A gentler touch with Latin America

The Bush team is changing its diplomatic lineup and paying more attention to the region. Some see a shift in strategy.

The Bush administration is taking a more cooperative and less ideological approach to Latin America, a departure from the earlier confrontational stance that accompanied a waning of US influence in the region.

This week Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick is in the region - pressing for a democratic solution to political turmoil in Nicaragua and taking up trade and economic issues with Brazil, South America's powerhouse. It's the kind of low-key but vital attention, experts say, that was lacking in the first Bush term.

Perhaps more important, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has signaled a change of course by nominating career diplomat (and former National Security Council colleague) Tom Shannon as assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs. If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Shannon would succeed two controversial assistant secretaries, Otto Reich and Roger Noriega. Both were better known for antagonism toward certain regimes - Fidel Castro's in Cuba and Hugo Chávez's in Venezuela, in particular - than for working with the region.

The shift reflects a turn toward diplomacy in the Bush foreign policy in general. It is welcome in a region that had resisted what it saw as a meddlesome, "with-us-or-against-us" US foreign policy. But it is also viewed, some experts say, as a bit of catch-up now that many Latin American countries are looking elsewhere - as never before - for economic and political ties.

"We're seeing signals of a shift, in particular away from a foreign policy that was seen throughout Latin America as dominated by people obsessed by an ideological battle with Cuba," says Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University in Washington and a Clinton administration diplomat. "If [the Bush administration] is more engaged and doesn't just try to dictate, they can begin to mend fences. But there's quite a bit of mending to do."

Others say the administration has not altered its basic approach to the region. Rather, it is paying closer attention and visiting more because crucial political junctures lie ahead, such as presidential elections in Mexico next year, and because worrisome political trends need to be addressed. "I have seen ramped-up attention ... as not so much a shift of direction as a reflection of the political realities in Latin America," says Brian Dean, a specialist in Latin America for the International Republican Institute (IRI).

While in Nicaragua, Mr. Zoellick sought to shore up President Enrique Bolaños, who is under siege from what the US calls a "corrupt pact" formed by two former presidents, Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán. Mr. Ortega's Sandinistas control the judiciary, while Mr. Alemán's forces control the legislature. The US, concerned that Mr. Bolaños is indeed a victim of what he calls a "rolling coup d'état," is threatening to withhold much-needed economic aid. But Zoellick, whose trip ended Wednesday, may have found it difficult to wield much influence: In Nicaragua, US pressure conjures mixed and often extreme reactions.

Thursday Zoellick was to visit Brazil to discuss economic and diplomatic issues (Brazil has played a key role in peacekeeping efforts in Haiti). He will also pave the way for President Bush to visit Brazil next month during a Latin America swing. Mr. Bush plans to attend the summit of the Americas in Argentina on Nov. 3, before stops in Brazil and Panama.

The US has long counted on its southern neighbors for support in its global objectives, political and economic. But that has changed, experts say, as the US focused more on security concerns after 9/11. The US determination to launch a war in Iraq and its preoccupation with the Middle East didn't sit well with many leaders and publics, and Latin America has pursued closer ties with other powers, including China and the European Union.

"Our standing in Latin America has never been so low as it is now," says Wayne Smith, a former US diplomat in Cuba now at the Center for International Policy.

He and others cite America's response to a coup attempt against Venezuela's President Chávez in 2002, when the US appeared to support some in the military against a democratically elected leader, as one example of the kind of action that has tarnished the US image.

Not all of Latin America's skepticism toward the US can be laid at the feet of the Bush administration, says Mr. Smith. A political turn to the left by countries such as Venezuela and Argentina, he notes, is a reaction to international policies that for two decades emphasized tight fiscal policy and free trade - but that didn't do enough to redress income inequality within nations. "Our low standing is not just a response to the Bush administration, but is really a disenchantment with past US policies and US-inspired policies that have not answered to the needs of the masses of people, as promised," Smith says.

The US is signalling that it understands the need to put more emphasis on reducing poverty and spreading the benefits of a more open economy. The region has some of the widest rich-poor gaps in the world.

Speaking last week at Princeton University, Secretary Rice said, in response to a student question, that US policy in the region has "moved on" to emphasize more than fiscal restraint and transparent governance. "There really has to be a concerted effort to make sure that any benefits of economic growth, because you're getting economic growth in Latin America, ... become tangible benefits for the people."

Such thinking is consistent with the IRI's assessment, says Mr. Dean. For its part, the US must put more focus on closing the economic "performance gap," he says, so that people in Latin America experience "the connection between democratic government and economic opportunity."

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