Bush focuses again on Latin America
Three visits possible this year
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
WASHINGTON -- In what would amount to a resumption of President Bush's interest in Latin America after a near all-out focus on the war on terrorism since Sept. 11, the White House is seriously considering three presidential visits to the region this year, senior administration officials say.
In addition, Secretary of State Colin Powell is almost sure to make a visit to Colombia that was canceled at the last minute after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, the officials say.
Although two of Bush's possible trips to the region would be to attend international summits in Mexico, the president's presence in that country would help underscore his interest in Latin America at a time when the region is shaken by Argentina's financial collapse and a widespread economic recession, the officials said in separate interviews in recent days.
``We are considering various high-level visits to the region this year,'' said Lino Gutierrez, the top State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs. ``Our Latin American agenda never went away, but our focus had to be counter-terrorism. Now, the spotlight will shift back to the region.''
Among the visits under discussion:
A March trip to Monterrey, Mexico, to attend the International
Conference on Financing for Development. The meeting has been convened
by Mexican President
Vicente Fox to help developing countries gain better access to international loans.
An October visit to Mexico, to attend the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit .
A possible trip to Brazil and perhaps another Latin American country late this year, barring security concerns.
A trip by Powell to Colombia, which other diplomatic sources say may include one or two stops in the Caribbean.
In addition, U.S. officials are studying a possible summit of Andean countries' presidents in the United States this year.
The meeting, requested by Colombian President Andrés Pastrana,
would resurrect the 1992 San Antonio Summit, which was convened by former
President George Bush to devise regional anti-drug strategies. The new
summit, likely to be held in San Antonio or another Texas city, would be
attended by leaders of Andean region
drug-producing countries, plus top officials from Brazil and Panama.
U.S. officials say the possible visits and the meeting with Andean leaders are bound to increase the administration's attention to Latin America, because they force the U.S. government to spend time on issues such as free trade, migration and drugs, which in recent months were overshadowed by the war in Afghanistan.
But critics say the real reason behind Bush's possible visits to the region is U.S. concern for Latin America's rapidly deteriorating conditions, and an effort to respond to criticism that his administration's hands-off attitude precipitated among other things Argentina's default on its $132 billion foreign debt.
IMPACT OF DEFAULT
``More than commitment to Latin America, these trips would show concern about the dramatic impact that Argentina's default will have,'' says Eduardo Gamarra, director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center. ``They are trying to do some cleaning up after the collapse.''
The Bush administration failed to offer a financial life-saver
to Argentina late last year, when it was clear that the country was heading
toward a financial debacle. By
comparison, the Clinton administration had bailed out Mexico when that country was on the verge of financial collapse in 1995, critics say.