Opinion | The United States Should Welcome a Strong, United Latin America

Opinion | The United States Should Welcome a Strong, United Latin America


Editors’ note: This is part of a series, “Op-Eds From the Future,” in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 20 or even 100 years from now. The challenges they predict are imaginary — for now — but their arguments illuminate the urgent questions of today and prepare us for tomorrow. The opinion piece below is a work of fiction.

The 20 countries that make up Latin America are moving rapidly toward agreement on forming a supranational political and economic union. The proposed Latinamérica Unida would be similar in structure to the European Union, a federation of nations with internal freedom of movement, a single currency, no trade barriers among members, and common regulations. It is hoped that the new entity would promote regional unity, support good governance and strengthen the economies of its member countries.

The response in the United States to the plan has been, to use the Spanish term, exagerada. Last week, Representative Steven Allworth, a Wyoming Republican, called the proposed Latinamérica Unida “a power grab that will threaten our borders,” although he did not explain what the United States should do to prevent the bloc from forming. During a visit to the White House, the French president, Anne Nouguez, remarked on the United States’ “Latin panic;” a White House spokesman, Indra Vernon, retorted with reminders of France’s aggressive reaction to the last step toward unification taken by the African Union. News channels and social media feeds are filled with provocative images and rumor-mongering: crowds of potential migrants, military parades, anti-United States graffiti.

Precisely how the United States government decides to respond to the unification proposal remains to be seen. In the face of what is perceived by some to be an existential threat from the 20 countries to our south — or possibly 19 of them, since it is not certain whether Cuba will meet the membership requirements — how should the United States respond?

Perhaps the easiest answer is this: Do nothing. The United States has already meddled far too many times in the politics of the region, toppling or propping up regimes in nearly every country. It’s time for us to take a step back and allow Latin Americans to decide what kind of government they want, without U.S. interference.

However, we seem to be constitutionally incapable of such restraint, which is understandable. Taken as a whole, Latin America is our largest neighbor, with twice our population. The long border we share with Mexico and the proximity of many of our Caribbean neighbors necessarily make the United States vulnerable to both national security concerns and trade actions. The possibility that those borders will belong to a single — and as-yet unknown and unpredictable — entity with a unified foreign policy is daunting, even if it is likely to make treaties and negotiations easier.

With the largest economy of any individual country, the United States is accustomed to having a position of economic dominance, but combining all of Latin America’s economies changes that calculus. While the United States still comes out ahead in terms of G.D.P., a Latinamérica Unida suddenly looks less like a potential aid recipient and more like a powerful rival. And while there will probably be some economic bumps on the path to unification, the Latinamérica Unida economy is likely to grow.

The union promises strong financial and administrative support for subregional economic goals and local products, including allocations for indigenous communities. The common market would facilitate sales within Latinamérica Unida, but the combined expertise of the region would drive external trade as well, leading to greater competition with products made in the United States.

The policymakers and economists who designed the unification treaty learned from past currency experiments and will be running an experiment of their own: While the region would adopt a common currency, sophisticated algorithms are intended to allow micro-flexibility in subregional monetary policy tied to price differences in standard goods, as well as stronger controls against arbitrage. It should be more worrying to the United States that Latinamérica Unida’s new currency — the peso americano — would be pegged to the yuan instead of the dollar.

The prospect of a newly large and booming economy just across our border is understandably frightening. But there are many reasons to believe that a stronger community to our south would be a boon to the United States.

A larger economy means a larger trading partner. We would be able to diversify both exports and imports, and reduce our reliance on China.

Importantly, a unified Latin America would most likely do a better job of maintaining international standards for workers and environmental protection. Yeruti Benitez, the vice president of Paraguay (who has been open about her hopes for a position in a Latinamérica Unida government), has promised that standardizing labor laws would be a major early push for the entity. Even moderate improvements in the laws regulating industry — and the enforcement of those laws — would have a major impact on reducing the outsourcing of United States jobs south. If politicians are truly serious about “ethical capitalism” — the latest political buzzword — they should be pleased about the prospect of a more level playing field.

A more unified Latin America would also reduce United States commitments in the region. The United States spent nearly $100 million in disaster relief in Latin America last year, the bulk of that, of course, for the response to the devastating Caribbean Basin Tsunami. Latinamérica Unida would require investments in disaster preparedness from its members and have a regional budget line for disaster response, leading to greater resilience and less need for foreign assistance.

Similarly, the supranational organization would be the first stop for member countries facing financial upheaval or political crisis. The diplomatic spat between Bolivia and Chile last month — caused, according to the tabloids, by the lyrics of a particularly pointed cumbia verse — has been used by some to argue that a unified Latin America is still out of reach. But the experience of existing supranational organizations suggests that they tend to be very good at resolving precisely that type of incident: Both the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have mediated among their member states to prevent clashes of national pride from getting out of hand. While the United States would still undoubtedly have an important role to play in the region, this would make it easier for us to let Latin Americans solve Latin American problems.

Unity across Latin America would also very likely have an important effect on the biggest elephant in this discussion: migration. It is likely to make life much easier for the millions of Americans who retire to Latin America every year, with streamlined immigration processes and easier travel within the region. But that, of course, is not the migration that pundits and politicians in this country are shouting about. They are more worried about immigration, and particularly undocumented immigration, from Latin America to the United States, despite the fact that those numbers have been dropping for decades.

The potential member states are still hotly discussing what migration within the region would look like. Completely free movement of labor, time-limited migration cards and subregional quotas have all been proposed as possibilities. As far as the United States is concerned, however, a few things are clear, and they all work out in our favor. Any of the above policies would improve movement of labor across Latin America, allowing people to travel to other parts of the region without the danger, cost, or irrevocability of undocumented immigration. After European unification, internal migration soared, easing unemployment in some countries and increasing the demand for labor in others. As the Latinamérica Unida economy improves and it becomes easier for people to take advantage of the best-functioning parts of that economy, the risky journey to the United States will look less and less worthwhile. Easy internal movement will also give people more options when they are threatened by violence or human rights abuses, as well as poverty.

Moreover, given that a majority of unsanctioned migration to the United States involves movement across at least two countries, having a single authority to deal with on migration policy would certainly be a positive development. In fact, some economists have suggested that the largest downside to the proposed merger for the United States is probably that the number of immigrants — an important driver of the American economy — would most likely drop.

So why all the panic?

It seems that this accord would begin to address, if not completely resolve, many of the problems that politicians in the United States have attributed to Latin America for years. In response to Latin American unification, we should sit back and remove ourselves from the equation.

Let Latin Americans figure out how they want to govern themselves. Support their attempt to forge a better and more powerful government for themselves, or do nothing at all. We should welcome what can surely be called — in size of population, economy and geography, if nothing else — a new superpower.

Malka Older (@m_older) is the author of the Hugo-nominated “Centenal Cycle” trilogy and the creator of the serial “Ninth Step Station.” She has a doctorate in the sociology of organizations and has worked in humanitarian assistance and international development.

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