SOTU: What President Obama Can Say About Foreign Policy and Latin America (It's Not Cuba)

SOTU_What_President_Obama_Can_Say_About_Foreign_Policy_and_Latin_America_It's_Not_Cuba President Obama has previewed the state of the union (#SOTU) with a roadshow which includes proposals on community college funding and reports of breaks for the middle class by taxing richer Americans. He will not only lay out his domestic agenda but also his foreign policy priorities. My hope is that Latin America, not just Cuba, is included in his first major speech of 2015.

Interests are jockeying to get a mention in the #SOTU. I suggest that President Obama say something along the lines of:

We not only stand with the people of Cuba as we work to normalize relations with the island nation. We renew our commitment to the people of Mexico as many are in the crosshairs of the drug cartel wars. We support strengthening the judiciary so criminals truly pay their price to society and stamp out government corruption and impunity, to grant the government legitimacy in its efforts to practice a basic tenet of civil society: no one is above the law. We also pledge to do our part, by curbing consumption as Mexico's top drug market and stemming the southward flow of the guns that kill innocent civilians.

President Obama's most significant Latin America policy is his recent announcement to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. Indeed, Cuba has symbolic value, evidenced by its status as historic sticking point at summits with U.S. and Latin American leaders. Still, Cuba's strategic and practical value should not be overstated, a rookie mistake by younger journalists new to the topic but feeling entitled all the same to write authoritatively on the topic du jour. The President's policy changes such as easing travel restrictions and re-opening an embassy positions the U.S. to influence the political, economic, and social changes that will come once octogenarians Fidel and Raúl Castro die. But because of its 50 year isolation exacerbated by our embargo, Cuba is not a trade, economic, or innovation powerhouse. At first, significant investment will be required to help its citizens transition, providing basics such as medicine.

Click here to read my post on Obama's first trip to South America "Mr. President: Try Substantive Instead of Equal Partnership with Latin America."

Mexico, however, is not just geographically strategic. After Canada, it buys the most products from the U.S. and has a unique product sharing deal with results including "forty cents of every dollar spent on imports from Mexico comes back to the U.S.," according to the nonpartisan think tank the Wilson Center. From a national security standpoint, drug, guns, and human trafficking should compel more U.S. involvement with its southern neighbor with which it shares a nearly 2,000 mile long border. The U.S. must demand the continuation of reforms in government and the judicial system. A stronger Mexican economy and public safety in light of the missing 43 students allegedly ordered by a local mayor, could do as much or more than just "10'xing" U.S. border security to stem the northward flow of immigration. Simply put, people immigrate out of hardship, few out of choice. Furthermore, as it reevaluates its drug policy, besides interdiction and enforcement, what is the U.S. doing to curb its insatiable drug consumption? How can the U.S. stem the southward flow of guns to the cartels that turn them on innocent bystanders?

Any foreign policy statements will take second place to the threat of Islamist extremism in the wake of the #ParisAttacks on the satirical magazine #CharlieHebdoe. Although an ocean away, I'm reminded of where we were following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. When President Bush entered office months before 9/11, he expressed his desire to re-engage Latin America. Although Latin Americanists had heard this before, we were hopeful because unlike other presidents, as governor of Texas, Bush had first-hand experience with the border. He understood the significant political, economic, social, and cultural impact of immigration, drug and gun trafficking, as well as trade on the Lone Star state.

After the 9/11 attacks, Bush rightfully focused on the war in Afghanistan. While the war raged there and then in Iraq, U.S. influence in the region receded as the "pinking" of Latin America progressed with left-wing governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Brazil. During this time, Mexico spun out of control as the drug cartels waged an epic and bloody struggle for dominance, institutions tasked with upholding the law and protecting citizens as detailed above, unable to or in the the worst cases, have been complicit in the rampant crime and violence.

Mexico surely is not the only Latin American country with strategic significance. Brazil and Venezuela come to mind and have received in the U.S.'s place, significant investment from China. Still, as the President lays out this year's vision with a focus on policy and actors that can be game changers, I challenge the Administration to not just include a line about Mexico but to renew its attention and commitment. A safer Mexico with a more vibrant economy will have significant benefits throughout that country, the region, and in the U.S.