The Monthly Interview

Only one of the 2008 presidential candidates is Hispanic, and only one has held a top foreign policy position in a former administration. Conveniently, its the same person in both cases. Bill Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, grew up in Mexico City. At various times, he has been a congressman, a secretary of energy, and a UN ambassador. (Richardson himself has likened his diplomatic career to serving as the undersecretary for thugs, referring to tough negotiations with the likes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il). His resume gives him a unique perspective on the United States rather choppy relations with much of Latin America, where anti-American populists have been faring well in national elections. The Washington Monthlys Peter Laufer and Markos Kounalakis recently asked Governor Richardson what has gone wrong and how hed go about mending some fences.

BR: We have lost touch with a very important region. American foreign policy, especially in this administration, concentrates on Iraq, and then Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but not our own hemisphere. Thats one problem. The second is the failure to enact an immigration bill, because this doesnt affect just Mexico, it affects many Central American and Caribbean countries. The third point is that we dont get involved with democratic populist movements in the region. We let Hugo Chavez take over on energy, we let Chavez get more political support with democratic movements in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. Those are our strong allies, but their presidents dont like us too much because of Iraq and other negative policies weve pursued.

WM: But all of these perceived anti-American results in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Chile, and Brazil dont have to be negative, if we take a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to what is going on. Is that correct?

BR: Weve become identified with trade agreements that have not been pro-people. I think there is a great opportunity for cooperation on things like education and renewable energy with Latin American countries like Brazil. Instead, we promote these big policies that concentrate on building big highways and bridges and create debt, instead of entrepreneurial programs that help people, nutrition, education, and energy. You can have free trade agreements with these countries, but they have to be respectful of issues of environmental quality and wage disparity and labor protection. Instead we have these lopsided agreements that just involve big infrastructures and big markets. We should also be using our economic and trade policy to foster democratic institutions.

BR: They virtually are, and the transformation was through a huge ethanol commitment. What we need to talk about is, how can our region and the United States cooperate in technologies that deal with solar wind, biomass, biodiesels, biofuelsinstead of increasing the dependence on petroleum? This is one area where we can fight Chavez, who just has ideological motives. Somebody said to me, I cant believe you would talk to Chavez! I would talk to Chavez. You cant just isolate everybody.

WM: You mentioned that immigration cant be ignored. As a governor of a border state, and now a candidate for the presidency, whats your solution?

BR: You have to enhance border security, but not this stupid fence that Congress has passed. That is a terrible symbolplus, it is not going to work. But security is one step. You also have to have a legalization of the 12 million who are here, if they speak English, pass background checks, pay taxes, and embrace American values. What else are you going to do, deport everybody? I would also talk to Mexico about doing some joint projects on the border to deal with thisNAFTA was supposed to do that, but it didnt.

BR: I believe that Mexico is changing. I had a chat with President Calderon, and he said, We need to worry about this, because a lot of our able-bodied people are leaving and we need them in our economy. They have generally seen immigration in terms of the remittances. But now, with a lot of immigrants leaving the central part of the country, they are seeing that it deprives Mexico of very strong, trained, ablebodied personnel. Hopefully, they will shift. But the American Congress doesnt deal with this issue, and the president doesnt lead. The president has been saying the right thing, but you have got to spend some political capital to get it through Congress.

WM: This is really a grand irony. When this president came in, the only area where he had a focused foreign policy was on anything south of the border. Now its as if they are playing catch-up where Latin America is concerned.

BR: Well, I know the guy. When he first became president, Clinton sent me to Venezuela. I was energy secretary, and I opened by speaking in Spanish. Chavez fancies himself a baseball pitcher, and I gave him a glove. You gotta establish a personal connection with these guys. You gotta eliminate the rhetoric and say, What can we do here? Lets stay out of each others face.

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