Central America trip was eye-opening

Published 8:14 am Wednesday, April 22, 2015

By U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

Once every three years, virtually all nations in the Western Hemisphere gather for a “summit” to discuss common issues. Known as the Summit of the Americas, the summit first started in 1994 as many nations became more democratic, open, and committed to market economies.

I recently had the opportunity to travel as part of a Congressional Delegation to Panama City, Panama, for the seventh annual Summit of the Americas. With the leaders of 35 nations in attendance, the summit offered a great opportunity to learn more about the region, discuss various challenges, and explore ways to improve relations between our nations.

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Given our district’s location in the Gulf of Mexico and close proximity to many of these countries, I also wanted to talk about possible partnerships between southwest Alabama and central America. There were three areas of particular interest to me.

First, I was very interested to learn how the Port of Mobile could benefit from the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal. The United States built the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, but the canal was turned back over to Panama in 2000. Since then, the canal has been very profitable, resulting in about $1 billion in annual profit.

The canal is currently undergoing an expansion, which will be able to handle vessels carrying up to 13,000 containers. That is triple the current capacity and will open the door to many new opportunities. Our area stands to benefit from some of this new trade, and it demonstrates why it is so important that we widen and deepen the Mobile Ship Channel.

Another focus of mine was on efforts to improve diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. This marked the first Summit of the Americas to include Cuba, who had previously been excluded at the request of the United States. I went into the trip with serious reservations over the process President Obama is using with Cuba, and I left the trip with many of those concerns still in place.

During the trip, I met with a group of Cuban dissidents who had actually been beaten, some of them badly, by Cuban embassy personnel just the day before our meeting. The group outlined how the Cuban people were being denied basic human rights, including freedom of religion. They made clear that they did not support the United States lifting sanctions at this time.

I don’t oppose continued dialogue with the Castro regime in Cuba, and I hope that one day diplomatic and trade relations can be restored. I believe our area could stand to benefit, but I strongly believe the United States should be patient and require Cuba to show a willingness to change many of its harsh ways.

Finally, I spent time discussing the region’s ongoing struggles with drugs and other security concerns. The drug trade is a real problem in many South American countries, and the problems are many times felt here in the United States. That’s why we have played a role in working to halt the drug trade. One of the missions of the Littoral Combat Ship, which is built in part by Austal USA in Mobile, is to conduct counter-drug operations off the coasts of South American countries. I made sure to discuss the vessel with many of the foreign leaders.

I believe the United States should pay more attention to the Americas and reaffirm our commitment to that region of the world. We should see these nations as colleagues and work together toward common causes like ending the flow of illegal immigrants and halting the drug trade.

Our area especially stands to benefit economically when our Central American neighbors are strong and prosperous. I will continue to help facilitate these partnerships in a constructive manner that benefits us both at home and abroad.