The best way to improve U.S. relations with Latin America is by fixing the U.S. economy, according to analysts who testified before a Congressional committee in Washington on Wednesday. They told U.S. lawmakers that President Barack Obama should address the issue at next month's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
Analysts say when President Obama introduces himself to Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas, the attention will be on his plans to fix the U.S. economy.
"It is very, very vital that as we work on our economic problems, we recognize that the way we go about solving them will have an enormous impact on Latin America and the rest of the world," said President of the Inter-American Dialogue policy group Peter Hakim, speaking to the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs.
He said to help Latin American economies, the United States should avoid protectionist measures, such as restricting imports from Latin America or investment in the region.
Hakim also urged the Obama administration to advance two pending, but controversial trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.
"We have two trade agreements that we've negotiated in good faith with two close allies of the United States," he said. "I think to show our credibility, our dependability, we really have to find a way to move forward with those agreements."
The trade agreements were negotiated under former President George W. Bush, but have not been voted on by Congress.
Meanwhile, Otto Reich, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs during the Bush administration, said the United States should also do what it can to promote democracy and cooperation in the region. But he warned that some of the participants at the summit will not be friendly.
"Not all the countries of this hemisphere are good neighbors," he said. "Some undermine democracy at home and abroad. The U.S. should actively help the good neighbors, reject the destructive, and persuade the ambivalent to rejoin the communities of democracies."
Reich noted that three leftist leaders, who he called "anti-American," will be at the summit - Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Boliva and Rafael Correa of Ecuador.
Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs agreed on the need for the United States to stay engaged in Latin America - to counter the influence of other powers.
"If we remain disengaged and others move in to fill the void, we have no one to blame but ourselves," said New York Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel. "And by others, I mean the Chavezes of the world [Venezuela], China, Russia and Iran. We need to be engaged."
Another item expected to be on the summit's agenda will be the explosion of violence near Mexico's border with the United States.
Thomas McLarty, was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton and served as special envoy to the Americas.
"I want to be clear," he said. "I do not believe Mexico is a failed or failing state. But the alarming level of violence needs to be gotten under control for the Mexican people, for the stability and safety of the border region, and to preserve the rule of law."
But a recent document from the U.S. Defense Department warns that the chaos and drug fueled violence in Mexico is pushing the country to the brink of becoming a failed state. More than 1,000 people have been killed this year in Mexico, despite a government crackdown on warring drug gang.