President Barack Obama's official proclamation declaring April 11-17 "Pan American Week" was a nice gesture, but it's time for him to turn from words to action and take specific steps to improve U.S.-Latin American ties.
Granted, Obama, who is scheduled to visit Miami on Thursday for two fundraisers, has bigger fish to fry. The U.S. economy is still hurting, al Qaeda terrorists may strike at any time and America is waging two costly wars abroad.
But Obama would do himself and the United States a great favor if he paid more attention to his neighbors. In addition to being a major supplier of energy, Latin America buys as many U.S. goods as Europe, and may be one of the most promising U.S. export markets in the world.
It has already been a year since Obama promised a "new chapter of engagement" with Latin America at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad on April 17, and he has little to show. Among the things that he should do:
• Push immigration reform: Despite his campaign vow to pass a new immigration law "in my first year as president," Obama has failed to spend much political capital on this front. He probably felt that he had to put all his energies into passing healthcare reform.
But now, he has no excuse. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to push for a vote on immigration reform in coming weeks, before the November congressional elections.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) have proposed a bipartisan bill that among other things offered a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented U.S. residents who admit they broke U.S. laws, and require that all workers show biometric ID cards to prospective employers. The White House praised the bill, but it's unclear how much political weight it will put behind it.
• Push for passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. After initially balking about these pending trade deals, Obama called on Congress in his Jan. 27 State of the Union speech to ratify them but has yet to make a serious effort to win congressional approval of the two agreements.
• Reduce U.S. farm subsidies, and especially cut the 54-cent U.S. tariff on Brazil's sugar-cane ethanol, which is much cheaper and environmentally friendly than U.S. corn-based ethanol. This would help both South America's agricultural producers and U.S. consumers.
• Renew the deal allowing Mexican truckers to enter U.S. territory, as called for by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Congress last month that the U.S. government is "finalizing a plan" to make that happen, but an April 12 Reuters news agency story said that a solution to the conflict "is still not in sight."
• Launch new hemispheric education and health agreements. That would help increase the number of Latin American students in U.S. colleges, which is lagging increasingly behind Asians, and encourage U.S. insurance companies to pay for American patients' care in U.S.-certified hospitals in Latin America.
A medical tourism and retirement deal with countries in the region would help reduce U.S. medical costs, which are up to 70 percent lower in Latin America, and at the same time would be a boon to Latin American countries' health, tourism and real-estate industries.
• Appoint a special envoy to the Americas, as Obama vowed during the campaign. Since there are no members of Obama's cabinet with a history of interest in the region, a high-level Obama envoy would help keep the region within the White House radar.
My opinion: Obama deserves credit for a greater openness to dialogue and promising "equal partnership" with Latin America, moving from George W. Bush's political arrogance.
And Obama has made some important gestures, including reversing travel and remittance sanctions on Cuba, and admitting that much of Mexico's drug trade and violence is fueled by U.S. drug consumption and U.S. arms trafficking. Furthermore, Obama reacted swiftly and generously following theHaiti quake.
But there should be a one-year expiration date for Obama's "I'm-not-George-W.-Bush" stand on Latin America, and that deadline has passed. Now, it's time for fewer goodwill proclamations and more specific -- and ambitious -- actions.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.