The Dallas Morning News
Monday, November 22, 2004

U.S. role in Latin America debated

Potential problem areas include trade, regional influence, war in Iraq

By G. ROBERT HILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News

SANTIAGO, Chile Not yet a month in office, President Bush looked south four years ago to Latin America and pronounced only "opportunities and potential" ahead.

"Some look south and see problems. Not me," he had said, previewing his Latin American policy before the first foreign trip of his presidency, to Mexico.

On Sunday night at a joint news conference with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, Mr. Bush faced tough questions from Chilean reporters who saw problems, not potential, for the United States in the region.

China is investing heavily in Latin America, one reporter noted, wondering whether Mr. Bush planned any changes in his second term "so you don't lose your influence in this region."

And another reporter, noting that Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq has "left many dead" and led to "enormous protests all over the world," asked how the president planned to change "this negative image of the White House."

Pressing head, Mr. Bush declared bluntly that he just disagrees with his critics on the war with Iraq and pledged again to "stay the course ... and complete the task."

And China?

"I, frankly, don't view trade China's actions and the actions of the United States as zero sum," he said. "I view it as a positive development."

Throughout the region, Mr. Bush said, the "surest path to prosperity is through free and fair trade." And he praised the new free trade agreement between the United States and Chile as a model for other countries.

Influence of 9-11

Still, analysts agree, much of Latin America feels neglected, if not abandoned, by the Bush administration since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks three years ago.

"There's no question that 9-11 changed the agenda priorities for the White House and particularly pushed Latin America very far down," said Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Like many countries in Europe and around the world Mr. Hakim said, "There is sort of a distaste for the style of the Bush administration ... the unilateralism, the with-us-or-against-us, the absolute certainty that the U.S. is right in its convictions."

Mr. Bush stopped in Colombia for a few hours Monday on his way home to Texas after a meeting with Asia-Pacific leaders in Santiago. It was the 41st country that he has visited during his first term, but only his third in South America, in addition to Chile and Peru.

He's been to Mexico four times and to El Salvador once for a meeting of Central American leaders. But most of his travel has been in Europe, the Far East and Africa.

In Cartagena on Monday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe saluted Mr. Bush for his brief visit, describing it as a "clear indication of a renewed interest" in the region.

"Latin America needs social cohesion, good governance and trust in integration," Mr. Uribe said.

Throughout the region, though, there are large pockets of economic turmoil verging on chaos in Venezuela that are leading to ever more frustration, much of it directed at the United States.

Corruption still runs rampant, and foreign debt piles up in many countries in Central and South America, which analysts say the Bush administration has largely ignored.

And Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, predicted "the situation is going to get worse" in a second Bush term.

"It's not just the policies," he said, "but the arrogance of the policies."

For Mr. Bush, trade in the Americas remains near the top of his second-term agenda for the region. And as he reiterated during his weekend visit to Chile, he remains determined to foster democracy in the region; fight terrorism, wherever it might be; and crack down on criminal drug trafficking.

He had come to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which rotates among its 21 members, and had added an "official visit" with the Chilean president.

Friction over war

Mr. Lagos had opposed Mr. Bush's decision to go war with Iraq. But Mr. Bush said Sunday that he respected Mr. Lagos' position and "he's still my friend."

Mr. Bush also praised Chile for sending 600 troops to Haiti and for its other peacekeeping efforts in Cyprus, Bosnia and East Timor.

"These are the actions of an ally of the United States, a good citizen of Latin America and a friend of liberty," Mr. Bush said.

Clearly, it was a message that Mr. Bush intended for the region.

And the setting for his news conference with Mr. Lagos the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda clearly bolstered Mr. Bush's message.

It was in that same palace 31 years ago that the elected president, Salvador Allende, died in a U.S.-supported military coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who then engaged in 17 years of strongman rule.

Today, Mr. Lagos pointed to a strong Chilean economy, fostered by the new free trade accord.

Trade "equals more and better jobs," he said. "More and better jobs consolidate a democracy."

A limited focus

There may well be a solid success story in the making in Chile, analysts agreed, but they forecast few other Bush successes in the region during his second term.

Their consensus was that the president, to the extent he might heavily focus on Latin America, would concentrate on immigration and border security issues with Mexico and keep pressuring the communist regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

"I don't see how that can change very much," Mr. Hakim said. "The amount of resources being pushed into the Middle East, the fact that you have 150,000, 140,000 troops in Iraq ... uses up all the foreign policy oxygen in the atmosphere.

"There's no room in the newspapers. There's no room in Cabinet meetings for other foreign policy issues," he concluded, "or if there is room, it's very, very small."