The Forgotten Relationship

Free from the strategic and ideological rigidities of the Cold War, Latin America in the mid-1990s looked forward to a more realistic and constructive relationship with the United States. The first Summit of the Americas in 1994, which launched negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), symbolized the renewal of goodwill and cooperation in the region. The summit led to a series of hemisphere-wide meetings at various levels throughout the 1990s that offered a new model for political relations between the United States and Latin America (most notably the Williamsburg and Bariloche defense ministerial meetings). This new diplomacy for the first time presumed to treat all the region’s nations (with the exception of Cuba) as equals. The summitry also sent a powerful message throughout the hemisphere by implicitly stating that the success of the entire endeavor depended on the coordinated progress of all nations in the Americas.A sign of the times was the lessened rhetorical confrontation between most Latin American nations and their powerful northern neighbor. Some unilateral U.S. policies-such as the process of "certifying" countries’ cooperation with the U.S. drug war or the Helms-Burton legislation, which placed sanctions on any country that traded with Cuba-faced firm regional opposition. But Latin American countries felt increasingly more at ease when discussing certain issues with Washington that in the past had been highly controversial, such as democracy and human rights promotion or combating corruption. A consensus developed, stronger than at any time in the past half-century, on what constituted a common agenda for hemispheric relations and how to address it.By the end of the last decade, however, the progress seemed to wind down. And the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington sounded the death knell of what could have become the new Bush administration’s more forward-looking, engaged, and enlightened policy toward the rest of the hemisphere. The resulting post-September 11 picture is not pretty from a Latin American point of view, although there is certainly no lack of understanding or even support throughout the Americas for the U.S. fight against terrorism. But the United States has replaced its previous, more visionary approach to relations in the western hemisphere with a total focus on security matters. This disengagement is dangerous because it undermines the progress made in recent years on economic reform and democratization. Rarely in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations have both the challenges and the opportunities for the United States been so great. It is certainly not a time for indifference.ROLLBACKThe events of September 11 preempted the Bush administration’s initial plans to employ a more open approach within the western hemisphere. Indeed, security and counterterrorism concerns quickly, and perhaps understandably at first, overshadowed any other issue. For example, one immediate casualty of the emphasis on homeland security was the initiative to create a comprehensive and long-term solution to the problem of migration flows from Mexico to the United States. Other setbacks swiftly followed. By early 2002, the Bush administration had broadened the Plan Colombia antidrug initiative to include direct anti-insurgency efforts. This decision was motivated both by a sense that any area plagued by armed instability was a potential host for terrorism and by the collapse of the Colombian peace process. The international antiterrorist campaign further led to a disengagement from the economic troubles brewing in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. In particular, the U.S. Treasury Department’s inaction turned the tragedy of Argentina’s financial collapse into a painful lesson in international laissez-faire. In Venezuela, moreover, social polarization, political instability, and growing anti-American sentiment were largely ignored at the policymaking level, even if intellectual concern in Washington among officials and think tanks was acute and increasing. But perhaps more than these country-specific crises, the main reason to worry about the redirection of U.S. attention lay in the broader patterns emerging in Latin America. First and foremost was the lack of tangible results from years of economic reform. By the turn of the new century, it had become quite clear that the structural changes implemented in virtually every Latin American economy over the past two decades had not brought about the desired results. Growth rates remained far below expectations or even previous achievements. Even Chile, for many years the only showcase of successful economic reform, had run out of steam, averaging barely three percent growth between 1999 and 2002. This situation not only discredited the reforms themselves but invited the advent of alternatives, some of which inevitably are "anti-neoliberal."The disappointing results, moreover, brought into question the other great regional achievement of recent times: the broad and deep consolidation of democratic rule throughout the hemisphere. Those who became familiar at the same time with open economies and open societies channeled, perhaps unavoidably, their frustrations about weak economic performance into anger at the political process. People increasingly blamed democracy for economic stagnation, or at least for failing to deliver economic growth. Consequently, governance began to falter: democratic regimes with nothing to show for their efforts found themselves increasingly impotent and isolated, blamed for everything from the impact of unpredictable weather to international economic trends to crime and corruption. The dwindling enthusiasm for economic reform and representative democracy was revealed in poll after poll and in one election after another. And, as a result, the region today faces an increasingly unpredictable future.U.S.-Latin American relations are also mired in uncertainty. In the post-September 11 world, Latin America finds itself consigned to the periphery: it is not a global power center, but nor are its difficulties so immense as to warrant immediate U.S. concern. In many ways, the region, at least in terms of U.S. attention, has become once again an Atlantis, a lost continent. Perplexing bureaucratic conundrums-for instance, the lengthy absence of a permanent U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs-and new agency priorities have left many Latin American capitals in a diplomatic vacuum. This situation has developed despite Secretary of State Colin Powell’s and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s excellent and perhaps unprecedented personal relationships with many of their colleagues in the region. On top of it all, Latin American leaders and diplomats have a nagging feeling that whenever they point out the obvious lack of U.S. attention to regional problems or bilateral agendas, their views are received in Washington with impatience and even irritation.Indeed, as the post-September 11 world grows increasingly complex, the western hemisphere still reveals a relatively simple pattern: the reassertion of U.S. hegemony. The central question thus becomes whether the United States is willing to work with Latin America to achieve a durable framework for regional relations and how it would accomplish this. The United States can be a positive influence in the hemisphere and it can, more than ever, contribute to the successful resolution of the region’s challenges.UNQUIET QUARTETTo better understand the challenges-and the opportunities-of Latin America today, one ought to focus on four countries: Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela. Their problems have diverse sources but all would benefit from vigorous U.S. engagement.Dealing with Mexico is in many ways the most important regional task facing the Bush administration. The matter can be summed up simply: President Vicente Fox’s consolidation of Mexico’s first democratic transfer of power must be-and be seen to be-a success. There is nothing more important to the United States than a stable Mexico, and today a stable Mexico means a democratic one. And the United States has a huge role in making Mexico’s transition to democracy a success, or in contributing to its failure. The success or failure of this experiment will be judged in Mexico ultimately in the light of the country’s economic performance-which has not been impressive these past two years. But Mexicans will also judge the state of their country’s relations with the United States. They will look to see whether Presidents Fox and Bush deliver on the ambitious bilateral agenda they sketched out at their historic February 2001 meeting at Fox’s ranch in Guanajuato, Mexico. On issues of trade, drug enforcement, the border, building a North American Economic Community, energy, and, most significant, immigration, the two countries set out a bold series of goals to meet by the end of Bush’s first term, if not sooner.Indeed, in the first eight months of their respective presidencies, Bush and Fox achieved a fundamental breakthrough on immigration. By the time of the Guanajuato meeting, both sides had identified the core policies needed to tackle undocumented migration flows from Mexico to the United States: an expanded temporary-worker program; increased transition of undocumented Mexicans already in the United States to legal status; a higher U.S. visa quota for Mexicans; enhanced border security and stronger action against migrant traffickers; and more investment in those regions of Mexico that supplied the most migrants. The speed with which both governments carried out these negotiations certainly captured the political imagination of both societies. Fox’s resounding state visit to Washington on the eve of the September 11 terrorist attacks further lifted the new initiatives and underscored both leaders’ commitment to them.But the symmetry ends there: Fox staked much more on this partnership than Bush did. And since the Mexican president has little to show for his gamble, he has paid a high domestic political price for his willingness to bring about a sea change in Mexico’s relations with the United States and the rest of the world. Indeed, this change has been on the order of what President Carlos Salinas did with Mexico’s economy or what President Ernesto Zedillo did with the nation’s political system. Hence the centrality of immigration in the bilateral relationship today: both Bush and Fox stated dramatic goals and raised expectations enormously. The United States understandably was forced to put the issue on hold for a time. But what was initially portrayed as a brief interlude will now probably stretch through Bush’s entire first term. It will be almost impossible to point to success in the bilateral relationship without a deal on immigration. And unless there is such a breakthrough, Fox’s six-year term in office, nearly half over, may well be seen in Mexico as an exercise in high expectations but disappointing results. To avoid a breakdown in relations, Bush must make a state visit to Mexico City this year. He should take with him sufficient progress on key issues-immigration; trade concerns relating to sugar, tuna, trucking, and the North American Free Trade Agreement’s agricultural chapter; and funding for heightened security and the expedited passage of people and cargo at the border-to show that Mexico remains a top priority for his administration. Bush must also show that he is willing to spend political capital to ensure the success of Fox’s push for true Mexican democracy. Washington may have so far missed an opportunity to present its relationship with Mexico City as a model for the rest of the hemisphere and, indeed, for the rest of the developing world-an example of how a rich and powerful neighbor and a still relatively poor and weak one can get along and contribute to each other’s success. But the window of opportunity has not been shut. In the aftermath of the current conflict with Iraq, the United States would benefit hugely by demonstrating that it can construct alliances beyond its traditional circle of friends.Colombia is almost as important as Mexico to the United States because of the U.S. stake in that country’s fight against drug traffickers and insurgents. The problems inherent in such a conflict are manifest. The downing of a U.S.-manned intelligence flight in mid-February close to territory controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) was a tragedy waiting to happen. Indeed, rather than being an isolated event, it seems to be a deliberate escalation of FARC’s war against the administration of President Alvaro Uribe and the United States. The apparent kidnapping of three U.S. intelligence officials, in the context of deadly bombings in several Colombian cities, underscores the nature of the U.S. and Colombian dilemma. On the one hand, the peace process and the "all-talk, no-fight" policy pursued by former President Andrés Pastrana ended in utter failure because of the guerrillas’ total unwillingness to negotiate. But the "all-fight, no-talk" strategy employed by Uribe has led to a predictable outcome: the FARC has unleashed a wave of terror and violence, identical to those loosed previously by the insurgents and the drug traffickers. The country, moreover, seems hardly willing to pay the price required for a military victory over the guerrillas or even for an offensive long and intense enough to force them to negotiate in good faith. Uribe’s choice is as illusory and one-sided as Pastrana’s, and U.S. support for it is equally

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