US can play key role in responsible infrastructure development in Latin America

As the government shutdown continues, all eyes have been on Washington as ongoing budget negotiations between President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leadership have proven futile. As GAIN spokesman Craig Stevens writes in his recently published op-ed in Morning Consult:

Given all this attention [to the border], it has been difficult to miss the poor living conditions facing the Central American population. Take Honduras, for example, where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. Many migrants moving toward the U.S. border started their journey in Honduras, looking to leave behind the violence and inadequate living conditions.

Although the region’s challenges are multi-faceted, progress starts with small steps, and the US can play a major role in improving living conditions in countries like Honduras by facilitating responsible energy infrastructure development. As Stevens contends, Latin America has lacked adequate resources and the infrastructure required to provide reliable electricity and fuel to meet its consumer needs. He writes:

Energy-rich countries such as the United States can play an important role in this, too. For example, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency’s Gas Infrastructure Exports Initiative can help to facilitate responsible energy development in Latin American countries.

While the US under the current administration has been hesitant to increase assistance to the region, China has seized the opportunity and has begun developing relationships with several Latin American governments through its investment in the region, nearly $150 billion since 2015. As GAIN strategic advisor James “Spider” Marks writes in his recently published op-ed in Real Clear World, “China’s deep commitment to Latin America is a direct challenge to the United States.”

Marks underlines several concerning elements of China’s growing involvement in our backyard – much of which has a negative impact on the people throughout the region. He writes:

A number of countries in the region are already benefiting from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a long-term plan for increased trade and economic growth with significant foreign policy and geopolitical implications. Although most of the states participating in the program span Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the number of Latin American participants is expected to grow as China continues to express its willingness to invest in the region. 

However, these countries have already started to pay the price for their growing dependence on China. From Venezuelan oil deals to Ecuadorian mining issues, infrastructure development has been conducted irresponsibly, with significant repercussions falling on local populations. As reported by the Washington Post, “many Latin Americans have criticized China for its extensive promotion of Chinese firms, labor, and machinery within state-to-state investment contracts, and its lack of local governance standards, including inadequate environment and labor protections.” Are we surprised? Of course not. 

As both Stevens and Marks conclude, as an energy-rich country, the US is well-positioned to foster responsible energy infrastructure development in countries throughout Latin America, such as Honduras. Through private-public partnerships, in tandem with strong industry standards and regulations, these goals can become a reality.

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