Powell: Latin America important to U.S.
BY TIM JOHNSON
LIMA, Peru -- In his first official visit to Latin America, Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives in Peru today bringing a message that the Bush administration does not hold the region in disregard -- despite what appears to be lax attention to troubling signs around the hemisphere.
The two-nation trip takes Powell to Lima for a meeting of the Organization of American States, then on to Colombia to review a massive U.S.-aided drug interdiction program.
Powell will get an earful of complaints that Washington is paying scant attention to problems that include a foreign debt crisis in Argentina, famine in Central America, rock-bottom prices for commodities, and polls showing a dramatic loss of faith in democracy around the region.
``The hemisphere is in a lot more trouble than [the administration] may realize, said Bernard Aronson, a former senior U.S. diplomat to Latin America who cited general regional disappointment ``over the lack of attention.
In his scheduled 16 hours in Peru and a little more than a day in Colombia, Powell will attempt to reverse the impression that Washington cares only about Mexico but no further south.
In nearly eight months on the job, Powell has toured Africa, sung for Asian foreign ministers at a dinner in Vietnam, and visited European capitals.
Crisis in the Middle East prompted him to cancel a scheduled trip
to Costa Rica in June. Apart from an informal trip with President Bush
to Guanajuato, Mexico, in
February, today's trip will be his first official visit to the region.
Latin American ambassadors in Washington complain that the Bush
administration has been slow to fill key policy posts on Latin America.
controversial nominee as the assistant secretary of state to the region, Cuban-born ambassador and lobbyist Otto Reich, has yet to be confirmed and is seen by critics as a right-wing ideologue.
A State Department diplomat briefing reporters on Powell's trip, William Brownfield, said one of Powell's objectives is to stress ``the overall importance of the Western Hemisphere to the administration of George Bush -- something that has been articulated frequently since the 20th of January of this year.
LITTLE TIME TO WORK
Powell will have only hours to do that in Peru, a nation that has endured a year of tumult. Last year, President Alberto Fujimori abandoned his job after breaking with Vladimiro Montesinos, the powerful head of the intelligence apparatus. Montesinos, who had close links with the CIA, is now imprisoned in Lima.
Fujimori lives in exile in Japan.
After a peaceful interim government, Peruvians elected Alejandro Toledo, an economist who assumed the presidency July 28.
Powell will ``draw attention to the fact that Peru is a country
whose government has successfully completed a very democratic transition,
said Brownfield, the deputy
assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Powell will join other foreign ministers in signing the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document that obliges the OAS to address subtle threats to democratic rule in the region. Peru proposed the charter to avoid a repeat of events of 1992, when Fujimori shut down Congress and launched a ``self-coup, while the OAS stood on the sidelines.
The only wild card in the OAS meeting comes from Venezuela and its populist president, Hugo Chávez, who once led a failed military coup and who quibbles with the organization's definition of ``representative democracy. Partly to address Venezuela's concerns, the proposed democracy charter has gone through more than a dozen revisions and modifications, news reports say.
Chávez's rise to power in 1999 signaled severe disaffection with traditional democracy in Venezuela -- and served as a harbinger of what polls say is a hemisphere-wide loss of faith in democracy as a governing system that improves people's lives in concrete ways.
While Powell plans a broad focus on what Washington calls the three Ds -- democracy, development and drugs -- foreign ministers from Andean countries will press him for continued relief from U.S. tariffs. They want the U.S. Congress to renew the 10-year-old Andean Trade Preference Act, a tariff-relief measure set to expire Dec. 4, and broaden it to include lower duties on textiles.
If Peru could receive lower U.S. textile duties, ``it would allow us to increase Peruvian textile exports to the United States from $350 million to $700 million a year, Foreign Minister Diego García-Sayán said in an interview, adding that the move would help pull Peru out of an economic slump and help employ people who otherwise might turn to the drug trade.
ADVICE TO REGION
A retired U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette, said the Andean nations should exhort the White House torenew the Andean tariff relief measure.
``Remember, broadening the [Andean Trade Preference Act] does very little damage to the U.S. economy, but the benefit in fighting drugs and strengthening democracies in the region . . . seems fundamental to me, Frechette said on a television program Friday.