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Letter to President-Elect Barack Obama

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Dear Mr. President-Elect:

As you take office, you know full well how much we need you to take a new approach to our nation’s economy and the war in Iraq. But we also urge you to take a new approach to U.S. relations with our neighbors to the south.

We have put up barriers rather than lent a helping hand.

Lending our neighbors a helping hand should not be defined, as it has for too long, as arming, equipping and training the region’s militaries. Today, half of U.S. aid to Latin America goes to the military and police.

Yet Latin America still faces enormous challenges of poverty and remains one of the world’s most unequal societies. The global economic crisis will likely take a heavy toll on Latin American and Caribbean nations. Most urgently, the high price of food will mean that too many face not just poverty and unemployment, but also hunger. The recent devastation of crops and food supplies by multiple hurricanes in the Caribbean will exacerbate this danger, especially for Cuba.

We urgently implore you to redirect U.S. aid towards public health, education, disaster relief, microcredit, and small-scale agriculture. And we ask you to build a fair trade policy that improves the lives of poor and middle-class workers and farmers on both sides of our hemisphere. Unfair trade agreements and abandonment of investment in small-scale agriculture drive Latin American citizens to cross our borders in search of a better life.

Vibrant social movements throughout Latin America—which in recent years have been elected to, or influenced, governments—are challenging economic policies that have failed to reduce poverty and inequality. These movements, which include indigenous and Afro-descendent populations who have suffered centuries of discrimination, should be included, not feared. We ask you to pay special attention to the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations who are organizing for their livelihoods, land rights, and civil rights.

It’s time to take a fresh look at our failed, expensive counternarcotics policy that leaves U.S. citizens without access to drug treatment programs and, in Latin America, brings the army into the streets and fields. Just since 2000, the United States has spent $6 billion in Colombia; yet the level of coca production in Colombia and the Andean region remains just as high as at the program’s start. Inhumane aerial spraying programs that destroy farmers’ food crops and forced eradication without alternatives produce neither good will nor results. We must invest in helping poor farmers switch permanently away from illicit drug crops abroad and in effective treatment and prevention at home.

We ask you to put human rights front and center in your policy towards Latin America. We need you to stand with human rights defenders wherever they face threats and attacks for calling for justice. The United States should also stand with Latin Americans who are struggling to achieve justice for past abuses—because truth and an end to past impunity pave the way to future justice.

We need the United States to focus aid and diplomacy on regional human rights problems, strengthening the rule of law and supporting independent and effective judiciaries. But this focus must be fair, impartial, and balanced. On the one hand, countries that have been considered allies have received a free pass; this must end. On the other hand, valid concern for human rights and democratic institutions should not escalate into bellicose rhetoric and policies, and democratically-elected governments should be respected.

We ask you to recognize the most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere—in Colombia, where hundreds of thousands of people flee their homes from violence in a war without end. The United States must use tough diplomacy to encourage the Colombian army to end abuses and sever all links with abusive paramilitary forces. The United States must demand real progress on ending violence towards trade unionists and ensuring justice in these cases before any trade agreement goes back to the table. The United States must increase support for humanitarian aid for those displaced by war.
And if the United States wants to begin to actively support peace, it cannot continue to endlessly bankroll war.

But if we want to put human rights front and center, we must first live up to our own ideals. Abu Ghraib did tremendous damage to the United States’ image in Latin America as well as the rest of the world, and Guantanamo continues to do so. A clean break with this past by closing Guantanamo and reestablishing safeguards to prevent torture and abuses by our own forces will help to repair this damage.

The relationship between the United States and Cuba is at a potentially transformational moment. Coinciding with new visions for change in this country, change is also occurring in Cuba, with more reform-minded leadership and the desire for improved government-to-government relations with the United States. The past eight years have brought a reduction in citizen contacts, increased enforcement of cruel U.S. sanctions, and accelerated curtailment of Americans’ fundamental right to travel. Cuba is at the crossroads for any new U.S. policy toward Latin America; your administration’s approach to Cuba will be seen by our Latin American allies as a symbol of Washington’s approach to the entire region. We cannot afford to get it wrong. Therefore, we ask you to support the lifting—for ALL Americans—of the travel ban that divides the U.S. and Cuban people—as a demonstration to our Latin America neighbors that a new day has dawned in our relationship with them, and because it is the right thing to do.

A relentless focus on border enforcement has put a symbolic as well as a physical wall between the United States and Latin America. Money poured into poorly-thought-out fencing and other forms of enforcement have harmed communities on both sides of the border and have driven migrants to more dangerous cross points without guaranteeing gains in security. It is time for a more thoughtful approach that includes and involves border communities—and recognizes the need for immigration reform.

And indeed we ask you to do the hard political work to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. You must recognize the aspirations and contributions of the millions of members of our communities who have only sought to build a better life for their families. We know it is not easy, but it is necessary, sensible, and just.

We encourage you to listen to the voices of Latin Americans whose stories and unique perspectives must be heard in Washington if we are to help our neighbors lift millions out of grinding poverty and build more equal and just societies.

We look forward to working with you to build a just policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean that renews our historic commitment to defending human rights and unites us with our neighbors.