Why the Americas have drifted apart

Bound for a hemispheric summit in Argentina, Bush is likely to encounter a region less in tune with US priorities.

When President Bush visits Argentina, Brazil, and Panama this week, he will encounter a Latin America that is less attached to US priorities - and more diversified in its own international relations - than at any time in the recent past.

It's a challenging spot for an administration that appears ready to refocus attention on the region, after years of being preoccupied with 9/11 and the war on terror.

"The hemisphere is a different place from just a few years ago," says Felix Peña, a specialist in international economic relations here. "Countries know they have many more opportunities for trade and other relations with other parts of the world, for example with China. Their priorities and capabilities are more varied."

The Summit of the Americas, which Bush will attend Friday in Mar del Plata, Argentina, is a case in point. Inaugurated with fanfare in 1994, the summits were established to deliver by this year a free trade area of the Americas - from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego - and to solidify the region's democratic gains after decades of military coups and civil wars.

But the free-trade area has not materialized. Instead, smaller trade blocs have formed as many countries, including Brazil and Argentina, resist what they say would be a US-dominated trade area. Neither are democracy's roots growing stronger, and in some countries they are threatened, warn some officials and experts.

A splintered agenda

The first summit in 1994, in Miami, trumpeted the fact that 33 of the Americas' 34 countries had democratically elected governments - Cuba is the exception and as such does not attend - and that is still true. But plans have stalled to move countries beyond elections-as-democracy, critics say, in part from US inattention and in part from a splintering of priorities for solidifying democracy.

"The contrast with Miami in December 1994 is very stark. Back then there was a common hemispheric agenda, but today the prescriptions, the approaches that countries and governments have, are very different from one another," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "There's a big gap."

Some of that gap is the Bush administration's own doing, some experts say. They cite ham-handed handling of Venezuelan and Bolivian political crises that cast Washington more in the bad old role of behind-the-scenes string-puller than of champion of democracy.

"The way the US handled problems in Venezuela and Bolivia has made it much more difficult to forge any coalitions on democratization at this point," says Robert Pastor, director of the Center on North American Studies at American University in Washington. "A decade ago the hope was for consensus on addressing democracy's challenges, but that's not possible now."

Another problem, which grates against Latin sensibilities for historic reasons, is the Bush administration's priority since 9/11 on hemispheric security.

"In much of Latin America, antiterrorism is code for how you deal with groups you don't like," says Richard Feinberg, director of the University of California at San Diego's APEC Study Center and an expert in the Americas summits. "They think the US is obsessed [with security], while they tend to see it in terms of their past. They would have trouble making it a priority."

But others say different, deeper trends have altered the context for hemispheric relations. Globalization, the economic rise of China and other nations in Asia and Europe, and subregional unions such as the Brazilian-led Mercosur trade group, have all yielded a hemisphere very different from the one the first President Bush envisioned as one seamless trading area, says Mr. Peña.

For Bush, a better time in Asia?

Noting that the president will travel later this month to Asia, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in South Korea and a trip to China, UC San Diego's Mr. Feinberg says Bush may have an easier time there. That's because Asia is growing and casts fewer doubts on the prevailing international economic model than does Latin America, he says.

Another factor is that the APEC meeting focuses on economics over political issues like democratization.

Still, hemispheric leaders can take heart from the fact that no countries have "fallen completely off the bandwagon" in terms of democratic rule, Feinberg says. That reality, he says, should act as a boon to future efforts to solidify democracy's hold in the region.

Although the US image has "deteriorated," particularly in the hemisphere's southernmost countries, "relations with governments in the region are good," says Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

This summit, the fourth to be held, has the theme of job creation through good governance. Without the driving goal of a free-trade area and given the "diversification" of approaches, the summit is likely to deliver little more than bland calls for poverty reduction and trade growth, say some officials and experts. "I think we'll see a reiteration of past goals," says Mr. DeShazo.

Needed: a bold idea

To move beyond that, Peña says, something "dramatic" needs to happen at the summit "to capture attention and get it off the negative."

His suggestion: that Bush announce a relaunching of the goal of a hemispheric trade area with a US commitment to talks with the Mercosur trade group - a proposal Bush could take with him on his visit Sunday to Brazil.

Others have different ideas. US Rep. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey proposes a $500 million social investment and economic development fund, to be matched by Latin countries, to place the US squarely in the region's battle for democratization and poverty reduction.

"It doesn't have to be my idea, but something has to be put out there to get the ball rolling again," Peña says. "That's what the first President Bush did" with his goal of the free-trade area, "and we need something like that again."

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