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Change Within Reach: 5 Most-Feasible Policy Victories

Ben Beachy

“Change” has blasted its way into the US mindset. Each day the buzzword is plastered across headlines, T-shirts, and Pepsi commercials. But how can we convert all of this reform-happy energy into actual, meaningful change for Latin America?  What concrete, collective things can we do in the next two years to push "change" from campaign slogan to policy transformation?

Thanks to years of organizing and advocating, our movement is now actually within reach of several concrete policy shifts that would constitute major victories—victories for the Latin Americans persistently pushing for self-determination and for those of us in the US persistently acting in concert. But, as usual, change won’t come unsolicited. Here are the five policy changes that appear closest on the horizon, and the steps we can take to bring them closer.


 1.  Ending the Cuba Travel Ban

Why it’s within reach:
President Obama has stated his intention of repealing the Bush Administration’s extensions of the travel ban to Cuban-Americans. While he has not yet said that he would push to unravel the travel ban for other US citizens, numerous insider groups believe that we have a greater chance of regaining this freedom than at any point in recent decades.

What we can do:
Ask your representative to cosponsor and support HR 874, the bill to lift the travel ban for all US citizens. Check out these talking points and further background, and these helpful materials from the Latin America Working Group.  In addition to contacting your representative now with this simple request, stay tuned for alerts when pressure is urgently needed to gain passage of the bill.

 2.  Closing the School of the Americas

Why it’s within reach:
Each year, our allies in Congress introduce an amendment (to the foreign operations appropriations bill) that would prohibit all funding for the notorious School of the Americas, effectively forcing its closure.  In 2007, the amendment fell just short of passage in the House.  (If only six of those who voted “no” would have voted “yes,” it would have passed.)   In the 2008 elections, 35 of those who voted the wrong way lost their seats to potential allies, putting us in a good position to gain passage in the House this year.  If that happens, the success will provide needed momentum in pushing for passage in the Senate. 

What we can do:

  • Ask your representative to co-sponsor and support an upcoming stand-alone bill that would explicitly suspend operations at the School.  The bill’s language will be identical to that of HR 1707 in the 110th Congress.  Check out these talking points from School of the Americas Watch.  In addition to contacting your representative now with this simple request, stay tuned for alerts when pressure is urgently needed to gain passage for this or related bills (i.e. the defunding amendment mentioned above).
  • Ask President Obama to shut it down.  School of the Americas Watch is collecting thousands of signatures on a petition asking President Obama to issue an executive order to close the School.  Visit www.soaw.org/petition to sign it.  Then get 15 friends to do the same.  

Please help us make policy change a reality.

Donate online: witnessforpeace.org/supportMA

 3.  Breaking the Chains of Debt

Why it’s within reach:
The Jubilee Act is making serious headway in Congress. The bill, pushed by Jubilee USA, would cancel the debt that has shackled impoverished countries like Nicaragua, Haiti, and Bolivia, in addition to prohibiting poverty-exacerbating conditions typically imposed by institutions like the International Monetary Fund. In April 2008, the Jubilee Act passed the House! A month later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Act, but it did not go to a Senate vote. There is hope that the Jubilee Act will pass both houses and become law this year, particularly given that President Obama is an original co-sponsor.

What we can do:
Ask your representative to co-sponsor and support the Jubilee Act. (The bill has yet to be submitted, but will have language nearly identical to that of HR 2634 & S 2166 in the 110th Congress). Check out these talking points from Jubilee USA.  In addition to contacting your representative now with this simple request, stay tuned for urgent action alerts.

 4.  Reversing the Course in Colombia:

       Halting military aid, fumigations, and free trade

Why it’s within reach:

  • Military aid: In 2007, after years of pressure to stop Plan Colombia, Congress approved a Colombia aid package that lowered the percentage of military aid from over 80% to 64%.  This shift marked the first hopeful fissure in US-Colombia policy since Plan Colombia began in 2000.  The Congressional members who were instrumental in achieving this incremental change have since gained more power through the ‘08 elections, making this an optimum time to push for a complete overhaul of our assistance to Colombia. 
  • Colombia FTA: Despite the Bush administration’s best efforts last year, our sustained pressure successfully prevented the free trade agreement from ever coming to a vote.  If brought before Congress this year, the FTA would likely lose its Fast Track status, considerably encumbering its chances of passing.  President Obama and key Congressional members have continued to voice opposition to the agreement as it currently stands, though strong grassroots pressure may be necessary to convince them to maintain principled opposition rather than settling for minor tweaks.  

What we can do:

  • Join the Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia.  Get involved in this year’s major effort to call on Obama to boldly break with past Colombia policy: host a doll-making party, ask your faith community to incorporate Colombia into the worship service, send postcards and faxes to Obama, and join one of our public doll delivery actions on April 20.   For all the details and materials, click here
  • Ask your representative to help chart a new Colombia policy.  Check out “A Compass for Colombia Policy,” a recent, in-depth civil society platform of specific proposals for changing US policy towards Colombia.  Call your representative and ask them to heed the document’s concrete policy recommendations. In addition to contacting your representative now with this request, stay tuned for periodic action alerts as we track the status of the free trade agreement and military funding.  

 5.  Renegotiating NAFTA and CAFTA

Why it’s within reach:
In a February 2008 primary debate, Obama promised that he would inform Canada and Mexico that the US would opt out of NAFTA within 6 months of his inauguration (i.e. by July 20, 2009) unless it was renegotiated.  Since then we’ve seen some backtracking on the President’s part.  Even so, such statements indicate a heretofore unseen opportunity to push for a revamping of the US’s disastrous free trade model.  Meanwhile, last year the TRADE Act, a bill that would require a fairly comprehensive renegotiation of NAFTA/CAFTA, was unveiled with significant sponsorship in Congress and significant support among unions, Citizens Trade Campaign, and other civil society groups. 

What we can do:
  • Ask your representative to take a look at these three concrete proposals for renegotiating NAFTA/CAFTA and forging a new trade agenda:
  • Stay tuned for a potential Day of Action in the Fall of this year to call for a full renegotiation of NAFTA and CAFTA.  Plans may include launching a YouTube campaign, delivering cornstalks to Congressional offices, and more.  We’ll keep you posted.

If you are able to meet with your representative to discuss any of the above policy changes, please take a moment to fill out our response form--we'll use the information to further hone our policy transformation strategies.  You can send the completed form to Ben Beachy at wfpma@witnessforpeace.org.  Thank you for your consistent efforts to push for genuine change in US policies towards Latin America.  With enough pressure, we may soon see these efforts bear meaningful fruit. 

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