LIMA, PERU — Everybody knows that relations between the United States and the countries south of the Rio Grande - "America's backyard," as the region pejoratively came to be known - have rarely been a top priority for Washington.
China, Europe, and the Middle East have traditionally been more important. Now so is Mexico, especially after the 1993 signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But what about the rest of Latin America?
Several years ago, a former congressional official defined US concerns about Latin America in terms of the three C's: Cuba, cocaine, and commerce. Later, other people would talk about the three D's: democracy, drugs, and development. Both are lists of problems rather than possibilities.
During a discussion I had last year at Stanford University with Condoleezza Rice, now national security adviser, she admitted that the US political system - and that included Bush's own agenda - had failed to regard Latin America as a strategically important region.
But Rice said she was determined to change things: "When George W. Bush gets to the White House," she said, "the Western Hemisphere will be placed back among the top priorities of our foreign policy agenda."
Enter the big question: Will Mr. Bush see beyond Mexico when setting his Latin American policies? The long Texas-Mexico border, the undeniable Mexican presence within the Lone Star State, and even the fact that his brother married a Mexican may make it difficult for him to understand that Latin America is not a mere extension of the land of the enchilada.
Who would blame Bush, anyway? In the Hispanic immigration to the US, Mexicans form by far the largest group. In US states close to Mexico, Mexicans are the overwhelming majority of the Hispanic populations.
But Latin America is not just Mexico, and Mexico is not just a synonym for "illegal immigration." Bush must be clearly aware of this. His recent meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox hinted at how close their ties will be; it remains unclear whether the Republicans will try to create such a strong bond with other Latin governments.
We all know immigration is an urgent matter for Washington. But to establish a solid relationship with the hemisphere as a whole requires a much broader vision of the current Latin American scene than the Bush administration seems to have.
Obviously, the regional challenges are gigantic. Even if the US wants to play Big Brother with the countries in its "backyard," Latin American problems deserve - and need - Latin American solutions.
George Bush and the Latin American presidents ought to work together to make their relations fruitful for all. And they ought to guarantee that Condoleezza Rice's words - "Latin American countries must be partners, not subordinates, of the US" - will become the foundation of a sound US policy.
Ernesto Garcia Calderon is a Peruvian journalist specializing in foreign affairs.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society