Our Latin Conundrum

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, January 2, 2006

Here's a sad but safe new year's prediction: U.S. relations with Latin America, which plunged to their lowest point in decades in 2005, will get still worse in 2006.

The year ended with a string of reverses. In a regional summit in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in November, President Bush was jeered by demonstrators and taunted by Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who aspires to make Latin America anti-American and anti-democratic. He was seconded by Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, who in the past few weeks has moved from the hemisphere's camp of moderate democratic leftists toward Chavez's "revolutionary" embrace.

Then came the Chavez-backed victory in Bolivia of Evo Morales, a former llama herder and coca farmer who describes himself as Washington's "nightmare." Lacking any coherent policies of his own, Morales will probably take instruction from Chavez, Kirchner and Fidel Castro -- who at age 79 must believe he is finally seeing the emergence of the totalitarian bloc he and Che Guevara tried and failed to create in the 1960s.

Morales's victory sets the stage for a year in which leftist populists will be competing for power in elections across the region, including in Peru, Nicaragua and Mexico. All three are among the shrinking cadre of U.S. allies; outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox uniquely stood up to Chavez during and after Mar del Plata. By the end of this year a Morales imitator could be president of Peru, Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista movement could once again control Nicaragua, and Mexico could be led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a socialist who has never visited the United States.

There are other scenarios: Center-right candidates could still win in Mexico and Peru, and one might unseat Brazil's leftist president. But that's not what Bush administration officials are anticipating. "This is a wave that has not peaked," one recently told me.

Thanks to Mar del Plata, Bush is at least aware of the problem. On his return he ordered a high-level review of U.S. policy in the region. A subsequent meeting of senior officials from the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and other agencies generated a handful of new ideas. For example, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, who helped defuse a political crisis in Nicaragua in October, proposed an initiative to deepen U.S. engagement with countries in Central America as they implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Treasury spoke of working more closely with Brazil on its financial stability. There was talk of an energy initiative, perhaps in conjunction with Canada, to compete with Chavez's aggressive program of providing cheap oil to countries in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

There is still, however, no broader strategy for containing Chavez's political and economic offensive, which now includes a regional television network and an energy consortium. Some officials predict the appeal of the caudillo will fizzle and his support in Venezuela will collapse when he proves unable to deliver on the soaring expectations he has created. But Chavez will be cushioned by high oil prices for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, the positive steps the administration is planning are likely to be negated by the American policies that Latin Americans are most focused on: immigration and aid. In both cases the United States is preparing to punish its friends. Mexicans are outraged by the administration's support for tougher border controls and its failure to press reforms that would legalize guest workers. Salvadorans in the United States, including thousands in Washington, may lose their right to remain here and work under "temporary protection status"; sources tell me the administration has made a decision in principle not to renew it when it expires next fall.

Meanwhile, both Mexico and Chile may be excluded from U.S. aid programs this year because of their ratification of the treaty creating the International Criminal Court and their failure to sign bilateral treaties with Washington exempting U.S. citizens from it. A law mandating an aid cutoff in those circumstances provides for exemptions; Kirchner in Argentina inherited one. But administration ideologues have insisted on punishing friendly Latin nations that want to maintain a military alliance with the United States. Chile, which is purchasing U.S. F-16s, may not be able to get Pentagon training for its pilots if, as expected, it ratifies the treaty in the coming weeks.

All these developments may not matter much in the long run. Latin America poses no serious threat to U.S. security. Chavez and his populist followers will fail to create sustainable prosperity, as they have throughout Latin history. The same democracies that are giving leftists a chance to rule, if preserved, will oust them when they fail. In the short term, however, much of Latin America is going to be an unfriendly place for liberal ideas and free markets -- and with them the United States.

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