A restive Latin America often defies the US

At hemispheric summit opening Monday, Bush will hear complaints about US policies, but also pleas for attention.

Since the end of the cold war, the United States has promoted the expansion of democracy in Latin America, and it can claim some credit for favorable outcomes: Aside from Cuba's Fidel Castro, the hemisphere's leaders, from Canada in the north to Chile in the south, are democratically elected and increasingly subject to the pressures of their constituencies.

But the results of this democratic transition may not all be to Washington's liking.

When President Bush meets with hemispheric leaders Monday and Tuesday in Monterrey, Mexico, for a special summit of the Organization of American States, he will stand beside the leaders of Mexico and Chile, two countries that heeded their public's opposition to war and opposed the US on Iraq in the United Nations Security Council last year.

And he will chat with the leader of Brazil, South America's dominant economy and a country balking at a hemispheric free-trade accord it fears would favor the US at the South's expense.

For decades the US could count on a compliant Southern Hemisphere to toe the line, but increasingly the region's democratically elected leaders are not so inclined.

"This is a mature group [of leaders]," says Robert Pastor, vice president for international affairs at American University and an expert on Latin America. "They don't feel a compelling need to take potshots at the US, but neither do they have to blindly follow when the US calls. Those days are gone."

The 34 nations of the hemisphere (absent Cuba) will discuss how to address the region's stubborn - and in some cases growing - poverty.

But at a time when relations between the US and Latin America are as strained as they have been in years, Mr. Pastor says the summit really stems from a Canadian desire "to redirect American attention to the hemisphere."

Because of poor US management of relations with the region and a lack of any bold proposals to jump-start hemispheric trade talks, however, the summit may turn into a "missed opportunity," says Pastor.

"The great tragedy is that there has never been a moment when the leaders of Latin America had more in common with the US than today," he says, "whether you're talking democracy or a commitment to human rights or adherence to market-oriented economies."

One reason for the low state of affairs is the focus on national security that has driven American foreign policy since 9/11.

Latin Americans initially understood the Bush administration's complete reorientation to addressing security concerns and terrorism, experts in the region say. But, they add, the continuing focus reminds many of the "big stick" America that dominated the region in the cold-war era. It is also a reminder that Latin America has not become the priority Bush said it would be when he took office.

"The US has one clear priority, the battle against terrorism, and in that context only Mexico among the Latin American countries has any real relevance because of its proximity and the border," says Jorge Chabat, an expert in US-Mexico relations in Mexico City. "Distant Argentina just isn't as much of a concern."

The White House rejects the widely held notion that Latin America fell off the US radar. At a briefing Friday on the president's trip to Mexico, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters, "The president came in saying that he was going to put an emphasis on

the neighborhood" and he has pursued "an agenda that has done exactly that."

Pointing to free-trade accords with Chile and four Central American countries, trade-promotion authority that will allow the president to more freely pursue other pacts, and new development and AIDS assistance, Dr. Rice says, "This president has a broad, deep, and intensive engagement with Latin America, and a lot has gotten done."

Others point to a long list of policy missteps by the administration - including a failure to support an economically free-falling Argentina early on, ambiguous statements that appeared to support an ill-fated military coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president, and a failure to come to the aid of a pro-US president of Bolivia who was eventually forced out - as evidence that Latin America has become little more than an afterthought.

A key indicator of relations with the region will be Bush's meeting Monday with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Rice says the two leaders are "well past" the tensions that followed 9/11 and Mexico's "no" in the UN on Iraq. Bush is eager to tout his latest plan for legalizing undocumented workers - millions of whom are Mexicans.

As part of his quest to woo Hispanic voters, he's anxious to demonstrate that the pre-9/11 good times in US-Mexico relations have returned.

In that sense the relations may be returning to the reality that geographical proximity imposes. The return of Mexico to White House concerns "is a reminder that this is a marriage without recourse to divorce," says Mr. Chabat.

But the same cannot be said for relations with the rest of Latin America.

That is one reason Chabat says the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) - first envisioned in 1994 for completion in 2005 - is now likely to be concluded in a "lite" form at best or with some countries opting out.

"The US does not appear ready to make the kinds of tough decisions, for example in agriculture, that will be needed to move the FTAA ahead," says Pastor.

Noting that the US is moving forward with less-ambitious bilateral accords while the regional pact is sorted out, he adds, "We'll be left with a kind of minilateral system with the US as the hub and small countries at the end of the spokes - and with a region that is more fragmented than united."

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