Why the Americas have drifted apart
Bound for a hemispheric summit in Argentina, Bush is likely to encounter a region less in tune with US priorities.
When President Bush visits Argentina, Brazil, and Panama this week, he will encounter a Latin America that is less attached to US priorities - and more diversified in its own international relations - than at any time in the recent past.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a challenging spot for an administration that appears ready to refocus attention on the region, after years of being preoccupied with 9/11 and the war on terror.
"The hemisphere is a different place from just a few years ago," says Felix Peña, a specialist in international economic relations here. "Countries know they have many more opportunities for trade and other relations with other parts of the world, for example with China. Their priorities and capabilities are more varied."
The Summit of the Americas, which Bush will attend Friday in Mar del Plata, Argentina, is a case in point. Inaugurated with fanfare in 1994, the summits were established to deliver by this year a free trade area of the Americas - from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego - and to solidify the region's democratic gains after decades of military coups and civil wars.
But the free-trade area has not materialized. Instead, smaller trade blocs have formed as many countries, including Brazil and Argentina, resist what they say would be a US-dominated trade area. Neither are democracy's roots growing stronger, and in some countries they are threatened, warn some officials and experts.
The first summit in 1994, in Miami, trumpeted the fact that 33 of the Americas' 34 countries had democratically elected governments - Cuba is the exception and as such does not attend - and that is still true. But plans have stalled to move countries beyond elections-as-democracy, critics say, in part from US inattention and in part from a splintering of priorities for solidifying democracy.
"The contrast with Miami in December 1994 is very stark. Back then there was a common hemispheric agenda, but today the prescriptions, the approaches that countries and governments have, are very different from one another," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "There's a big gap."
Some of that gap is the Bush administration's own doing, some experts say. They cite ham-handed handling of Venezuelan and Bolivian political crises that cast Washington more in the bad old role of behind-the-scenes string-puller than of champion of democracy.
"The way the US handled problems in Venezuela and Bolivia has made it much more difficult to forge any coalitions on democratization at this point," says Robert Pastor, director of the Center on North American Studies at American University in Washington. "A decade ago the hope was for consensus on addressing democracy's challenges, but that's not possible now."
Another problem, which grates against Latin sensibilities for historic reasons, is the Bush administration's priority since 9/11 on hemispheric security.