Bush heads south to a troubled continent
President, on first trip to South America, will push free trade, democratic reforms.
By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON - If George Bush's idea of presidential travel were to hit the
trouble spots, he'd be using his first trip to South America this
weekend to visit Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina.
On his first official visit to South America, the president will be stopping
in Mexico, Peru, and El Salvador, three countries with positive
prospects. However, as the deadly bombing Wednesday in Peru shows, it's a region with a shrinking pool of positives to draw from.
Although the region hasn't had the same priority that Wasington promised
prior to Sept. 11, President Bush's trip is meant to encourage
Latin America to stick to free-trade reforms and with the tough transition to democracy.
There are no head-of-the-class leaders to crow about, but at least Mexico is showing signs of moving forward under NAFTA.
Peru – though shaken by Wednesday's bomb that conjured up fears of a revival
of Marxist-guerrilla terrorism – last year elected a president
freely and fairly after years of "authoritarian democracy" under former President Alberto Fujimori. And El Salvador is celebrating a decade
free of civil war.
That's better than Colombia – where substantial US military aid may soon
be freed up to hit ever-stronger insurgent groups. Also in dire
straits is Venezuela, whose economy continues to sink under the weight of building antagonisms between lefty-populist President Hugo
Chavez and a furious middle class. Argentina, too, is struggling to rebuild a shattered financial system and moribund economy under new
President Eduardo Duhalde (who wasn't elected by popular vote).
In short, Latin America is in trouble. The suspected terrorist bombing
in Lima, Peru – where Bush will spend Saturday with Peruvian
President Alejandro Toledo and then the presidents of other Andean countries, discussing trade and drug trafficking – served as a reminder
of just how fragile is the progress in the US's southern neighborhood.
Important trading partners
Noting recently that Latin America is the fastest-growing US export market,
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs,
Otto Reich, added, "ours is also a troubled region ... experiencing the consequences of poor governance and incomplete reforms."
Despite the Bush trip, it is clear that, in the post 9/11-world ,the region won't be the focus for Washington that it was once supposed to be.
"This is an attempt to show the US recognizes expectations were raised
and is not going to let events force it to forget southern neighbors,"
says Michael Shifter, analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But the reality is that, with the war on terrorism and the
Middle East, this is not going to boost Latin America to the top of the agenda."
Challenges to reform
Most troubling to the US are the signs across the region of reform fatigue.
A decade ago, Latin America threw off the deep ideological divisions –
the swings from populism to military governments and back – and
state-run economies that divided and limited it. The US cheered the change.
But today, Latin popula- tions are feeling growing frustrations with the
way the tough political and economic reforms have worked out.
Poverty and unemployment remain high, while democratically elected governments demonstrate little ability to reduce corruption and
inefficiencies to improve people's lives.
As Mr. Reich says, this is "a region in which many citizens and some leaders
are beginning to question the wisdom of the political and
economic reforms on which they have embarked."
Bush wants to use his trip to say that sticking to reforms and free-market
economies, rather than backsliding, can raise the region's boats.
That's one reason he's singled out El Salvador, observers say. It's now a stable country that is trying new ideas, such as dollarization of the
currency and regional economic integration, to get ahead.
New free-trade zone
While in El Salvador, Bush will meet with neighboring presidents to discuss
his plan for a free-trade area between the US and Central
But that kind of proposal, some experts worry, could create a split hemisphere,
where the US favors those countries economically and
politically prepared to hop aboard the free-trade train.
"US policy risks creating a two-tiered Americas," says Eduardo Gamarra,
director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida
International University in Miami. "One will have special arrangements with the US, and the rest of the region will struggle through."
An example of how that policy will play out is the "tough love" approach the US is employing toward an Argentina in crisis.
"The US is saying to its southern neighbors: 'No more bail-outs,' " says
Mr. Gamarra. You have hard economic decisions to make before
there's help, he adds. Leaders of the hemisphere's 34 democracies have agreed to pursue a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005. But
Mr. Gamarra says that goal could be postponed, with the US focusing on relations with Mexico and pursuing other bilateral or regional trade
accords in the interim.