AS/COA Online - Exclusive Interview: Governor Bill Richardson on Washington's Latin American Ties

“It’s not going to be easy, but I believe we need that comprehensive immigration bill more than anything or the country is going to be torn apart.”

Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) spoke with AS/COA Online Managing Editor Carin Zissis about Washington’s Latin American ties, saying, “It’s our own region and if I might say so, we’ve kind of neglected it in a bipartisan way.” The former U.S. ambassador to the UN discussed the need for a hemispheric accord on transnational crime as well as the shifting U.S.-Cuban relationship, which he called “the best that I’ve seen in a long time.” But he cautioned that movement on trade deals and immigration reform may have to wait until next year. “What you will see if there isn’t bipartisan, comprehensive [immigration] reform is more patchwork laws like Arizona’s, which are not just unconstitutional—they’re very discriminatory, they’re divisive,” he said. He added: “They hurt our foreign policy relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean.”

AS/COA Online: To start off, I’d like to talk about Mexico. The Obama administration has referred to a “shared responsibility” in the fight against organized crime in Mexico. As a border-state governor who also has a personal connection to Mexico, if you had to name one area for the U.S. to prioritize in its policy toward Mexico’s security situation, what would it be?

Gov. Richardson: It would be in the area of more shared intelligence with Mexico, and secondly, more cooperation in the area of restricting automatic weapons going into Mexico—a cooperative effort that I believe can be improved. On the issue of shared intelligence, it’s going to mean our joint security operations not just having more opportunities to do training and law enforcement activities. I support the Merida Initiative’s plan makes of additional helicopters. But we have to more effectively share intelligence, especially on the Mexican side.

AS/COA Online: You’ve also called for a hemispheric accord to combat transnational crime. What concrete measures would you propose to make such a pact effective?

Gov. Richardson: This is an area where we can show some leadership and be preemptive, recognizing that Mexico and a few other countries are actively working with us on this issue right now.

What I would do is have a preemptive hemispheric accord on crime, violence, and possibly narcotics and drugs. That would involve protocols on shared intelligence and protocols on additional measures to combat the trafficking that comes from the United States to Latin America. It would also involve more cooperation in the area of homeland security, especially in the Caribbean. A lot of narcotics, negative elements, and financial irregularities are occurring in the Caribbean and we need to help our Caribbean friends to fight them.

I would also add targeting the narcotics issue—the cartels—but that is something that is going to require a lot of sensitivity. It’s going to require a lot of diplomacy because the last thing the Latin Americans want is to show that the United States is running their internal security operations. So it has to be done very delicately.

AS/COA Online: On another topic, the debate over immigration policy is raging again. With midterms coming up, we’ve seen limited signs of movement on federal reform while local governments create a patchwork of makeshift laws. How can Washington move forward on immigration reform? And do you envision the possibility of a bipartisan compromise, such as a guest worker card, for example?

Gov. Richardson: Well, you have to be realistic. Nothing is going to happen before the elections. So we’re talking about, maybe, a small window in the lame-duck period after the elections, and, perhaps, the unveiling of a bipartisan law.

The second point that I would make is it has to be bipartisan. You can’t have one party push this legislation and the other party absent. So, maybe after the politics of this very intense election season is over and individuals like Senator McCain [R-AZ] who have been champions of immigration reform get reelected, they can come back and, in a bipartisan way, work with a number of Democrats and the Obama administration to pursue a new law.

But I believe it’s more realistic to look to next calendar year. Failing to act is going to be a disaster. What you will see if there isn’t bipartisan, comprehensive reform is more patchwork laws like Arizona’s, which are not just unconstitutional—they’re very discriminatory, they’re divisive. They hurt our foreign policy relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean. So I think, as a sign of national unity, it’s important that there be a comprehensive immigration law that is dealt with immediately after the elections, perhaps not necessarily in the lame-duck period, but that it be a priority next year. Otherwise, you will have continued division.

I think the administration also realizes that it has to be a law that combines more border-security resources. We need that at the border. I, as a border governor, need that: more intelligence, more boots on the ground, more technology, more detection equipment.

But you also need a path to legalization, and that means accountability for the 11 million people that are already here illegally. That means giving them opportunities to stay, but with conditions: learning English, passing a background check, finding ways to pay a fine for having been here illegally. And then getting in back of those that are trying to get here legally.

It’s not going to be easy, but I believe we need that comprehensive immigration bill more than anything, or the country is going to be torn apart. And that’s not healthy.

AS/COA Online: To move on to another topic, Obama has softened some Cuban travel, remittance, and telecom restrictions. What do you forecast to be the next change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, and what do you think it should be?

Gov. Richardson: Well, it’s kind of been announced, but it hasn’t happened, and I believe it is important to reciprocate what Cuba has done, which is releasing close to 40 political prisoners out of 57 through a negotiation by the Catholic Church in Cuba and the Spanish government. That means that President Raúl Castro realizes that the human rights issue is a thorn in the relationship, not just with the United States, but also with Europe.

What I would recommend the Obama administration do is follow through on what they say they might do. And I understand they want to wait until after the election. But, two steps: one, loosen travel restrictions by executive order. Right now going to Congress is probably not going to happen because of the politics of the U.S.-Cuban relationship. But let’s have an executive order that expands travel to the level of [during the presidency] of President Clinton, which would allow religious groups, sports groups, and academic groups to travel more freely between the United States and Cuba. In other words, go beyond Cuban-Americans traveling back and forth.

That would be good for the United States. It’s more tourism. It’s more business for U.S. companies. It’s more opportunities for U.S. airlines. And so I believe that’s very healthy.

The second would be to expand the number of cities that can send charter planes into Cuba. Right now, it’s really New York and Miami. I would add two additional cities: perhaps Tampa, perhaps New Orleans. This doesn’t just help commercial relationships, but it opens up that human side of the relationship, the interchange of families and individuals and tourists and academics. Those are the steps that I would recommend.

AS/COA Online: You have traveled to Cuba in the past and, most recently, in August to urge for the release of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who was arrested last December. Do you foresee that situation getting resolved and how?

Gov. Richardson: I do see it getting resolved. Maybe not immediately, but the Cubans have told me and I, at the request of the State Department, pressed very hard for Gross’ release. They told me he had to go through a judicial, investigatory process to see whether he, in effect, was a spy. Well, he isn’t a spy. He was caught with some satellite equipment, perhaps a visa violation, but nothing serious as espionage. And so he became a political card.

What I believe will happen is, after their judicial process, after the attorney general of Cuba investigates what really happened, there will be a negotiation, and I believe Alan Gross will come home. But right now, it’s a thorn in the relationship because Gross is high visibility. He’s somebody that a lot of people in America want released.

In my trip to Cuba, I found the relationship is the best it’s ever been. There’s less hostility, less suspicion. We’re working together on issues like Haiti. We’re working together on narcotics issues. Yeah, the relationship is not good and there’s still a lot of suspicion and hostility, but it’s the best that I’ve seen in a long time. And issues like Alan Gross can be resolved when there is less division and less suspicion between the two countries.

AS/COA Online: Do you believe there’s less hostility because of the change from Fidel to Raúl or do you think it’s because of the change in position from the United States?

Gov. Richardson: It’s a combination of factors. I believe that the Cuban economy is in bad shape, as is the international economy. And I do believe Raúl Castro is trying to change the country. How fast, I don’t know. But his efforts to modernize the economy, to say that half of the public sector is going to become private sector, and the release of these political prisoners shows he wants a new path. It’s a socialist path, perhaps, based on the Chinese model. But that’s a lot better than the system that they had before.

So I do see Raúl being a little more sensitive to modernizing than his brother was.

AS/COA Online: To move on to another topic, in a recent Washington Post op-ed you called on Congress to pass the free-trade deals with Panama and Colombia. Given the current mood about trade, how do you think that the political will can be created to pass those trade deals?

Gov. Richardson: Well, I don’t believe that any trade deal will pass before the election. And, again, Colombia and Panama are two good pieces of legislation that can be considered next year. These are agreements that enhance our export capability and they involve strong labor and environmental standards, which are required by many Democrats.

[Colombia and Panama] are two countries with progressive democratic governments, and I believe that the deals will happen. When an election season surfaces, politicians don’t want to take tough votes and in this case, these are tough votes. But once the election is over, once we recognize that we have passed trade agreements with other regions of the world, that we’ve passed agreements with Mexico and Canada, that we passed agreements with others in Latin America like Peru, then Colombia and Panama deals are no-brainers.

So I believe they will happen, and it’s going to take American leadership. It’s going to take the Obama administration pushing and Congress aligning itself. You know, I’m a very strong Democrat, but the reality is, if there are more Republicans in Congress, they are more prone to vote for free trade agreements. Now, I want to see Democrats retain control of Congress, but one minor positive effect of more Republicans in Congress might be more votes for trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. I was an endangered species who supported NAFTA years ago and I still believe it was the right step to take.

AS/COA Online: One last question. You’re in your last few months as governor. Do you see yourself playing a role in Latin American policy after being governor? And what area in particular?

Gov. Richardson: Well, I’m going to take a little time off. I’ve been in public service for 30 years. I’m probably going to do some academic work. I want to keep my international work active as a private citizen, perhaps with an institute that involves peace studies. I do intend to maintain my interests in Latin America. I love the region. I’m Hispanic. My mother still lives in Mexico at 96 years of age. I care deeply about the hemisphere.

So I’ll still be involved in some capacity because I believe it’s in our national interest. It’s our own region and if I might say so, we’ve kind of neglected it in a bipartisan way. It’s time that we pay more attention and I intend to do that as a private citizen.