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Presidential-Lite Visit to Latin America

Council On Hemispheric Affairs

Bush, with trade and neo-liberal reforms on his mind, fails to grasp the magnitude of Latin America's poverty, disarray and despair.

In Mexico, at the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development, President Bush pledges a $5 billion pittance spread over three years to fight worldwide poverty, but even then it is to be heavily qualified by compulsory acceptance of the Treasury Department's economic model.

In El Salvador, Bush will push immigration issues, but ignore that country's and Guatemala's non-compliance with their respective U.N.-sponsored peace accords and their pseudo-democratic systems.

In Peru, Bush will meet with the Andean region's leaders and call for renewal of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) as well as support for U.S. funded counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism campaigns. But will he bring up the issue of Lima's longstanding mistreatment of Lori Berensen, a U.S. national currently imprisoned under unjustifiable circumstances?

President Bush's first diplomatic visit to South America, with stopovers in Mexico and El Salvador, will be characterized by a call for the liberalization of economies and trade, the privatization of public sector industries, and stepped-up anti-drug and anti-terror efforts. As Washington sees it, the preeminence of the terrorism and drug issues in Latin America leaves little room for traditional diplomacy focusing on such key policy areas as human rights, judicial reform, social issues and democracy-building. Although the president will throw a meager amount of money at the world's poverty problem, it wouldn't even serve to alleviate Latin America's severe situation where characteristically 40% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Today, President Bush is in Monterrey, Mexico where he met with President Vicente Fox and Canada's Jean Chrétien to emphasize immigration issues and to briefly speak at the summit portion of the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development, which is hosting 54 heads of state. The President's signing of the Monterrey Consensus, the key document produced during the conference, will formalize a U.S. pledge to address the world's poverty issue. It will also support the U.N.'s hope to cut in half the one billion of the world's population currently living below the poverty line. Washington will now be doubling what the U.S. currently spends on global assistance strategies, but with significant strings attached. President Bush's appearance at the conference is mainly ceremonial as the draft of the document on how to eliminate poverty was concluded by the time of the summit.

U.S. Short on Economic Assistance

At Monterrey, the U.S. president hoped to avert international criticism by promising developing nations the additional $5 billion over the next three years in anti-poverty funds, but with heavy conditions attached. This would-be act of generosity carries stiff conditions regarding market reforms and privatization, requiring recipients to open up their economies to international trade, and is minute, given the magnitude of the problem of world poverty.

In allocating funds to counter poverty, Bush and his economic advisers have proven to be more conservative than compassionate. The Bush administration balked at more generous financial assistance proposals suggested by development organizations, including one that would have doubled this country's commitment to foreign assistance programs and another that would have allocated 0.7 of its gross domestic product (GDP) to development strategies. Currently, the United States only contributes 0.1 percent of its GDP to foreign aid, making it one of the least generous of the developed nations relative to the strength of its economy. While the United States is willing to lead a global campaign to eradicate terrorism, apparently it is unwilling to assume a comparable role in a concerted effort to end poverty, which at the very least, is related to the former.

Is there a commitment to poverty abatement?

Bush's commitment to militarization and unilateralization also calls into question the authenticity of the administration's concern for the hemisphere's impoverished, who historically are usually the very victims of the military institutions traditionally favored by Washington. While the White House was prepared to allocate the additional $5 billion for assistance to developing nations, at the same time it has requested an increase of $48 billion for its international military assistance programs to a variety allies throughout the world. In clear economic terms, the disparity in these two categories seems to indicate the relative importance of each program as seen from Washington.

The gap between human rights and other qualifications imposed by the U.S. on the recipients of military aid (which are now minimal) and development assistance (which will be burdensome) is potentially more troubling. While the Bush administration seeks to significantly influence the economic future of developing nations, it simultaneously looks to free the hands of their military from human rights constraints, again placing economic development and military and anti-terrorism defense measures above rights concerns.

Central American Stop

On Sunday, President Bush will make the second stop on his Latin American trip in San Salvador, El Salvador, where he will meet with President Francisco Flores and the heads of the other Central American nations. Among the issues on the agenda are the extension of U.S. immigration moratoriums allowing undocumented entrants to the U.S. to remain in this country for the time being. Also to be explored are steps to strengthen the regional trade agreement and the physical reconstruction of El Salvador in the wake of last year's killer earthquake.

The Central American leaders hope that the U.S. president will extend the jurisdiction of the Nicaragua Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), a U.S. immigration measure that provides immigrants from the region a fast track process to achieve U.S. citizenry. The law is important for the economies of El Salvador and other Central American nations, which depend heavily on the flow of remittances sent back home by their nationals residing in the United States. Last year alone, Salvadorans in the United States contributed almost $1 billion dollars to the country's economy. The Catholic Church has been strongly supportive of Bush's proposal extending NACARA to immigrants arriving after the present December 1, 1995 deadline.

The meeting in San Salvador will also address strengthening the regional trade organization CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Association) in preparation for its proposed integration into the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), once that hemisphere-wide trade accord is ratified in 2005. Bilateral discussions between President Bush and President Flores will revolve around reconstruction issues following last year's destructive earthquake. However, this meeting follows months of slow-motion-action by U.S. authorities during which period an active and engaged relief policy could have benefited thousands of Salvadorans displaced by the earthquake.

Peru: Secondary Importance for Human Rights

In his third and final stop in Latin America, President Bush will meet Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo and three other government leaders from the Andean nations of Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. The gathering in Lima will revolve around the military and economic aspects of U.S. counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism programs in the Andean region. Bush will likely use the occasion to secure regional support for Colombia's widening war against leftist guerrilla groups as well as discuss the need for an integrated response to drug trafficking and money laundering.

Bush will also use the prospect of trade expansionin dealing with the narcotics issue. The Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), which seeks the expansion of economic alternatives for Andean countries in order to enhance their ability to combat drug production and trafficking through providing duty-free treatment to certain exports, will certainly be a focal point of the Lima summit. However, it remains to be seen what Bush will be able to accomplish considering the limited executive authority he currently has in this area. Currently, the Senate has not renewed trade preference to the region after it expired in December. Nevertheless, Bush may be able to use his backing of the trade agreement's renewal to leverage additional anti-narcotics cooperation from the Andean countries as well as to obtain the right to possibly use local military facilities now that the U.S. armed forces personnel are pursuing a more active involvement in Colombia.

The Berensen Case

Bush's support of a more aggressive militarized posture towards leftist insurgents in Colombia will unfailingly relegate human rights concerns to a secondary status. One high-visibility factor likely to be adversely affected by the White House's intensified war on terrorism is the case of U.S. citizen Lori Berensen, who was first imprisoned during the Fujimori dictatorship for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and has since spent six years in Peruvian jails. Despite an international campaign to pardon the New Yorker after years of harsh confinement, the Toledo administration has been unyielding in its insistence that she serve the entirety of her 20-year sentence. Unfortunately, President Bush, seeking regional support for his war on terror, has been indifferent to the sense of outrage by many distinguishable world figures over the degree of injustice handed out to Berensen. Sadly, the plight of this U.S. national, who Peruvian authorities insist supported terrorists, will not be aided by the detonation of a bomb in front of the U.S. embassy in Lima just before the eve of Bush's scheduled arrival in the Peruvian capital.

Toledo's refusal to reconsider the Berensen case, and his personal self-indulgence holds ominous prospects for Peruvian democracy. By failing to vigorously correct the wrongs committed by Fujimori, the Toledo administration shares in its predecessor's legacy of shame. Nevertheless, President Bush is certain to distort reality by praising his Andean counterparts for their democratic attainments, but he would be hard pressed to provide evidence that this is in fact the case, given the present political uproar in Bolivia and Ecuador, the growing conflict in Colombia and the stagnation and decline in Peru.


This analysis was prepared by Alex Volberding and Larry Birns, COHA research group.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policymakers."

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