Mending Fences South of the BorderBy Jorge G. CastañedaSaturday, January 21, 2006; A19At the inauguration tomorrow of Evo Morales as Bolivia’s new president, the United States — which has a significant military and aid presence in that country — will be represented by a deputy assistant secretary of state. This is just further evidence — if any was needed — that U.S. relations with Latin America are in utter disrepair. Rarely over the past half-century has the chasm in perceptions been so wide, the resentments and mistrust so deep. True, there was Cuba in the 1960s, but most governments in the region sided with Washington then. And, yes, there were Central America and the contras during the 1980s, but this was as much a U.S. domestic issue as a hemispheric one.Today practically every nation seems to have some point of friction. Brazil is at odds with Washington on trade policy, especially anti-dumping and agricultural subsidies; on its wish to occupy a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council; and on Iraq. Argentina rails at President Bush’s support for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), criticizes U.S. economic policy recommendations, and may advise Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez on nuclear energy. The newly elected Morales wants to remove the penalties for coca-leaf cultivation — and expand it. President Vicente Fox in Mexico has been left high and dry by George Bush: Instead of an immigration agreement that would have addressed the most important issue on the bilateral agenda and an increasingly intractable U.S. domestic problem, Fox now has to deal with a hateful proposal to build a wall on the border, criminalize unauthorized emigration to the United States and punish any association with it. Bush didn’t push for an agreement when he could have; now he supports a bill that is offensive to everyone in the region.And then, of course, there is Venezuela. Chavez is not only leading the fight against the FTAA (which was going nowhere anyway) and making life increasingly miserable for foreign — above all, American — companies in Venezuela. He is also supporting various left-wing groups or leaders in neighboring nations and has established a strategic alliance with Havana. Most important, he is attempting, with some success, to split the hemisphere in two: for or against Chavez, for or against the United States. Whenever this happens, everyone loses.At this stage it is immaterial whether this reflects a shift to the left in Latin America — a change that is justified by the meager results of economic and social policies of the past two decades — or is simply a bout of the kind of baseless anti-Americanism that the region engages in every so often. The main question is what to do about it, given that George W. Bush has three years to go in his second term and that current Latin electoral trends are likely to be further confirmed in the year just beginning.One possibility might be a variation on a traditional U.S. instrument that has enjoyed some success in the past. Following on such past initiatives as John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, the Rockefeller Report on U.S.-Latin American Relations in the mid-1960s and the Kissinger commission on Central America created by Ronald Reagan, President Bush could appoint a blue-ribbon, bipartisan commission co-chaired by his father and Bill Clinton, both well regarded and respected in Latin America. It could include members of Congress and the media, academics, business people and the Catholic Church, and ideally it would have a mandate to report to the executive by the second half of 2006 with specific proposals for rebuilding U.S.-Latin American ties.But instead of being purely American, this commission would invite, as full-fledged members with equal standing, several exceptional Latin Americans. Some possible candidates: former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and, by March, Ricardo Lagos of Chile. All were successful, admired leaders, with a broad hemispheric vision, and while none were ever subservient to the United States, neither did they go out of their way to pick fights with that country. The Latin members could also include business leaders, public intellectuals and social activists.Such a commission should be grounded in reality: no gimmicks, quick fixes or hare-brained schemes. And its members would not presume to represent country or region; they would be there to represent their convictions, their experience and their prestige.The commission would obviously not solve all the problems mentioned above, and the many more omitted here. Its conclusions would not — could not — be binding. But they would carry enormous weight, both in the United States and Latin America. This idea is not a panacea; many of the problems have no immediate solutions. But the commission could provide a place where disagreements could at least be discussed and where agreements could be built on and transformed into policy. It seems worth a try.The writer was foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003. He is now global distinguished professor of Latin American studies and international affairs at New York University.