U.S. policy towards our Latin American neighbors is, as usual, in need of a few New Year’s resolutions. Here goes:
- Ban assault weapons. Three months before the murders of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, 110 victims of violence and advocates from Mexico traveled across the United States calling on us to take action to stop the violence that has claimed over 100,000 lives in Mexico during the last six years. They asked us to ban the assault weapons that arm Mexico’s brutal cartels. Some70 percent of assault weapons and other firearms used by criminal gangs in Mexico come from the United States. The United States should reinstate and tighten the assault weapon ban and enforce the ban on the import of assault weapons into our country, which are then smuggled into Mexico. Do it for Newtown. Do it for Aurora. Do it for Mexico’s mothers and fathers who have lost their children to senseless violence.
- Deliver comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats and Republicans alike should heed the message delivered by the Latino vote in 2012 and provide a path to citizenship for the eleven million people living in the shadows in the United States and build a flexible, sensible legal immigration system for the future. This historic step would help families and the economy in the United States and Latin America, and would do more to improve U.S.-Latin American relations than any other single action. And right now, the Obama administration should protect the rights of migrants and border communities by stopping deportation practices that send migrants back to dangerous areas to be preyed upon by cartels, and by ensuring U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents are held accountable for abuses.
- Support peace in Colombia, with justice. In 2013, there’s a real chance to end the longest-running conflict in the Americas. The Obama administration sensibly backs Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ negotiations with the FARC guerrillas. But we should also be listening to the voices of families of the disappeared and kidnapped, and the mothers of children murdered by Colombia’s army, who are calling for justice along with peace. There must be accountability and truth for the murder, torture, forced displacement and rape perpetrated by all actors: the paramilitaries, the guerrillas and the country’s own armed forces. The sad truth is that the Santos administration is moving backwards in accountability for army abuses. Without full truth and a strong measure of justice, there cannot be a lasting peace.
- Try this on for size: a rational policy towards Cuba. The United States should launch a serious dialogue that aims at lifting the failed, 50-year embargo. We know this won’t happen overnight. For starters, we should end the travel ban that divides us from our neighbors just off the Florida coast. The Obama administration should also take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; there is no earthly reason it belongs there in 2013. The accusation of giving shelter to Colombia’s guerrillas was one of the few rationales for Cuba’s inclusion; now Cuba is lauded by Colombia’s government for hosting peace negotiations. If we support peace in Colombia, how can we not recognize Cuba’s contribution?
- End the militarized approach to drugs. Latin American presidents of all political persuasions are telling us: we must rethink the “War on Drugs,” which has brought suffering without results. For starters, we should stop the tactics that cause the most harm while doing the least good: counternarcotics campaigns that bring Latin American armies into the streets; aerial spraying, which destroys food as well as drug crops. And we should focus on the public health approaches here and abroad that do the most good and the least harm: providing treatment when and where addicts need it; evidence-based prevention campaigns; youth employment and building resilient communities.
- Focus on aid that helps people, not guns and military aid. As we face another battle on budget cuts, why not put military aid to Latin America on the chopping block. There’s no war anywhere in the region, if Colombia’s peace talks succeed. Focus on aid that actually helps people: disaster assistance, including reconstruction aid for Haiti; aid for health care, education, micro-loans, improving justice systems, and community development. Ensure that aid programs are consulted with the people they intend to benefit.
- Speak up for human rights. While the United States isn’t perfect, as our Latin American friends readily tell us, our government should speak up for human rights in this hemisphere. But do it fairly. When a left-wing government restricts freedom of the press, the United States should speak against this. When governments the U.S. favors — like Colombiaand Mexico–fail to prosecute human rights abuses committed by their militaries, the United States should press for justice, including by suspending military aid when needed.
- Decisively support human rights in Honduras. Honduras is in crisis. Since the June 2009 coup in Honduras, human rights protections, never strong, have been severely weakened. Human rights defenders, LGBT community members, leaders in poor farming communities, and opposition activists have been threatened and killed, in crimes for which there is no justice. Military, police and private security guards are unaccountable. The United States should suspend military and police aid to Honduras while using aid and tough diplomacy to help Honduras strengthen the failing justice system.
- Support the Inter-American human rights system. To its credit, the Obama administration has actively supported the Inter-American human rights system, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which many Latin American governments of left, right and center have recently sought to weaken. 2013 will be an important year to join with civil society groups across the Americas to ensure reforms strengthen, not weaken, this system’s role as the last recourse for victims who fail to attain justice in their countries.
- Finally, clean up our own act. The United States’ voice on human rights will be stronger, of course, if our government sticks to human rights principles in its own actions. Drone strikes that kill civilians, rendition, indefinite detention and complete lack of due process for terror suspects weaken U.S. credibility in Latin America as well as in other regions of the world.
Now, if we could keep these resolutions, 2013 would be a banner year for U.S.-Latin American relations.