The Miami Herald
Jan. 05, 2003

Bush policy toward Latin America stuck in limbo


  A Washington think tank conducted an interesting survey last week: It asked regional experts who they believed to be in charge of the Bush administration's Latin
  American policy.

  The Inter-American Dialogue, a politically middle-of-the-road group that focuses on U.S.-Latin American relations, did not seek my opinion. But if it had, I would have given a one-word response: "Nobody.''

  Why? Because if somebody were in charge, the Bush administration -- which started out vowing to make Latin America one of its top foreign policy priorities -- probably would not be making so many mistakes in the region.

  Consider: Last week, the Bush administration failed to send Secretary of State Colin Powell or a team of big-name Cabinet members to the inauguration of Brazil's leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will lead Latin America's biggest country for the next four years.

  While da Silva's inauguration was attended by 15 heads of state -- including Cuba's dictator Fidel Castro, Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chávez and the leaders of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Portugal and South Africa -- the U.S. delegation was headed by Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

  Zoellick is highly respected in Latin America, but his presence was eclipsed by the visiting heads of state. Because of their rank, they were received separately by da Silva, while the U.S. trade representative had to confine himself to meetings with Brazilian Cabinet ministers.

  ''Zoellick is an important player, but the U.S. representation does not reflect the importance that Brazil has for the region, and for the United States,'' said Peter Romero, who headed the State Department's Latin American affairs department during the Clinton administration.

  Two weeks before da Silva's inauguration, the White House flip-flopped on its proposed solution for Venezuela's political crisis. After issuing a statement Dec. 13 urging early elections in Venezuela, the White House changed its tune, stating that it supported a referendum on whether to hold early elections, a position which is more in line with Venezuela's constitution.


  ''The recent stumble on Venezuela suggests that the White House and the State Department are not coordinating well,'' said Bernard Aronson, another former chief of the State Department's Latin American affairs department.

  In November, a visit by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Chile went almost unnoticed because of poor preparations, say sources familiar with the trip. In April, the Bush administration wavered before condemning a de facto coup attempt in Venezuela, triggering widespread criticism in the region.

  Part of the reason behind these problems is that the Bush administration is focused almost exclusively on the war against terrorism. But there is also an element of poor coordination of U.S. policies in the region because of unresolved turf wars between the White House, the State Department and Congress, insiders say.

  The State Department's top Latin American affairs official, Otto Reich, a Cuban-American political appointee, was obliged by law to leave his job last month after failing to get Senate confirmation. He has been temporarily appointed Powell's ''special envoy'' to Latin America, a job with neither staff nor budget.

  It's not clear whether Bush will resubmit Reich's name to the Senate. Powell is said to want Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson for the job.


  To be fair, the Bush administration has also scored some important successes in Latin American affairs. It got congressional approval of ''fast track'' legislation to start negotiations toward a hemispheric free trade agreement, something the Clinton White House did not achieve. Bush has also concluded a free-trade deal with Chile, and has announced the start of free-trade talks with Central America.

  The administration has taken some good steps to begin fighting corruption in the region. It has also approved a much-needed $30 billion international rescue package for Brazil, and was smart enough to invite da Silva to Washington for a rare meeting with President Bush before his inauguration. That's all very good.

  But while Bush and Powell focus on Iraq and North Korea, the region that they call ''our neighborhood'' is in danger. There is a war in Colombia, a popular uprising in Venezuela, an unprecedented crisis in Argentina and growing threats of social upheaval in several other countries.

  Some of the experts consulted by the Inter-American Dialogue concluded that Bush should use some of his political capital to get the Senate confirmation of a State
  Department Latin American affairs chief as soon as possible. In addition, he should resurrect the position of ''presidential envoy'' to the Americas, which had considerable weight during the Clinton years.

  I agree. Bush's Latin American policy is in limbo, and there's no reason why that should happen under a president who enjoys a 61 percent popularity rating, and controls both houses of Congress.

  If he doesn't act, there will be more, and more costly, mistakes.