How the US went wrong in Latin America

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to South America earlier this week came at a pivotal moment. The standing of the United States in the region is at a low ebb. Six Latin American countries - including regional behemoths Mexico and Brazil - are electing presidents this year, and recent electoral showdowns in Bolivia and Costa Rica showed that pro-US candidates face a steep climb in winning support from voters.

Why have relations with Latin America disintegrated to this point?

A big part of the problem is that the Bush administration has been treating the region as if it is our backyard. All too often, both in the substance of our policy and in our ambassadors' rhetoric, we seem to expect that once the US stipulates its position, Latin Americans should fall in line. The long history of US intervention in the hemisphere has engendered a lasting sensitivity there to imperious diplomacy. And the Bush administration approach is raising hackles at a time when the stakes are very high.

Oftentimes, the US isn't engaging Latin Americans on the issues they find most pressing. There is widespread disgust with the US-sanctioned neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and '90s, which failed to improve the lives of most of the continent's poor - about 40 percent of the population. Job creation and economic development are top priorities in the region, but after the failure of market-oriented economic reforms sanctioned by the US, known as the "Washington consensus," the Bush administration hasn't had much to offer on either topic.

Instead, the administration has pushed its own concerns to the forefront of the agenda, and bullied countries in the region into adopting its positions. Bush administration officials made a strong push for Latin American countries to support the war in Iraq, and they were livid when Chile and Mexico, Latin America's representatives on the Security Council in 2003, opposed a resolution endorsing the invasion. Another Washington priority that has become a point of contention is the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Twelve Latin American countries have bucked pressure from the Bush administration to sign immunity agreements with the United States that would shield US citizens from being tried at the court. As a result, Washington has cut the funding it supplies to those nations for military training. While Secretary Rice declared on a recent trip to Chile that she'd like to revisit the policy, she made no promises that changes would be forthcoming.

This note of condescension has also surfaced in the behavior of our diplomats. Take the recent election in Costa Rica: US Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale, a political appointee who was a prolific fundraiser for Bush, raised voters' ire when he was quoted in the local press, warning that the country's reputation as a good place to invest "will suffer" if the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) wasn't ratified. While this was no doubt true, articulating that point made it seem as if the US was threatening its southern neighbor. And it didn't sit well with voters who were about to cast ballots in the country's 2006 presidential election. Nobel-Prize winner Oscar Arias had been expected to win in a landslide, but his identification as pro-CAFTA (and pro-US) eroded his support to the point where he eked out a victory only after a month-long recount determined he'd won by the narrowest of margins.

A more egregious example unfolded in Bolivia in 2002 during its presidential election, when then-US ambassador Manuel Rocha hinted that if indigenous leader and coca grower Evo Morales won, it would jeopardize US aid to the impoverished, landlocked country. Support for Mr. Morales soared to the point where he nearly won the election, and his strong showing laid the groundwork for his election last year.

These missteps come at a time when the US can't afford to behave so brazenly. That's in large part because of the emergence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has been using his country's oil wealth to realize his goal of creating a regional counterhegemony to the US. Mr. Chavez harbors an active dislike of the US (no doubt in part because the Bush administration reacted with undisguised glee when he was briefly deposed in a 2002 coup). With oil topping $60 a barrel, the Venezuelan has used his largesse to win friends. He's provided cut-rate oil to Caribbean nations and purchased millions of dollars of Argentine and Ecuadorean debt.

The Bush administration has pressed regional leaders to speak out against Chávez, but aside from Mexican President Vicente Fox, it has found no takers. Given Venezuela's efforts to sow goodwill in the region - compared with our approach of bullying our southern neighbors - this isn't surprising. The Bush administration's highhanded manner has created an opening for Chávez. And given the number of elections that are scheduled in the region this year, that opening comes at a key moment. Costa Rica's election - where the pro-US candidate paid a price for his identification with the Bush administration - could be a harbinger of things to come.

Alexandra Starr, a former political correspondent for Businessweek, was an Organization of American States scholar from 1995 to 1998.

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