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Diplomatic Gardening in Latin America: A Role for the VP?

After attending the International Political Science Association conference in Buenos Aires, I heard a lot about U.S. policy towards Latin America. Long and short, the region deserves more positive and sustained attention than the U.S. is inclined to give it. I wrote a short piece about this and why, unfortunately, it probably won’t happen. I concluded by noting that vice presidents are well-placed to address this deficit in attention.

Vice presidential visits show a high-level of U.S. attention. Vice presidents are well-suited to coordinate the multiple parts of the bureaucracy needed for major initiatives and can be savvy about balancing the political and policy challenges. This latter is particularly critical with Latin America. There is an old expression that politics stops at the water’s edge. This isn’t really true. But the adage definitely doesn’t apply to Latin America which is in our neighborhood and where major foreign policy issues intersect heavily with domestic concerns.

Past VPs have played active roles on Latin American affairs. Quayle, both because he had a staffer who was deeply knowledgeable, but also because it was an area in which he could be active without running afoul of Jim Baker or areas where the president himself was heavily focused. Bush Senior had been an emissary to Latin America as well, delivering tough messages about human rights violations to the government of El Salvador, working quietly to repair relations with Mexico. VP Mondale had been lobbyist in chief as the administration sought to return the Canal to Panama. In 2016, considering potential vice-presidential roles, I optimistically suggested that Tim Kaine (a fluent Spanish speaker) was well-placed to play a leading role on Latin America policy.

VP Gore and Ross Perot debate the virtues of NAFTA in 1993.

VP Gore may have been the high-water mark of VP engagement in Latin America. He played a key role in securing the passage of NAFTA by debating Ross Perot. Passing NAFTA was a major achievement for a then floundering administration. But Gore, quite savvily followed this with a big move. Rather than just take a victory lap in a speech on NAFTA in Mexico City, he proposed a new initiative, the Summit of the Americas. He wanted to build on NAFTA and establish a hemisphere of prosperous democracies. He did a deep dive on issues like corruption and education that had bedeviled Latin American economies. This is the type of attention Latin America wants from the U.S. although there might be some ambivalence since it was also under the rubric of the Washington Consensus (aka neo-liberalism.)

This also highlights the challenge Latin America faces in obtaining Washington’s attention. In the 1990s the U.S. was flush economically and free from major geopolitical challenges and thus free to take on issues that were traditionally considered lower-tier. The Soviet Union had collapsed, terrorism was seen as an irritant, and the China threat was on the horizon – and believed to be managed.

VPs can also find engagement with Latin America to be be politically fraught. VP Harris’ role in immigration has been a lose-lose proposition. It was impossible to mollify administration critics on immigration and efforts to do so only brought negative coverage. At the same time her nuts-and-bolts efforts to secure investment for Central America has been reasonably successful and highlights what a VP can actually do under the radar and without a high-profile political effort.

The record of vice-presidential engagement with Latin America illustrates that building deep partnerships with the region is a nice-to-have, but not a must-have. Thus actual U.S. policy with the region frequently becomes firefighting, addressing the crisis du jour when it becomes too big to ignore (but also risky to manage).

So where does that leave the VP and Latin America? The late great Secretary of State George Shultz viewed diplomacy as akin to gardening, explaining:

If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds. And any good gardener knows you have to clear the weeds out right away. Diplomacy is kind of like that. You go around and talk to people, you develop a relationship of trust and confidence, and then if something comes up, you have that base to work from.

Vice Presidents are well-placed to tend to Latin America, even when big initiatives are not possible.

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