For much of the last decade, the United States has been relatively disengaged from Latin America, getting involved mostly to combat drugs or violence. Now, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has approved a measure that would further limit the U.S. role in the region.
Under the proposal, which would have to be approved by both the House and the Senate, the U.S. would eliminate its $48.5-million contribution to the Organization of American States, the oldest and largest regional diplomatic group in the Western Hemisphere.
Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and Connie Mack (R-Fla.) argue that the U.S. should defund the OAS because it has been "destroying democracy in Latin America," as Mack put it, and endorsing the United States' political foes — namely Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Republicans on the committee suggested that it would be crazy for the U.S. to continue making a nearly $50-million annual contribution to an organization that often takes positions that conflict with Washington's.
But slashing the U.S. contribution won't promote democracy in Latin America, nor will it silence Chavez, a pugnacious but democratically elected leader. What it will do is send a strong signal that the U.S. is content to disengage still further, to conduct what foreign policy it must on a bilateral basis only, and to give short shrift to regional issues. As Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) noted, Washington might as well consider "an amendment to pull out of the world, to build a moat around the United States and put a dome over the thing."
Republican leaders may not like the OAS, but it currently offers the United States a seat alongside other Latin American leaders, at a moment when there is a proliferation of organizations in the region that already exclude Washington. The Union of South American Nations, modeled after the European Union, is considered a possible rival to the OAS, with no U.S. presence. And while free-trade agreements between the United States and Colombia and Panama remain stuck in Congress, regional common markets and trade organizations such as Mercosur and the Andean Community are moving to establish sub-regional free-trade agreements, and their member countries are building partnerships with China and Europe.
The OAS may be an imperfect union, but it remains one of the most successful in responding to regional problems. It has deftly negotiated solutions, whether monitoring elections in Haiti, defusing tensions after Colombia's cross-border raid into Ecuador in 2008 or helping broker a deal to allow former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to return from exile after he was ousted in a 2009 coup.
Withdrawing support from the OAS won't make the U.S. a better or more powerful player in the region — just a less engaged one.