Don't forget Latin America

Things have not been going well in Latin America for some time. The events of Sept. 11 are making the situation worse. The No. 1 problem is the economy. The year 2001 has been dismal. Argentina struggles against financial collapse. Mexico and Brazil, along with most other countries, slump badly. Until the US economy picks up steam, not much can be done to revive Latin America's growth.

Still, the US Treasury - which has been disturbingly passive toward the region - should engage the hemisphere's finance ministers, private banks, and international financial institutions to try to forestall further economic deterioration and prevent financial crisis. It is most urgent to avert an Argentine debt default, which could spread economic turmoil widely. But Latin America's governments are worried that, with senior US leaders devoted to the battle against terrorism, the region will not command much attention.

The week before the attacks, President Bush hosted the Mexican president and stated that the US's most important foreign relationship was with Mexico. Now the impressive advances toward a new bilateral partnership may be stalled. Colombians are concerned that US support for their nation's struggles against drug criminals and guerrillas could wane even though Secretary of State Colin Powell has offered assurances that they remain a priority.

A prolonged deferral of hemispheric free-trade negotiations and other regional trade measures would be especially discouraging in Latin America. So far, chief US trade negotiator Robert Zoellick has worked to keep trade policy high on the administration's agenda. But trade is a contentious issue that Congress may try to avoid. Absent a senior spokesperson for Latin American policy, other regional issues may not get attention. The White House's choice for the job, Otto Reich, is controversial, and the Senate has kept his nomination in limbo. It's time for a hearing and a decision on this key appointment.

Latin America's governments are anxious about how the US will respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. Although every government in the region has strongly endorsed the US-led campaign against terrorism, surveys indicate that majorities in most countries are skeptical of US intentions and oppose Washington's use of military force; that opposition is likely to intensify. Balancing domestic opinion against US demands for support of its antiterrorist drive could be a harsh test for Latin leaders, particularly if their economies continue to founder. US-Latin American relations could be severely strained.

For better or worse, Latin America - which before Sept. 11 was considered among the White House's highest priorities - will be profoundly affected by US actions in the coming months. What remains in doubt is whether Washington will take much account of the region in its decisionmaking.

Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

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