Sen. Robert Menendez may bolster Latin American agenda

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    Senator Robert Menendez

    If Sen. Robert Menendez becomes chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he may elevate interest in Latin America. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

    If Sen. Robert Menendez becomes chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there’s more hope that an interest in Latin America will be elevated in U.S. foreign policy.

    With the nomination of Sen. John Kerry by President Obama to U.S. Secretary of State, Menendez of New Jersey is likely to be next in line to become chairman. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would likely take the position, but she is already heading the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

    The New Jersey Senator of Cuban descent briefly touched on his accomplishments last week during the swearing-in ceremony of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

    “If you were to tell me growing up this son of immigrants would be the first in my family to go to college and comprise— (a member) of United State Senators—and the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I would tell you that’s not possible,” Menendez told the crowded room.

    He added, “This is the promise of America.”

    Sen. Robert Menendez could improve the Latin America agenda

    Sen. Robert Menendez’ elevation would come at a crucial time. Critics have indicated that the U.S. government doesn’t have a strong agenda toward this region. In the past, even fellow colleagues who work closely with Menendez on some issues, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have expressed disappointment that not nearly enough attention has been placed on Latin American affairs.

    The Council on Foreign Relations highlighted that the U.S. government should reshape their policy approach from just drugs and trade. The region is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States, a strong partner in the development of alternative fuels, its biggest supplier of illegal drugs and the largest source of U.S. immigrants.

    Sources indicate that Senator would likely review U.S. plans to fight drug cartels in Mexico, Central America and Colombia by pursuing a broader anti-narcotics strategy that would also help reduce U.S. drug demand. This initiative would be different from just a piece-meal approach.

    In the past year, the Senator has held hearings on the issue. He even introduced legislation with Kerry in 2010 to reflect a more “nuanced” approach to counternarcotic efforts. The bill emphasizes replacing a “fragmented management system” by building more civilian institutions, less military involvement to enforce the law and improvements in the judicial institutions among other requirements.

    Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, believes Menendez’ strategy would not differ by much with the Obama administration, considering that he hasn’t seen a wide distinction in the Senator’s policy in the past.

    “He’s supported, as far as I know, the policies towards Colombia, the policies of Mexico, Central America and I think he has pretty much echoed the administration’s stance on this,” said Shifter.

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