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Lackluster US-Latin American Relations To Continue

1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1C, Washington, D.C. 20036 Phone: 202-223-4975 Fax: 202-223-4979
Email: coha@coha.org Website: www.coha.org
Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Memorandum to the Press 05.06

Friday , 21 January 2005

Word Count: 1200

Less of the Same: Lackluster U.S.-Latin American Relations to continue under Second Bush Administration

Yesterday George W. Bush officially began his second term in office and those familiar with U.S.-Latin American relations have little hope for improved ties between Washington and its traditional ''backyard.'' Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the region has been all but forgotten as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have consumed U.S. resources and attention. Little is likely to change with the coming confirmation of super hawk and Sovietologist Condoleezza Rice, who has uttered scarcely a word on Latin America, as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s replacement. Here is a look at what the Bush administration has done in Latin America during the last four years and what to expect during the next four.

Powell and the Haiti Situation

By belatedly introducing U.S. and foreign forces into Haiti following the February 29, 2004 ousting of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Washington guaranteed that Haiti’s deeply scarred society is unlikely to easily recuperate from the wounds inflicted on it by foreign and domestic villains, including the bankrupt current interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue’s government. Of all those who played a role in bringing down Aristide’s constitutional rule, outgoing Secretary of State Powell’s reputation is most likely to be tarnished. In effect, he willingly became the captive of the Bush administration’s obsessive right-wing ideologues—the fateful sons of former Senator Jesse Helms—led by Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and former White House aide Otto Reich. Reich and Noriega saw U.S.-Latin American relations almost exclusively through the prism of full-time Havana bashing. If a Latin American government displayed a moderate and respectful attitude towards the Castro regime, it became the unremitting target of their ire.

Rather than staunchly backing pragmatic initiatives aimed at constructively relieving the regions’ social deficits—particularly the continued expansion of poverty and concentration of wealth—Powell’s relatively few speeches on Latin America emphasized only trade, market reform and an overly simplified view of the need for democracy expansion. Additionally, rather than genuine concern, Powell’s interest in human rights always seemed to reflect selective indignation towards left-wing regimes, like Venezuela. When it came to the region’s reaction to the Iraq war, Powell saw to it that a number of Latin American nations were dragooned into joining the “Coalition of the Willing.” As for those that continued to dissent, such as the Chilean and Mexican ambassadors to the UN, he pressured their respective government’s to withdraw them from their post. It is little surprise then, that an estimated 85 percent of Latin Americans were opposed to a Bush victory in the 2004 presidential election.

Rice and Latin America

Powell, at least occasionally, addressed hemispheric issues. One cannot say the same of his successor, Secretary of State designee Condoleezza Rice. She has barely mentioned the region in public and in what may very well have been one of her most profound statement involving hemispheric issues as National Security Advisor, Rice chided Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson for admitting the exiled Aristide into his country so he could reunite with his family.

Aside from attacking Cuba as an “outpost of tyranny” and calling the actions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ government “very deeply troubling,” as she did during her Senate confirmation hearing, Rice has shown neither a substantial interest nor a particular competence regarding the region. There will certainly be no softening of the U.S.’ position toward Cuba during Bush’s second term and she likely will use her Cold War-bred intellectual credentials to hunt down any left-wing manifestations in the region. What less ideological eyes would see as a new generation of populist leaders, in Rice’s hawkish vision the current heads of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Uruguay appear as potential nettlesome leftists who could eventually pose a threat to vital U.S. national interests. Be it extending or intensifying the perimeter of the White House’s anti-terrorism war or expanding the U.S. Southern Command’s sphere of operation, under Rice’s jurisdiction, a version of the Cold War could soon be brought to Latin America. This is particularly true if she interprets Bush’s call for freedom and liberty as a battle cry to expel dissident political figures like Castro or Chávez from power.

Venezuela’s New Partner…China

Relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have remained frosty ever since the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) helped finance the conservative opposition’s unsuccessful coup against Chávez in April 2002. Washington will no doubt have to sharpen its eye on Chinese-Venezuelan relations as those two nations recently signed a deal to increase their trade to $3 billion annually. Venezuela, whose 77.8 billion barrels is the largest proven oil reserve in the Western Hemisphere, currently supplies up to 15% of the U.S.’ imported petroleum. As the usual combative rhetoric between the Bush administration and Chávez continues at an even more frenzied pace, and with China threatening the U.S.’ consumption of Venezuelan oil, Washington already has begun exploring its “contingency plans,” as requested by the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar.

Central America and Free Trade

As for Central America, Washington is not all that dismayed by the elevated levels of corruption and drug trafficking in the region, which is extracting a high toll on El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and even Costa Rica. As gang violence also spirals out of control, Washington remains more interested in getting the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), along with the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), enacted. Strong opposition to both, however, for their failure to ensure acceptable labor rights and environmental protection, is certain to hurt their chances of being ratified and implemented. Additionally, as the number of Central American refugees in the U.S. grows, they will become an increasingly powerful voting bloc that the Bush administration will no doubt court. Many of these immigrants were victims of U.S. policies in the 1980s (i.e. the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua), hence the Republicans see it as imperative to win back their gratitude in order not to lose such a potentially important new voting bloc to the Democrats. The key, it seems, will be a liberal immigration status involving a process of legalization.

The War on Drugs

Colombia will likely continue to be a problem over the next four years. Critics often have accused the administration of putting the drug war on the back-burner because no easy victory was in sight. In 2000, Washington did enact the multibillion dollar Plan Colombia to combat that country’s drug industry, but it has done little to reduce the amount of Colombian cocaine arriving to the U.S. Since the drug remains widely available and because many observers believe Bush has neglected efforts to reduce U.S. consumption, a policy of ‘more of the same’ can be expected for the next four years. Furthermore, regardless of whether it should be sent in the first place, the aid that Colombia receives from Washington is far from being enough both in economic and military terms to achieve Washington’s goals. If anything, the aid simply dries up too quickly or is diverted by corruption, with the costly endless war in the country certain to continue taking its deadly toll.

This analysis was authored by COHA staff and compiled by Research Fellow David R. Kolker.

January 21, 2005

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 policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email coha@coha.org.

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