As Latin America simmers, Bush says U.S. to renew focus
President's free-trade proposal heads agenda for region
By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – President Bush promised Wednesday to reconnect with worried
neighbors after four months of focusing almost his entire foreign policy agenda on fighting terrorism.
In an address before members of the Organization of American States,
Mr. Bush outlined an agenda
for the region that called for a free trade agreement with countries of Central America, promoting
greater security and defending free-market policies, even though skepticism over those policies is
spreading as Argentina falters.
"We meet at a time when some are questioning the path to prosperity,"
Mr. Bush said. "Our answer
to these questions and doubts must be clear, and it must be consistent. The hopes of all our peoples,
everybody who lives in this hemisphere, no matter where they live, lie in greater freedom. Free
markets and open trade are the best weapon against poverty, disease and tyranny."
Mr. Bush also renewed his call for a Free Trade Area of the Americas,
saying he's "determined to
complete those negotiations by January 2005."
The proposed pact, which remains in the planning stages, is designed
to extend the benefits of the
North American Free Trade Agreement throughout the continent.
Mr. Bush renewed a call to Congress to grant him fast-track trade authority,
the power to negotiate
trade pacts without Congress changing the rules.
His speech was aimed at refocusing on what some Latin American diplomats
have called a region
Argentina is reeling from its worst economic crisis in decades, sparking
riots, dozens of deaths and the
seating of five presidents since December. Venezuela has moved sharply to the left, reigniting rumors
of a pending coup and a fight for power. Colombia barely pulled back from the brink of a bloodier
civil war but remains tense and is the longtime hotbed of drug production in the continent. Meanwhile,
much of Central America is stuck in poverty, corruption and an uphill experiment in democracy.
And in Mexico, after one year as president, Vicente Fox has seen his
popularity ratings slip from the
high 80s to the mid-40s in percentage points as the U.S. economic slowdown continues to force
thousands of Mexican workers into the United States. "What else needs to happen before the United
States starts paying attention to the region," said Ana Maria Salazar, an expert on Latin America at
the Mexico City-based Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a former State
Department and Pentagon official during the Clinton administration.
Interviewed before Mr. Bush's speech, Ms. Salazar added: "Do we need
a meteorite to hit the
continent before we pay attention? Do we need the Chinese to invade? Any one of these countries
are powder kegs that can explode at any moment."
And one diplomat said, on the condition of anonymity, "Latin America
has been eagerly waiting for
Washington to wake up. This is the wake-up call."
Referring to the region's most immediate crisis, Mr. Bush said the United
States is prepared to help
Argentina "weather this storm. Once Argentina has committed to a sound and sustainable economic
plan, we will support assistance for Argentina through international financial institutions."
Mr. Bush also referred to what he called "smart borders," an effort
by the United States, Canada and
Mexico to "ensure safety for ordinary people and trade but filter out terror and drugs."
He reiterated the United States' resolve in "cutting off the supply
of drugs" and in "reducing the
demand for drugs in our country."
During and after his presidential campaign, Mr. Bush repeatedly said
that this would be the "century of
the Americas," acknowledging the continent of more than 500 million people who many say have long
been ignored by Washington. Initially in his administration, Mr. Bush shook things up, breaking with
tradition by visiting Mexico instead of Canada on his first trip abroad.
All that, however, was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when
the focus of Mr. Bush's foreign
policy turned almost entirely to Asia, where U.S. forces continue to fight terrorism. Ms. Salazar
described the Bush administration's Latin American policy as "relatively uneventful."
"Part has to do with being focused in another part of the world, part
of it is the administration still
doesn't understand how serious the events are [that are] unfolding in Latin America, including
Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina."