). That directly affects the U.S. and Mexico through illegal migration.

Fourth, we need to elevate U.S.-Caribbean relations, beginning, of course, with how Washington treats Puerto Rico. We have to help our fellow citizens by providing real assistance in recovering from this summer’s devastating hurricanes. China is moving not only into Central and South America, but also the Caribbean islands. So this relatively low-cost engagement needs to be a component of our strategy.

Fifth, our best strategic move in Cuba is to continue to engage. Over time, the rotten Castro regime will fall because of the allure of capitalism, the influence of tourism, and the access to the broader world through the internet. As happened in Eastern Europe and Ukraine -- and is happening today in Venezuela -- nonviolent resistance can overcome even the most entrenched dictatorships.

Finally, on Venezuela, we need to talk softly and let our allies and partners in the region take the lead on visibly bashing Nicolas Maduro’s execrable regime. We should certainly be joining in sanctions, quietly encouraging them, and preparing for the possibility of a civil war and a wave of Venezuelan refugees. The international coalition approach has worked well for the U.S. in the Balkans and against Islamic State. We need to use this strategic tack here in this hemisphere.

When I was commander of U.S. Southern Command, people would sometimes say to me, “You are in charge of an important part of the world, Admiral -- after all, that’s America’s backyard.” That expression, however, is wrong in so many dimensions, and perpetuates a sense that Latin America and the Caribbean are lesser partners than our allies across the Atlantic or the Pacific. Instead of a condescending attitude, we need a forward-looking strategy that recognizes the power in this vast hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Secretary Tillerson’s trip is a good start, but we have a long way to go.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His most recent book is "Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans."

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