AS HE TOOK office eight years ago, George W. Bush promised to make relations with Latin America a priority. The president's first foreign trip was to the ranch of Mexican President Vicente Fox, where Mr. Bush expansively promised "to boldly seize the unprecedented opportunity before us." There was no compelling reason for this hemispheric focus, other than the fact that Mr. Bush had been governor of Texas and was more familiar with Latin America than other parts of the world. That may explain why Latin America quickly dropped from the top of the administration's agenda after Sept. 11, 2001.
Though he preserved the tradition of meeting early with the Mexican leader last week, Barack Obama starts from a very different point. He has never visited Latin America and spoke little about it during his campaign; his most notable interventions were to criticize standing or pending free-trade agreements with Mexico and Colombia, the two closest U.S. allies in the region. After sharing tortilla soup with Mexican President Felipe Calderón in Washington, Mr. Obama blandly stated: "The friendship between the U.S. and Mexico has been strong. I believe it can be even stronger."
The paradox here is that Mr. Obama, unlike Mr. Bush, has an objective and urgent interest in investing some of his diplomatic capital in Latin America -- as Mr. Calderón pointed out during his visit here. The Mexican leader noted during a stop at The Post that Latin America in 2000 was ruled almost entirely by democracies. Since then, "what I have seen is an increase in anti-American feelings, which is worrisome," Mr. Calderon said. "And I have seen some threats to the principles and values we stand for: democracy and human rights, the market economy, property rights and the rule of law."
Some of those threats are well known to Americans, thanks to the grandstanding of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. But others have received surprisingly little attention -- like Mr. Calderón's own fateful battle against the drug cartels that threaten to destroy Mexico's relatively fragile institutions. By the president's own account, some 6,000 persons were killed in drug-related violence during 2008, a level of bloodshed exceeding that of Iraq. The Bush administration initiated a $1.4 billion aid program to help Mexican security forces, and Congress has appropriated the first $400 million. But little has been done to stop the massive flow of weapons -- not just guns but grenade launchers, night vision equipment and high explosives -- from the United States to Mexican gangs.
According to Mr. Calderón, Mr. Obama said that he would work on the smuggling problem; the two leaders talked about infrastructure projects on both sides of the border that could improve security and speed passage. While he raised labor and environmental issues that are covered by side accords to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Obama did not propose reopening the treaty itself, according to Mr. Calderón. That's a step in the right direction -- but even better would be a concerted effort by the new president to counteract the region's larger drift away from democracy and free markets. Mr. Obama will have an opportunity to launch such an initiative soon, at the next summit of the Americas in April. "In this particular moment," Mr. Calderón said, Mr. Obama "has the leadership and the credibility to change that situation quickly and restore the leadership of the United States -- the natural leadership, if I can say that -- of the region." That sounds like an opportunity to be boldly seized.