Latin America has been absent from United States President Barack Obama’s foreign policy priorities since he took office in January 2009. Despite pledging to renew his country’s partnership with Latin America at the outset of his term, Obama’s energy has been focused on the Middle East and Asia.
With U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to South and Central America this week, there came a new pledge to invest in the region. Through the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas program introduced in 2008, Clinton said the United States would work to close economic gaps by targeting small businesses and women-driven enterprises.
“Talent is present everywhere. You can visit any town or school from Alaska to Patagonia and you’ll see it but, unfortunately, opportunity is far from universal,” Clinton said at a meeting of foreign ministers at the Intercontinental Hotel in Escazú. “Too many people in too many places have never had the chance to realize their dreams of starting a business, pursuing an education, or lifting themselves and their families out of poverty. The U.S. will be focusing on several pathway initiatives to support entrepreneurs and create new opportunities across the Americas.” Clinton said the U.S. would focus on the creation of small business development centers to help new enterprises, support and mentoring of women entrepreneurs and the modernization of rules involving loans to new business owners.
“We’re not just talking about micro interventions …We’re talking about assisting individuals and businesses by promoting broader change in order to realize the objectives we share,” she said.
Foreign ministers from 17 countries in the region also agreed to pump up efforts to support small- and medium-sized businesses by connecting them with global markets and by making credit available to entrepreneurs, with a special focus on women. The ministers signed a five-page agreement in which they committed to the Pathways to Prosperity initiatives.
Alfonso Quiñonez, executive secretary for integral development for the Organization of American States (OAS), committed his organization’s support.
“Latin America is not the poorest region in the world, but it is the region with the greatest inequality. The OAS is committed to reversing this,” he said. One of the best ways to accomplish a reduction in inequality is to “foster the economic power of the people …the people who are traditionally left out. Our aim is to empower those who are not on the road to prosperity as we want them to be.”
Not only was there a thrust to invest in the economically disadvantaged, but the foreign ministers in attendance at the summit preached greater economic integration.
“We need to realize our economies can complement each other and so can our markets,” said Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez Merizalde. “It is important to increase trade and develop relations. (Through better integration), we know we have the capacity (as a group) to be examples in the world.”
To this point, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias said, “It is almost picturesque to hear our region discuss whether or not to favor an open market. As if it’s an option! Economic integration into the world can’t be chosen. It has to be accepted. It’s a force, not a decision.”
And echoing the forceful speech he made to his colleagues at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference (CALC) in Mexico, Arias offered equally strong words at the summit, saying, “This is a region that has postponed its leap to development for centuries. It’s a region that always leaves everything for the next government, the next generation, the next Ice Age.” He added, “If we aspire to prosperity, we must not get off the train of free trade.”
Clinton also committed the U.S. to two other causes in the region – continued support to stem drug trafficking and a restoration of aid to Honduras.
“With respect to drug trafficking …We are well aware that Central American countries are bearing a greater burden in combating these criminal cartels today than they were in the past,” Clinton said. “We understand that the U.S. bears part of the responsibility for the challenges that governments are confronting … We will continue to do what we can in partnership with the governments throughout the region.”
Regarding Honduras, Clinton said that support needs to be renewed to a country divided by the ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya. She said the recent Honduran elections were found to be free, fair and legitimate and that the country deserves international recognition and normalization of relations.
“We share the condemnation of the coup that occurred, but we think it’s time to move forward and ensure that such disruptions of democracy do not and cannot happen in the future,” she said.