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Midterm Elections Have Mixed Consequences


For release A.M. Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Following Midterm Elections, Latin America and Canada Fall off U.S. Radar Screen

* Confrontation with Iraq dominates U.S. foreign policy agenda, with scant room left for Latin American or Canadian issues.

* Conservative shift in Congress highlights widening gulf between issues preoccupying Washington and those of far less concern, such as any notice of Latin America's nascent populist movement that target U.S. policy as one of its adversaries.

* U.S. commitment to "Century of the Americas" has become a fading priority.

* Republican control of Senate makes confirmation of Otto Reich in State Dept post likely, but not entirely in the bag.

* Sen. Lugar may stray from backing Reich and adhering to the administration's Cuba doctrine.

* Senate and House will continue support for liberalizing trade and travel ties to Cuba, in spite of the GOP's enhanced legislative standing.

* U.S. likely to commit more trainers and resources to Colombia.

* Washington's tougher line on FTAA

* Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and Haiti will also prove to be nettlesome foreign policy issues for the U.S., with benign neglect continuing to characterize U.S.-Canadian relations.

The November 5 midterm election, which has given Republicans control of both Houses of Congress, has left Democrats with diminished power, except at the procedural level, where they can still employ parliamentary obstructionist tactics, particularly in the Senate. Congress is now likely to be somewhat more supportive of the White House's agenda, which could have serious ramifications for a number of global concerns aside from the Middle East. For the U.S., this could signify a relative sizeable disengagement from several global regions other than the Middle East, but not necessarily including Latin America. But there are times when benign neglect is preferable to unilateralism and the kind of willful interventionism that the State Department's Inter-American Bureau has continuously followed in Haiti as well as in recent presidential elections in Nicaragua and Bolivia.

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"Century of the Americas" lasts scarcely a year

At the beginning of his administration, President Bush declared that the 21st century would be "the Century of the Americas." The events of September 11 understandably overshadowed even the most compelling of Western Hemispheric issues. As two of Latin America's most prominent authors recently despaired, the midterm elections could cause Latin America "to drop off the White House's political radar." If the U.S. does eventually go to war with Iraq due to Baghdad's ultimate non-compliance with a vigorous inspections regimen, Latin America could fall further victim to Washington's notoriously short attention span or its inability to service multiple foreign policy concerns simultaneously.

The U.S. shift to the right on Latin America could be a function of the growing ideological rift between the United States and a Latin America that is currently experiencing a surging leftist populist trend. This is occurring at the very time when the Bush administration is preparing itself to overwhelm the region with its campaign to architect its own version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). With Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the newly elected Lula in Brazil and the likely election of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, as well as the strong poll showings of Rodríguez Saá in Argentina, indications are that the continent is moving further left than has been the case in over a decade.

As a result of the above, Latin Americans fear that Washington will be inclined to downgrade the region as politically inhospitable. Paradoxically, there is an equal apprehension throughout the region that Washington will, in fact, be too generous with its attentions, to the point of attempting to strangle the area with a single-minded stressing of the issues of trade, a strong currency and low inflation, rather than social justice and an equitable distribution of income.

Overall, the Republican Congress victory will unlikely affect the Bush administration's campaign for the FTAA, which has enjoyed strong backing from most Republicans and a sizeable minority of Democrats. But with stepped-up support from Congress, made possible by including Republican control of the Senate's calendar and legislative schedule, the Bush administration could find a more receptive audience for its aggressive advocacy of U.S. corporate interests abroad, and a reduction of dissenting voices throughout the region opposed to the FTAA. With Brazil and the United States now beginning their co-chairing of the FTAA negotiations this November, it is not at all impossible that the White House will seek to subtly pressure Lula, the new Brazilian president, to moderate his previously expressed reservations over Washington's vision of the area trade agreement.

Renewed battle over Otto Reich's confirmation a near certainty

One of the most likely direct consequences of its electoral victory will be the White House's renewed effort to win confirmation from the Senate for its ultra-right-wing nominee Otto Reich to continue as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. The profoundly controversial Cuban exile is seeking to be officially approved for the position, as he now holds a recess appointment by the Bush administration, which will expire in December. Since Jeb Bush, the president's brother, scored a strong showing in his gubernatorial race (in no small part due to the leadership of Miami's Cuban-American community), Reich would appear to be in a favorable position to win his confirmation battle, with strong backing from the Florida governor, and therefore, also from the White House.

Reich has been a controversial figure during most of his professional career, beginning with his appointment to head the Office of Public Diplomacy during the first Reagan administration. In this position, he undertook a series of questionable secret initiatives in support of the U.S.-backed contras against the Sandinistas, some of which were patently illegal. As a result of such activities, his initial nomination by the Bush Administration to the State Department post was blocked at the time by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations' subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Christopher Dodd (D-Conn). He was also reported to be opposed by Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming), and, according to Dodd, four other Republican senators who were prepared to vote against him at the time.

Reich's later ambassadorship to Venezuela was no less free of controversy due to his established connection to the virulent anti-Castro Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch's efforts to re-enter the U.S. after having placed a bomb on a Cuban airliner that caused it to crash, killing scores of innocent civilians. His confirmation as Assistant Secretary was blocked by the Democrats when they controlled the Senate, and he was only able to take his post by avoiding a requirement of full Senate confirmation through being granted a recess approval by the president.

Democrats who oppose Reich's obsessive stance on Cuba and his tendency to view most Latin American issues through a Havana prism, and who as well have serious misgivings over his qualifications for the job, will nevertheless find it difficult to prevent his confirmation, in spite of his overt intervention in elections in Nicaragua and Bolivia, as well as his embarrassing relationship with pro-coup, anti-Chávez forces in Venezuela just prior to last April's attempted overthrow of the Venezuelan president.

Reich's Senate confirmation would dispel any notion that the Bush administration is open to rethinking its reflexively irrational and automatically negative Cuba policy. It is not an exaggeration to say that Washington is entirely prone, under the right circumstances, to negotiate with almost every other country in the world, even such notorious pariahs as Libya, Iran and North Korea, but categorically refuses to even consider mending relations with Cuba. If anything, the Bush administration's already uncontainable gratitude to Miami's Cuban exile community is likely to grow, due both to the importance of the latter's vote in the gubernatorial race and the major role Florida is scheduled to play in the president's own 2004 re-election contest.

Despite the White House's freezing of U.S.-Cuban relations in their present sterile form, Congress nonetheless is likely to continue to pursue a gradual normalization of commercial and travel ties with Havana, which it has been following for more than a year, as the lure of trade with the island proves too tempting for farm state legislators to resist. Notable among such farm state advocates is Richard Lugar (R-Ind), a longstanding member of the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, who is set to reclaim the chair of the Foreign Relations committee now that Republicans hold a majority in the Senate. In the recent past, Lugar has proven to be a relative moderate who has shown a willingness to work in a bipartisan manner towards improving Cuban policy.

U.S. likely to throw more money at Colombia

Another likely consequence of this country's midterm ballot is a more rapid pace of implementation for such policies as Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion military, training, and economic aid program for Colombia. This initiative targets drug eradication and supports military operations against Colombia's two leftist rebel groups and purportedly, the country's right-wing paramilitary forces which are responsible for the bulk of the country's human rights violations. The administration's effort also involves almost $100 million in U.S. assistance which will go to protecting the Caño Limón oil pipeline from guerrilla raids against oil shipments being made by the U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum corporation.

Other regional consequences

The results of the U.S. election are sure to be felt most directly in Mexico, where relations with the United States have recently turned sour. Perhaps no country has more strongly felt the impact of Washington's distraction due to Sept. 11 than its southern neighbor. While Mexico has yet to significantly benefit from any major substantive U.S. policy changes under the Bush administration, there was some initial optimism that Vicente Fox and George W. Bush's seemingly compatible personalities would lead to major advances towards liberalizing immigration procedures. But, aside from photo-ops, their meetings have continuously failed to produce any significant changes. With pivotal events in Brazil and Venezuela commanding the U.S. president's scant reserve of attention for Latin America, Mexico cannot help but feel neglected. Now, with a more supportive Congress behind a hawkish U.S. president, Mexico is likely to experience the same back-burner status as much of the rest of the region.

Other countries in the region beg attention and cannot be ignored; the recent (and familiar) arrival of more than two hundred Haitian "boat people" captured media attention and cast a spotlight on the U.S.'s troubled Haiti policy, if only briefly. The U.S. election is unlikely to result in any major policy change, as the relatively small bloc of registered Haitian-American voters has been traditionally represented, if ineffectually, by Democrats.

Argentina is eying the election results carefully, as they should mark a decisive point in whether that beleaguered nation will ultimately receive the financial aid it sorely needs. Because the IMF operates largely as an extension of U.S. fiscal policy, and because Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has in the past expressed his general disapproval of such a bailout, the country is now less likely than ever to receive the outtside aid shot-in-the-arm its economy desperately requires.

Brazil's attention has lately been focused on its own recent elections in which populist Lula won the presidency by a decisive victory. While the Bush administration initially expressed grave unease at the prospect of Brazilians electing such an avowed leftist, it has recently reached out to him in order to press the incoming government to be more receptive to the FTAA, over which Lula has expressed open reservations. Regardless of ideological differences, the administration realizes that Brazil, already the region's natural leader due to its size and wealth, will only increase in importance, and is likely to be one of the few Latin American countries whose shadow will not be obscured by a probable Middle-Eastern preoccupation.

Concern with Venezuela will not disappear

Hugo Chávez in Venezuela may be the one Latin American leader with the most at stake concerning bilateral ties to the U.S. The Chávez government has managed to barely hold on to power in recent months. After the anti-Chávez protestors staged a short-lived coup last April that seemed to have U.S. backing, Chávez has sought to align himself more intimately with Washington, which has since spoken out against any attempt at extra-constitutional overthrow of the Venezuelan leader. Reports have surfaced that this curious realignment of the connection between the two longstanding foes is the result of a quid pro quo between Carácas and Washington: in exchange for ensuring an uninterrupted supply of Venzuelan oil to the U.S. and maintaining OPEC's current-or an even more generous-production schedule, Washington will support the Chávez government. The desire to secure Venezuelan reserves is a tell-tale sign that the U.S. is hedging itself against the chaos that an invasion of Iraq may spark in the Middle-Eastern oil markets. Paradoxically, however, such a conflict could conceivably be the trigger that endangers the Chávez presidency-a U.S. invasion of Iraq could provide the Chávez opposition with the cover it needs to stage another coup, as the international community and press could conceivably find itself too distracted by Iraq to register a strong objection to any act of usurpation in Caracas.

Latin America cannot count on constructive U.S. engagement

Carlos Fuentes, one of the two illustrious regional writers who expressed their concern that the region had fallen from the U.S. line of sight, also insists that the region "shouldn't depend on the United States but on our own vast untapped human capital." Critics of U.S. policy support this notion, arguing that Washington has traditionally acted unilaterally to promote its own narrowly conceived regional self-interests, at the expense of the area's human rights observance, the promotion of social justice, equitable economic development and balanced foreign relations to the rest of the hemisphere. Nor does Washington's dyspeptic treatment of Canada markedly differ. Be it soft wood, salmon, water exports, or border issues, the U.S. has lost the ability to engage in civil negotiations that display much respect for this country's northern neighbor.

The U.S. will seek to aggressively promote policies such as Plan Colombia and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that are disproportionately beneficial towards the U.S. at the expense of Latin American nations. The recent elections may give the current administration the additional clout it needs to be able to push for these often dubious policies, so the distraction of an Iraqi conflict could ironically prove a mixed blessing for Latin America, which might appreciate being spared of Washington's self-serving zeal.

This analysis was prepared by Mark Severino, COHA Research Associate.

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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