WASHINGTON — The mood of Latin American leaders was downbeat in Chile last week at the Inter-American Development Bank's annual meeting. Argentina's economic and political turmoil was the main source of unease, but the US economic slide and uncertainties about the Bush administration's foreign policy directions also contributed to the bad humor.
During the presidential campaign and after, George W. Bush gave the United States' southern neighbors reason to expect new and more constructive policy directions from Washington. Time and again, he has emphasized that US interests would be served by more cooperative hemispheric relationships.
He has already visited Mexico and, by the time he travels to Quebec City on April 21 for a summit of Western Hemisphere heads of state, he will have met with half a dozen Latin American presidents. The summit, the third since 1994, will be the first public test of his commitment to building partnerships in the Americas.
President Bush faces five challenges:
Convince his Latin American and Caribbean counterparts of a US commitment to establishing a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Negotiations over the FTAA - which promises more secure access to US markets and investment capital - have lagged badly because of the White House's failure to gain "fast track" trade negotiating authority from Congress. Since there's no time to win that authority by April 21, all President Bush can do is promise to move ahead promptly. If he does not take quick action, however, interest in the FTAA - and in broader cooperation with the US - will wane.
Ease the concerns of Latin American leaders about US policy toward Colombia, which is racked by guerrilla and criminal violence. Most regional leaders are unhappy with the military emphasis of US policy and want Washington to take seriously their concerns about the escalating violence and its spill-over into neighboring countries. Mr. Bush mainly has to listen attentively here. But the other presidents would welcome an announcement from him that the US is now ready to accept the Colombian president's invitation to join the group of nations monitoring government-guerrilla peace talks. This would provide some measure of reassurance that Washington, in fact, supports a peaceful settlement.
Reinforce the collective defense of democracy in Latin America by joining the other leaders to consolidate advances in dealing with potentially violent national conflicts. Specifically, they should give the Organization of American States a formal mediating role in resolving internal disputes that threaten peace or democracy. This is what the OAS did in Peru last year when it orchestrated a dialogue between the government and the country's opposition groups to establish ground rules for new elections. A similar effort has made halting progress in Haiti.
Strengthen US-Latin American cooperation in fighting illicit drugs. He can do so simply by endorsing - as a potential substitute for unilateral US certification - the OAS's multilateral mechanism for assessing national antidrug campaigns in the hemisphere. In its first application, the OAS procedure turned out a set of highly professional evaluations. If the US agrees, this could soon replace the US process, which has produced more conflict and bitterness than coordination in hemispheric counter-narcotics efforts.
Improve education throughout the Americas. Nothing is more important for Latin America's future, nor for the region's capacity to participate in a constructive partnership with the US. The discouraging recent performance of Latin America's economies reflects inferior education systems. The 1998 summit was called the "education summit" because the participating governments all made extensive commitments to school reform; little has been accomplished since then. With the priority he has assigned to domestic education goals, President Bush has the authority to call for every country to commit itself to education reform. This time, though, he should insist on clear performance criteria, procedures for measuring progress, and the allocation of sufficient resources to accomplish this task.
By pursuing these initiatives, President Bush can reinvigorate US leadership in the hemisphere, and reassure his Latin American colleagues that the United States is, indeed, ready for partnership.
Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor