US standing in Latin America plummets

United States standing in Latin America has reached an all-time low. The US trade embargo against Nicaragua and other overt and covert attempts by the Reagan administration to isolate the Sandinista regime are backfiring. US policies toward Nicaragua have left Uncle Sam isolated in the region and have triggered a new tide of anti-Americanism, in the view of a majority of Latin American diplomats at the United Nations.

With the exception of two right-wing dictatorships (Chile and Paraguay) and a handful of Central American countries (Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala) that are dependent on the US for their economic survival, no Latin American democracy supports President Reagan's policies toward Nicaragua and Cuba, these officials say.

None of the diplomats professes sympathy toward communism. All are critical of the Sandinista leadership, which they privately describe as ``arrogant'' and ``fumbling.'' But none of them believes that Nicaragua -- or Cuba for that matter -- represents a threat to US security.

The State Department, of course, disputes these views. One US official says that, according to its information, ``President Reagan is very popular in Latin America, even though US policies in Central America are not always well understood in Latin American capitals.''

Last month, the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Mexico officially denied that they support the Reagan plan for renewed support to the contras, a plan that was later rejected by Congress.

``The Sandinistas are not popular in Latin America. Nor is, per se, Fidel Castro,'' says one analyst. ``What creates feelings of sympathy toward them are Reagan's policies: the support to the contras, the attempts to mine Nicaragua's harbors, the trade embargo. The US is repeating, vis-`a-vis Nicaragua, the counterproductive policies it has applied against Cuba.''

To bolster their view, these diplomats say that Cuba's standing in the region has improved markedly despite the 25 years of US hostility. They point out that:

In March the Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Brazilian Congress voted a resolution urging the government to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cultural exchanges between the two countries have been on the increase in recent years.

Argentina and Cuba established diplomatic ties after President Ra'ul Alfons'in came to power in 1973. The relationship between the two countries is described by observers as ``quite warm.'' Bilateral trade during the first nine months of 1984 amounted to $127 million.

Mexico, which never severed its ties with Cuba, now enjoys friendly political, diplomatic, and cultural relations with the island. Bilateral trade amounted to $51 million during the first nine months of 1984.

Colombian Foreign Minister Augusto Ramirez-Ocampo recently visited Havana. Colombian President Belisario Betancur and Fidel Castro are said to discuss Central American issues on the phone often.

Uruguay is preparing to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, according to reliable sources. Uruguay's recently elected President, Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti, has already canceled a ban on trade relations between the two countries.

Bolivia has friendly relations with Cuba, and Peru has signaled its intention to resume diplomatic ties with the country.

UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar (himself a Latin American from Peru) plans to visit Havana May 28 to 30.

Canada and Cuba enjoy diplomatic, cultural, and trade relations. The latter amounted to $65 million during the first nine months of 1984.

``Cuba's standing in Latin America has steadily improved,'' says one Latin American ambassador.

He and other Latin American diplomats see several reasons for this:

Cuba's policies are seen to be more balanced than they were 20 years ago. It seeks acceptance by fellow Latin Americans.

The 1982 Falkland crisis stunned Latin American ruling elites. For the first time it became evident that the US felt loyal and obligated to a European power -- Britain -- rather than to a fellow country of the Americas. This left a deep imprint on the consciousness of many Latin American officials, including conservatives.

The burgeoning debt problem in the region has brought growing awareness of Latin American solidarity vis-`a-vis the US.

This new Latin American patriotism is based not on sentiment but on common interest. The burden of repaying interest on loans is exacting sacrifices that neither the people nor their leaders are willing to accept.

``The day will come when a handful of major Latin American countries will actually tell the [International] Monetary Fund, `Sorry, we shall not continue to service our debt,' '' a senior Latin American diplomat who professes to be a conservative told the Monitor.

US policies toward Nicaragua have steadily alienated Latin Americans who feel no ideological sympathy toward the Sandinistas but see the US as a ``big bully.''

One sign of Latin American feelings toward the US was the cool reception Vice-President George Bush and Secretary of State George Shultz received when they arrived March 15 in Brasilia for the inauguration of Vice-President Jos'e Sarney. George Shultz and George Bush are not personally unpopular in Latin America. Yet at this reception they were booed, while Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega was applauded.

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