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Public Statements

Latin America

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC


LATIN AMERICA -- (Senate - March 08, 2007)

Mr. OBAMA. Mr. President, later today, President Bush will start on a 6-day visit to five countries in the Western Hemisphere: Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.

The trip comes at an important time for the region and for U.S. relations with our hemispheric neighbors. In an historic convergence, during a 13-month period beginning in November 2005 and ending this past December, a dozen countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean held Presidential elections. Those elections are a testament to the tremendous democratic strides made throughout the Americas during the past two decades and saw governments elected to power that span the ideological spectrum.

In many ways, the election results symbolize the important political, economic, and social change occurring throughout the Americas. As many have noted, the elections gave voice to a yearning across the hemisphere for social and economic development--a yearning among tens of millions of people for a better life. This is a welcome development and a challenge to all of us who wish to see the Americas continue down a path of democracy with justice, because, while we should welcome this democratic call for change, we must recognize that hard and steady work lies ahead to make these hopes a reality.

That a desire for fundamental change has been expressed through the ballot box is an enormous stride forward. Too often, change in the Americas has occurred in an anti-democratic fashion. Those days must permanently be put to rest. All citizens of the Americas have a fundamental right to live in freedom and to express themselves through robust democratic institutions.

That a desire for expanded prosperity has been given such clear voice raises the stakes. Governments must now do more to address the basic needs and aspirations of their people in an effective, democratic, and sustainable way. A failure to fulfill the most basic functions of government, and a failure to create the conditions in which tens of millions across the Americas can realize their hopes and break free of poverty could undo these gains. The denial of opportunity is now the most significant threat to the consolidation of democracy in the region.

Unfortunately, the elections and this desire for change have occurred at a time when U.S. prestige and influence have fallen to depths not seen in at least a generation. As has been the case throughout the world, our standing in the Americas has suffered as a result of the misguided policies and actions of the Bush administration. It will take significant work to repair the damage wrought by 6 years of neglect and mismanagement of relations.

The United States can ill afford this deterioration of our standing. With each passing day, we draw closer together to our neighbors to the south. This convergence creates new challenges, but it also opens the door to a more hopeful future. If we pay careful attention to developments throughout the region and respond to them in a thoughtful and respectful way, then we can advance our many and varied national interests at stake in the Americas.

I welcome the President's decision to travel to five important countries in Latin America, and to reaffirm the importance of our relationship with the more than 500 million people who live to our south. I am, however, disappointed that the President has fallen so short in his promise to transform U.S. relations with the Americas. Our regional relationships cannot be properly attended to with one 6-day trip, a series of photo opportunities, and some lofty rhetoric on collaboration.

Nor does the Bush administration's declaration of 2007 as the year of engagement with the Americas suffice. One year of engagement out of seven is simply not good enough. In light of the Bush administration's woeful record, creating false expectations does more harm than good. We must be realistic about the challenges we face, and what we are doing to address them. We must devote our full time and our respectful attention to our relations within the hemisphere.

Earlier this week, President Bush spoke of a ``social justice' agenda for the Americas. He was right to underscore the importance of addressing the basic needs of millions of our neighbors languishing in poverty. The primary responsibility for doing so, of course, lies with the governments and societies throughout the hemisphere. Yet helping to lift people out of widespread poverty is in our interests, just as it is in accord with our values. When instability spreads to our south, our security and economic interests are at risk. When our neighbors suffer, all of the Americas suffer.

The United States has an important role to play. Yet the President sends a mixed message when he makes his call for a social justice agenda after presenting the Congress with a budget for fiscal year 2008 that, with the exception of HIV/AIDS funding, slashes both assistance for economic development and health programs in the Americas. At a time when our standing in the hemisphere is so low, we cannot afford to send this kind of message. Our commitment to justice in the Americas must be expressed in more than one thoughtful expression in one pre-trip speech. Our commitment must be matched by our deeds, not just our words.

It is my hope that the President will break from his practice of touting the importance of the Americas during his travels only to turn his back upon his return.

Each stop on the President's trip presents an opportunity to move beyond rhetoric, to renew relations in the hemisphere, and to set a new course for sustained followthrough in a way that advances important U.S. interests.

In Brazil, it has been reported that President Bush is expected to join with President Inacio Lula de Silva to announce greater ethanol cooperation between the United States and Brazil. Together, the United States and Brazil are the world's largest ethanol producers and consumers. Brazil's more than 30 years of renewable fuel technology investments allowed it to achieve energy independence last year. Ethanol now accounts for 40 percent of Brazil's fuel usage. More than 80 percent of cars sold in Brazil today are flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on gasoline, ethanol, or a mixture thereof.

Greater Brazilian production of renewable fuels could boost sustainable economic development throughout Latin America and reshape the geopolitics of energy in the hemisphere, reducing the oil-driven influence of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. The more interhemispheric production and use of ethanol and other biofuels occurs, and the more such indigenously produced renewable fuels are used to replace fossil fuels, the better it is for our friends in the hemisphere.

As it relates to our country's drive toward energy independence, it does not serve our national and economic security to replace imported oil with Brazilian ethanol. In other words, those who advocate replacement of US-based biofuels production with Brazilian ethanol exports, however well intentioned they may be, are both misunderstanding our long-term energy security challenge and ignoring a valuable foreign policy opportunity. The U.S. needs to dramatically expand domestic biofuels production, not embrace a short term fix that discourages investment in the expansion of the domestic renewable fuels in industry. Also, accelerating technology advances and transferring the technology to our neighbors in the Caribbean and South America will help them employ their own resources to produce environmentally clean ethanol to reduce their imported oil bill, thereby promoting economic stability in the Caribbean and South and Central America and strengthen the U.S.-Brazil relationship.

It is vital that President Bush keeps the Congress involved each step forward in a U.S.-Brazil relationship based on renewable fuels. This relationship must be structured so as not to hamper the domestic production of renewable fuels, or the development of new technologies here at home that can enhance our energy security.

In Uruguay, President Bush has the opportunity to forge closer ties with President Tabaré Vázquez and to show that the United States is ready, willing, and able to work productively with democratic-left governments. That this ability is in question and that it requires explaining underscores how badly the President and his administration have misunderstood and mismanaged the political, economic, and social change occurring throughout the Americas. The United States is seen as supporting democracy when it produces a desired result. It is vital to reverse that trend. I hope the President can begin that process, even if we have a long way to go.

The United States has invested a great deal--nearly $5 billion during the past 7 years--to help stabilize Colombia. A more peaceful, just, and stable Colombia is undoubtedly in our national interest. It is imperative, however, that greater peace and stability contribute to a reduction in the flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States. Thus far, we have not seen the kind of dropoff that the effective pursuit of our interests demands.

President Bush's closest ally in the region--Colombian President Alvaro Uribe--is embroiled in a controversy that has led to the arrest of eight of his supporters in the Colombian Congress and his former confidant and former chief of Colombia's secret police for ties to the country's narco-terrorist paramilitaries. President Bush must be careful to keep the pursuit of U.S. interests in Colombia distinct from specific personalities, or personal relationships. The further consolidation of legitimate governing institutions in Colombia--and the extension of their reach throughout Colombia are clearly in the national interest of the United States, and the interest of Colombia.

Guatemala shares deep connections with the United States. Nearly 1 in 10 Guatemalans now lives in the United States. Nearly $3 billion were remitted from the United States to Guatemala in 2005, representing approximately 10 percent of that country's gross domestic product. Having emerged from decades of internal conflict that left as many as 200,000 of its citizens dead, Guatemala finds itself struggling with a new scourge of violence that is causing instability. Gang and drug-related criminal violence and the country's staggering levels of poverty pose enormous challenges--challenges that affect our country as well. I am encouraged to see the Bush administration's new commitment to supporting a Central American regional approach to combat transnational gangs. This initiative should incorporate the most effective techniques and practices from the United States and from throughout the region. The United States must take the lead in rolling back the detrimental influence of these gangs in our own society and in Central America.

The relationship between the United States and Mexico is among our most important in the world. Getting it right is vital to advancing our core economic and security interests. To do that, a great deal of work needs to be done. Mexico is making strong efforts to address the drug trade and is working cooperatively with the United States on a number of security issues. But our complex relationship with Mexico has become captive to a single issue: the immigration debate in our country.

There is consensus that our immigration system is broken. It is past time to fix it, and I am proud of my own support for a workable solution. We need a comprehensive approach to illegal immigration that stops the flow of illegal immigrants across our borders, better manages immigration flows going forward, and deals fairly with the illegal immigrants already living and working in our country. A workable solution will require bipartisan support, and I will work to build it. The President has consistently voiced his support, for comprehensive immigration reform. It is my hope that upon his return from Mexico he will get to work, converting his words into deeds to help push comprehensive immigration reform forward.

A great deal of work needs to be done. We need to restore U.S. relations in the hemisphere. We need to consolidate the gains that have been made in the sweeping change of the last few years. We need to sustain our commitment to democracy, to social justice, and to opportunity for our neighbors to the south. The Western Hemisphere is too important to our core economic and security interests to be treated with the neglect and mismanagement that have defined the past 6 years. It is my hope that President Bush's trip marks the opening of a new chapter of cooperation and partnership a chapter of partnership with our neighbors to promote democracy with social and economic development for the benefit of all of us who live in the Americas. It is time for the United States to reclaim and renew its historic role as a leader in the hemisphere and an example of hope for all who seek opportunity in the Americas.

http://thomas.loc.gov/

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