Jorge G. Castañeda
There Goes the Neighborhood
July 16, 2007 issue - The last week of June was probably the Bush administration's worst period ever in terms of Latin America policy. Its nemeses in the hemisphere—Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and perhaps soon Guatemala's Alvaro Colón and even Argentina's Néstor Kirchner—form an increasingly cohesive coalition and are reaching out to rogues on other continents. After neglecting Latin America for five years, Washington's influence is at a low point. And its new rival, Russia, is gaining ground.
George W. Bush's troubles begin with immigration. When his reform plan recently collapsed, with little prospect of revival before mid-2009, the response from down South was immediate: Mexico and the countries of Central America issued a strong statement blasting the U.S. Senate for rejecting the bill. Many Latin American countries see immigration as a fundamental foreign-policy issue.
What Latin Americans are likely to get next is the worst of all worlds: all the enforcement and border-security mechanisms proposed in the reform legislation with none of its sweeteners, such as legalization programs for unauthorized workers and visas for temporary ones. What will this mean? The number of deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border for the first half of 2007 was 256, more than any year since 1998 and a clear indicator of what's to come. Crossings will become more expensive and more dangerous, but probably not more scarce.
Bush also got bad news on another issue: the status of a pending free-trade deal with Colombia. Despite persistent lobbying by President Alvaro Uribe and the striking of a deal with the Democratic Congress over renewed financing for Plan Colombia, the controversial drug-enforcement and counterinsurgency package in place since 1999, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ways and Means Committee chairman Charles Rangel announced on June 29 that they would block the trade deal due to human rights, trade and strategic concerns. Uribe—Washington's closest ally in Latin America, as he recently called himself—was outraged.
At the same time, the leader of Latin America's other faction was courting new friends. Chávez, angry at his Mercosur colleagues for not backing him in his conflict with Venezuela's independent RCTV network, ditched their Paraguay summit two weeks ago and headed to Russia, Belarus and Iran instead, where he got a warm welcome. In Moscow, Chávez got promises to invest in Venezuelan gas and oilfields from Russian firms like Gazprom.
Most worrying, Chávez also closed a number of arms deals in Russia, including the purchase of five or six submarines, one of which is top-of-the-line; a large number of multipurpose helicopters; more fighter planes, and the construction of a Kalashnikov plant in Maracay. Chávez has declared his intention to use the plant to "arm every Venezuelan patriot." The factory, of course, will only supplement the 100,000 AK-47s he purchased from Vladimir Putin last year, many of which have now arrived in Venezuela.
There are many possible explanations for the new closeness between Venezuela and Russia. The first is that ever since the failed military coup against him in April 2002, which Washington supported, Chávez has been trying to break all links between his Army and the United States. This means finding new sources of training, weapons and communication equipment. Chávez tried but failed to get Spain to fill this role last year (thanks in part to U.S. technology-transfer restrictions) but Russia has now happily stepped in. Moscow is an appealing partner be-cause it places few if any restrictions on its sales. Should Chávez choose to lend, rent or give his new friends in the region some high-tech goodies, Putin is unlikely to object.
Where does all this leave Washington? Isolated and weakened. There's now a power vacuum in the hemisphere that Castro and Chávez are more than willing to fill. And more and more Latin Americans are receptive to their gestures. For example, several hundred elderly Mexicans recently traveled to Caracas for free cataract surgery, provided by Cuban-trained Venezuelan eye surgeons or by the Cubans themselves. In these and other ways, Chávez and Castro are taking advantage of Bush's absence to strengthen their influence in the region. As Nicaragua's Ortega put it to Mexican President Felipe Calderón when he heard of the failure of immigration reform, "You see, Mexico should look south; it's useless to seek solutions from the north." Most Latin leaders would still disagree, if south stands for Fidel, Hugo and Evo. But they are finding it harder to counter the argument.