So far, he has said little about the region - but some experts think his administration would stay the current course on most issues.
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER
While President Bush's supporters portray presumptive Democratic candidate John Kerry as a liberal who would be soft on leftist autocrats in Latin America, there are growing signs that a Kerry administration would not mark a major departure from current U.S. policies in the region.
In general, Kerry's Latin American advisors are mainstream former diplomats who served in the Clinton administration, and whose policies have been largely continued by the Bush administration. And Kerry's voting record during his two decades in the Senate covers a wide range of positions.
So far, Kerry has said little on Latin America. Perhaps to woo voters in Florida, he has recently criticized Cuban President Fidel Castro, asked for greater international pressure on President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to allow a referendum on his rule and criticized the U.S.-assisted ouster of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In what may become Kerry's main charge against Bush's handling of hemispheric affairs, Kerry campaign aides say there has been a dangerous erosion of democracy in Latin America over the past three years, which they attribute to U.S. neglect and bad crisis management.
In his first major interview on Latin American affairs, Kerry's top foreign policy chief, Randy Beers, said a Kerry presidency would pay more attention to Latin America. He said the Bush administration's interest in the region ''collapsed'' on Sept. 11, 2001.
Beers, a former senior State Department drugs and terrorism chief who resigned last year over his opposition to the Iraq war, said that the main difference between Kerry and Bush is that ``we mean to emphasize the principles of democracy as the bedrock of American policy in this hemisphere.''
Kerry aides charge that Bush turned the clock back on the defense of democracy by failing to support Aristide during a recent armed insurgency, and by wavering during a civilian military coup in Venezuela in 2002.
The Kerry camp contends that Aristide, despite all his flaws, was a democratically elected president. In a March 19 statement, Kerry said, ``Having just allowed the democratically elected leader to be cast aside in Haiti, they [the Bush administration] should make a strong statement now by leading the effort to preserve the fragile democracy in Venezuela.''
Unlike Bush, who speaks some Spanish and often dealt with Mexico as Texas governor, Kerry doesn't speak Spanish and has only traveled twice to Latin America. He visited Nicaragua in 1985 as part of a Senate fact-finding mission on the Central American wars, and Brazil in 1992 for the United Nations Earth Summit. ''He doesn't have any background in our region,'' says Emilio Gonzalez, a Bush campaign advisor who served in the White House until last year. ``He has traditional democratic leftist tendencies toward our region, and would welcome improved relations with Cuba.''
But Kerry aides say their candidate has been deeply involved in Latin America during his period on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
''These are not new issues to him,'' Beers said.
AT CONTRA HEARINGS
Kerry's main exposure to Latin America came during the Central American wars of the 1980s, when he was an active supporter of inquiries into the Reagan administration's misuse of funds to help the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. Kerry also was a leading Senate investigator in the drug inquiry into former Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega, and was a strong Senate critic of drug money contributions to former Colombian President Ernesto Samper.
Kerry has much more exposure to Latin America than Clinton had when he was first elected, Democratic campaign aides say.
Kerry has had a mixed voting record on Latin America. On Cuba, Kerry voted twice in 1995 for the Helms-Burton law that punishes foreign companies that trade with confiscated U.S. properties on the island, but voted against it in the final passage in 1996.
Kerry's website says the latter decision was based on the fact that House Republicans had insisted on ''an unworkable lawsuit provision that would clog our courts and prevent claims to be settled.'' Bush campaign spokeswoman Sharon Castillo charges that Kerry ``has flop-flopped on Cuban issues.''
Kerry has said in recent months that he supports the current trade embargo on the island. His website stresses the need for greater international pressure on Cuba, and says that he ``would support multilateral economic sanctions targeted at the Castro regime if diplomatic efforts fail.''
Some Latin American experts close to the Kerry campaign say they favor greater people-to-people exchanges with Cuba to promote democratic ideas on the island. Such exchanges have expanded quietly under the Bush administration, although not in the context of an articulated policy.
On free trade, Kerry voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, but did not cast a vote on the U.S. free trade agreement with Chile last year. Kerry aides say the senator was out campaigning the day of the vote, and that he issued a statement at the time saying that he supported the U.S.-Chile agreement, while stating some misgivings about the lack of better labor and environmental standards.
While Kerry enjoys significant support in Latin America, where polls show a massive rejection of Bush following the war with Iraq, many in the region are worried over the likely Democratic candidate's trade policy.
''I remember him with great sympathy, but I'm very concerned over this semi-protectionist rhetoric,'' says former Costa Rica president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, who met frequently with Kerry during the Central American conflict. ``Our biggest hope is to get preferential access to the U.S. market.''
Most U.S. foreign policy watchers agree that Kerry's advisors on Latin American issues would most likely stay the course on most regional issues.
Beers, for instance, was one of the architects of the anti-drug ''Plan Colombia,'' where the U.S. provides massive military aid to help fight drug traffickers and their leftist guerrilla supporters in that country. Except for perhaps a more vocal insistence on Colombia's respect for human rights in the fight against leftist guerrillas and paramilitary groups, few expect there would be a U.S. pullout from ''Plan Colombia'' under a Kerry administration.
''We would certainly want to ensure that the human rights issues are addressed,'' Beers said. ``That has been an issue and should be discussed as part of the regular dialogue.''
Some Kerry supporters say that, because of Bush's low ratings in the region, a Kerry administration would make it easier for the United States to make friends in the region, and apply multilateral pressure on people such as Castro or Chávez.
''There would be a presumption that Latin American issues are dealt with in a truly multilateral way,'' said former Clinton White House Latin American advisor Arturo Valenzuela, who has close ties to the Kerry campaign.
But most Kerry campaign aides agree that their candidate's main message on Latin American affairs will be that the region's democracy is in danger because of the Bush administration's alleged inattention and clumsy crisis management.
''If you don't attend [to] issues, if you leave processes to drift because
your attention is elsewhere and you don't devote the time and effort necessary,
it has consequences,'' Beers said. ``The United States has an enormous
effect on the hemisphere when it doesn't do anything, as much as when it
does something. The [Bush] administration's inattention to this hemisphere
has had consequences.''