Current and former U.S. officials specializing in Latin American affairs say the rule of law must be strengthened in the region, with a particular emphasis on fighting corruption, and that the United States has a role to play in fostering the effort.
In an opening statement, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Indiana Republican Dan Burton, said a strong and independent judiciary in Latin America will lead to greater respect for human rights and more success in combating crime.
"Conversely, where there are weak legal institutions, we see higher levels of crime, less respect for human rights, higher levels of corruption, and other systematic abuses of power," he said. "Moreover, in these countries we are more likely to see citizens take to the streets and resort to violence to mete out justice or bypass constitutional mechanisms."
Of particular concern is corruption, which all who testified at the hearing agreed exists everywhere but remains deeply rooted in much of Latin America. President Bush's former special envoy to the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, described corruption as the number one obstacle to socioeconomic development.
"What incentive is there to invest in a country where a judge can be bribed to settle a commercial dispute in favor of the highest bidder?" he asked. "At another level of society, why should a poor peasant borrow money and plant crops if a powerful landowner is going to cheat him out of his labor and get away with it, because the landowner has the local police or military chief in his pocket?"
Adolfo Franco, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), testified that funding for U.S. programs to strengthen democratic institutions and the rule of law in Latin America have nearly tripled under the Bush administration. But he said there are limits to what a donor government can accomplish.
"There is not enough public sector money in the United States or anywhere to change Latin America by simply providing more foreign aid," he said. "I run the foreign aid programs, and there is an important role for it. But the way to do it is [through implementing] the right policies. We have to stay there for the long term."
Rather than simply funneling cash to Latin America, Mr. Franco said the United States must promote commerce in the region. He pointed to trade as an engine of economic growth that provides an incentive for governments and officials to embrace transparency and the rule of law, elements that attract trading partners and revenue. In particular, Mr. Franco hailed the proposed free trade accord, known as CAFTA, between the United States, Central America, and the Dominican Republic.
But New Jersey Democratic Congressman Robert Menendez expressed skepticism that free trade will root out corruption and other ills, arguing that existing trade pacts have yet to do so elsewhere.
"That [free trade] in and of itself has not achieved success in the rule of law. I agree that trade is an element of it. But we seem to be fixated on the alter of trade to the expense of everything else," he noted.
A moment later, Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks of New York asked how the economic benefits of trade will ever reach poor people if those in power manipulate the system to steal the wealth.
USAID Assistant Administrator Adolfo Franco responded by admitting that trade alone will not solve corruption. But he described CAFTA as a solid step toward better governance in the Americas.
"The leadership in Central America right now understand that real investment, which they want for their countries cannot come about without addressing the corruption and the issues that have impeded it in the past," he added.
Mr. Franco added that the United States signed a similar trade accord with Mexico in the 1990s, knowing that Mexico had deficiencies in the rule of law, and added that Mexico has taken solid steps to promote transparency in the years since.