Diplomat: U.S. faces test in Latin America
BY JANE BUSSEY
The State Department's top diplomat for Latin America said Tuesday that Washington is interested in avoiding conflict with the region and instead favors partnership and patience to strengthen relations.
''We do not need to be walking through the Americas looking for additional confrontation, and we're not,'' Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. said in a speech in Coral Gables.
Shannon repeatedly stressed the profound political and economic changes that have occurred in Latin America as he outlined the Bush administration's recent initiatives.
''This is a very, very competitive environment,'' Shannon told a well-attended meeting organized by the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy.
As new democracies, many Latin America nations have redefined their national interests and established ties with Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, he said.
''We are no longer the only option for these countries,'' said Shannon.
Despite criticism about lack of interest in Latin America, Shannon said the Bush administration has been very engaged in regional issues and is trying to establish programs such as the proposed Mérida initiative to extend $1.4 billion in aid to Mexico and Central America over the next three years to fight drug traffickers.
Shannon said the administration has advanced the free trade agenda in the region and called on Congress to approve the trade treaty with Colombia, which has been put in the deep freeze by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The string of treaties with small countries in Central and South America is significant, Shannon said.
''Although it is not the Free Trade Area of the Americas, it is pretty close,'' he told the audience.
Although Shannon didn't talk about leaders in Cuba or Venezuela in his speech, he did say the United States needs to avoid falling victim to the ''diplomacy of rupture'' -- an apparent reference to the anti-Washington rhetoric of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
The career diplomat, however, did answer questions about both nations.
Shannon ruled out talks with the government of Cuba's Raúl Castro, noting a relationship with the United States was not ``the defining factor in Cuba's future.''
''We are not going to commit ourselves, at least in this administration, until we have seen bigger changes,'' Shannon said.
Answering a question about Venezuela, he said, ''President Chávez did an important thing'' by calling on the Colombian guerrillas to halt their armed struggle and release their hostages, Shannon said.
The important question, he said, is what Venezuela does next about the relationship between some members of the Venezuelan government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.
Will Venezuela use those relations ''to get the FARC to come in out
of the cold or to conspire against democratic neighbors?'' Shannon asked.