Getting Over Latin America's Apprehension with U.S. Actions

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, February 1, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- At a dinner gathering here over the weekend, a congressional staffer asked one of Venezuela's most respected opposition leaders what the United States could do to help the South American nation. His advice was simple -- do nothing.

The apprehension that inspires such a response has become all too familiar for those who watch Latin America-U.S. relations. Even those in Latin America who share U.S. goals and interests don't necessarily want help from Washington, particularly not the visible, in-your-face type.

In the case of Venezuela, doing something has already backfired. In 2002, Washington -- answering the pleas for assistance by previous opposition leaders in Venezuela -- sided with undemocratic forces in an attempt to oust President Hugo Chavez, a democratically elected leader with wide support among historically disenfranchised Venezuelans. The coup quickly fizzled and it became clear that regardless of Washington's concerns with Chavez's socialist agenda, supporting his overthrow didn't engender confidence among Latin Americans.

While the "do nothing" plea resonates in other parts of the hemisphere, the next U.S. president may in fact find it hard because of domestic considerations to craft an activist agenda for the region. That's because immigration and trade, two issues of great concern to nations south of the Rio Grande, are extremely controversial in the United States. A Zogby Interactive poll released last weekend found, for instance, that when asked what options respondents would prefer regarding U.S. policy toward the region, 36 percent favored halting immigration from Latin American countries. An even larger percentage (47) said the North American Free Trade Agreement was bad for the United States. Why, then, squander political capital on a broad strategy for the region?

What's more, "there is no urgency today" over Latin American policy, notes Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. The threats of communism, economic disaster or terrorism that inspired John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, George H.W. Bush's Brady Plan or George W. Bush's security initiative are just not present in 2008.

Besides, grand visions, especially like the one imagined by the younger Bush on security, can suffer when those who have the agenda imposed on them are either not in agreement with the goals or unimpressed with what inspired it. Reluctance and animosity fester.

When he was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs, Roger Noriega was often criticized for his heavy-handed and narrow ideological approach to the region. Yet in writing an analysis of the impact of the 2008 presidential elections on the Americas, Noriega too discourages a "vision thing," particularly when it is brought down from on high. Noriega suggests that the next U.S. president should commit to consulting southern neighbors before "delivering a vision for the region on stone tablets."

Literally doing nothing, of course, is not possible. The doing instead will most likely be small and incremental. In fact, it will be much more along the lines of what is developing now under Noriega's successor, Thomas Shannon, and what, incidentally, Venezuelan analysts at the weekend event said had proved helpful: old-fashioned diplomacy and engagement that avoids conflict and promotes cooperation.

Shannon's challenge has been to convince Latin America that the old approach is out the window -- not an easy task when some administration officials apparently haven't gotten the message. Last week, Shannon attempted to reduce the fallout from the overreaching comment by John Walters, the U.S. drug czar, who had called Chavez "a major facilitator" of cocaine trafficking through Venezuela.

Speaking to reporters a few days later, Shannon did not deny the allegations that drug traffickers are increasingly using Venezuelan territory. But he attributed it to "a variety of reasons" including the successful air interdiction efforts in neighboring Colombia and Brazil. For that reason, Shannon repeated his interest in enhanced cooperation with Venezuelan authorities.

Shannon was simply being pragmatic. Public shaming, ideological demonizing, and black-and-white descriptions of Latin America's choices today -- the kind of oversimplification of complexities that often mark grand visions -- were absent in his remarks. That approach is much better than nothing.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash(at)

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