Latin America remains a region of immense economic and strategic significance to Europe and the United States. Both must work with Latin American counterparts continentally, regionally, and bilaterally to effectively confront the region’s challenges.

Christian Leffler, managing director for the Americas at the European External Action Service, discussed regional challenges and EU-Latin American collaboration. Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue added a comparative perspective on the areas of overlap and divergence between EU and U.S. policies. Carnegie’s Cornelius Adebahr moderated the discussion.

Regional Challenges

Leffler argued that while Latin America is doing quite well overall politically and economically, a number of challenges remain.

  • Political: While states have embraced the institutions of formal democracy, they must make the transition to truly representative and accountable governance. In too many cases, leaders view winning elections as broad mandates to pursue whatever goals they wish, and this inhibits the growth of dynamic democratic governments and societies.
  • Economic: High levels of economic and social inequality plague the region, fueled by problems disseminating the benefits of growth. Future policies must ensure that growth creates prosperity and opportunities for all groups.
  • Security: Public security concerns remain a threat, particularly in Central America, as does widespread organized crime. In many countries, the populations’ reliance on private security forces inhibits the growth of a robust, effective public security apparatus. Still, the absence of any immediate threat of inter-state warfare remains a great plus, especially given the volatility and violence in many other parts of the globe. 

EU Relationship

  • Historic and Cultural Connection: Leffler noted that, in addition to historical ties between the regions, Latin America has large European communities, and both regions share a broad democratic vision of what modern societies should look like.
  • Economic Ties: Latin America is the destination for more EU investment than anywhere else in the world besides the United States, which makes the EU the region’s biggest investor. Leffler argued that this high degree of economic interdependence must be nurtured.
  • Methods of Collaboration: The EU works with Latin America on all levels—continental, regional, and bilateral—to pursue progress on shared priorities, including political stability, economic prosperity, reducing inequality, and creating jobs, Leffler said.
  • Regional Integration: Participants voiced concerns about European countries relying too heavily on the EU as the avenue for engagement with Latin America at the expense of bilateral relationships. One participant suggested that despite the EU’s tendency to favor regional integration efforts, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) is not yet ready to be an effective EU counterpart for the region.

The Role of the United States

  • Trouble with Hemispheric Cooperation: Shifter suggested that the United States recognizes that the idea of hemispheric cooperation is in real trouble. The Organization of American States (OAS) receives a great deal of criticism, and U.S.-Brazil bilateral relations have been severely strained. Because there are (nearly) Pan-American groupings like CELAC which explicitly exclude the U.S. and Canada, Washington aims to engage individual countries rather than the continent as a whole. 
  • EU-U.S. Collaboration: Leffler argued that the EU and United States cooperate very closely on all issues in Latin America, even on issues, like drug policy, where their approaches differ considerably.
  • Drug Policy: Participants discussed the contradictions between U.S. domestic and foreign policies related to drugs and how they differ with EU policies on the issue. The legalization of drugs in some U.S. states would effectively undermine U.S. foreign policy efforts to “fight” them in Latin American countries. Individual European nations, in contrast, possess a range of positions on drugs, though most view it as largely a problem of public health and organized crime.