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In the past few decades, Latin America has seen great progress in expanding energy access to communities throughout the region. Although nearly 97 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbeanhave access to electricity, there is still much work to be done. The remaining 3 percent of the population in the region adds up to more than 23 million people, many of whom reside in rural parts of countries like Haiti, Honduras, and Peru. 

These families suffering from energy poverty often have to rely on wood or charcoal to heat their homes and cook their food. And frequently, these areas are faced with additional challenges including a lack of potable water, improper sewage treatment, and educational and health care shortfalls. These living conditions have garnered international attention as Central Americans make their way north through Mexico to reach the United States. The people traveling in what has been referred to as a “migrant caravan,” like many other underserved populations in Latin America, do not enjoy many of the basic necessities we take for granted here in the United States.

Significant infrastructure improvements and fundamental advancements will undoubtedly take time to develop. Complex problems require complex solutions, but it can start with small steps. For example, developing countries in the region have much to gain from affordable energy and investments in their own energy infrastructure.  Increased access to electricity and grid reliability would create opportunities for historically underserved communities. Prioritizing the safe transportation of fossil fuels and increasing access to affordable energy can help bring communities out of poverty, and it can help support economic and political stability. 

The possibilities cannot be overstated, as reliable energy can greatly improve many aspects of life. In the home, for example, it promotes modern, sanitary cooking and heating.  In hospitals and medical facilities, electricity enables modern care and life-saving procedures. In schools, electricity allows the power of the internet, and with it new information, to teach the next generation of leaders. 

Take Honduras, for example, where the migrant caravan started. As of 2016, nearly one million residents did not have access to electricity.  The country ranks 96th out of 137 on the Global Competitiveness Index, with electricity and communications infrastructure ranking 105th of the 137 countries studied. Adding electricity capacity to a more reliable national grid would help bolster the economy and create new jobs. Haiti is another example of an underdeveloped country that could greatly benefit from investments in critical energy infrastructure. The country ranks 136th out of 137 for electricity and communications on the Global Competitiveness Index. The promotion of public-private partnerships is crucial in order to create a more resilient electric grid and expand access to all Haitians. 

Mexico was in a similar position as Honduras and Haiti just a few decades ago. Although not all Mexicans have reliable electricity yet, the country has made remarkable strides in recent years. Imports from the United States have provided a very competitive source of natural gas, with domestic production picking up the rest. The International Energy Agency contends that the rising role of gas in Mexican energy has been made possible by extensive infrastructure development and the steady flow of affordable product via new pipelines from the southern United States. After national energy reforms took effect starting in 2013, private investment in Mexico’s infrastructure increased, resulting in a stronger, farther-reaching electric grid. Government prioritization of energy and infrastructure, in cooperation with private partnerships, has allowed Mexico to improve its electrical grid and provide basic necessities to much of its rural population.

Stronger infrastructure capable of distributing energy to consumers throughout the region would lead to more prosperous communities and a more resilient relationship between energy-rich countries like United States and developing nations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Craig Stevens is a former senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, and the spokesperson for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, a national coalition focused on promoting key infrastructure investments. Follow the Coalition on Twitter @GAINNowAmerica. The views expressed are the author's own.