Hemisphere and Loathing

George Bush could mend some fences at the Summit of the Americas. But will he?

Tue Jan. 13, 2004 3:00 AM EST


President Bush met Monday with more than 30 heads of state from Latin America, Canada, and the Caribbean in Monterrey, Mexico, kicking off the latest Summit of the Americas. The session offers the president an opportunity to smooth relations badly strained by the U.S. campaign in Iraq and its war on terror. The U.S. wants the meeting to focus on hemispheric trade; other leaders, increasingly skeptical about the benefits of free trade, want to talk about poverty, social development, health, and education.

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President Bush will have to ease hurt feelings among Latin American leaders, who feel, many of them, that the U.S.'s post-9/11 focus on security and the war on terror has been partly at their expense.

The Miami Herald explains how the U.S. has de-prioritized Latin America in the past two years:

"When President Bush lands in Monterrey today to take part in a 34-nation Summit of the Americas, it will mark the fourth visit to Mexico during his presidency, the most to any country. Unfortunately, this level of attention hasn't been reflected in the administration's priorities. In terms of policy, Mexico and the rest of Latin America have been relegated to the back of the autobus, no doubt due largely to the events of Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq."

This Summit of Americas is the fourth such meeting since 1994. Every country in the hemisphere takes part, except Cuba. Colin Powell says that the purpose behind the session, is to set "practical goals that can rapidly improve the daily lives of people in the region".

But many Latin countries aren’t happy with the U.S. They are angry at the new U.S. requirement that foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. airports. No Latin American country has been included in the list of 27 states exempted from the measures. Brazil, for one, retaliated by subjecting U.S. visitors to the same service at Brazilian airports.

A former senior National Security Council staff member, quoted in the New York Times, summed up the sentiment: "There's a tremendous amount of discontent in Latin America with the United States."

A recent poll by Latinobarometro, a Chile-based firm, shows that the percentage of Latin Americans who have a negative image of the United States has more than doubled over the past three years, from 14 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2003. In Mexico, 58 percent have a negative image of the United States, up from 22 percent in 2000. A survey by Zogby International showed that 87 percent of Latin American opinion-makers rate Bush negatively.

The U.S. is aware of the hostility. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice said in a press briefing:

"I think that there's a perception or a line of argument out there that somehow after 9/11 the United States lost interest in anything that didn't relate to terrorism and 9/11. It's just not true.''

For the summit, part of the problem is that there’s no consensus over the goals of the meeting. It has been hard for the countries even to agree on an agenda. The Calgary Herald explains that each country brings its own priorities to the table:

"The U.S. is interested in discussing transparency, corruption and terrorism -- period. Brazil and Mexico are interested in social development, education and health. Chile and several other countries have pushed the growth-with-equity agenda. The Caribbean and Central American countries are concerned with having access to markets, development with sustainability. Meanwhile, an argument is raging over whether, and how, to include any mention of the contentious Free Trade Agreement of the Americas."

Another point of dispute is that U.S.- backed economic reforms adopted by most countries in the 1990s have failed to reduce poverty, which is now estimated to reach 44 percent of Latin America's population, or some 220 million people.

The Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) is a particularly contentious aspect of the session. Bush’s top priority is free trade throughout the region, while Brazil and Venezuela wants no reference to the FTAA at all. Brazil, and other countries, want the focus to be on social issues—like the poverty facing many Latin Americans.

FTAA, first envisioned in 1994, was slated for completion in 2005. It is now likely to be concluded, if at all, in a "lite" form, with some countries opting out. The U.S. may move forward with less ambitious bilateral accords while the regional pact is sorted out. But Robert Pastor, vice president for international affairs at American University and an expert on Latin America tells the Christian Science Monitor: "We'll be left with a kind of minilateral system with the U.S. as the hub and small countries at the end of the spokes - and with a region that is more fragmented than united."

Some countries don’t like another provision the U.S. seeks, namely that nations with corrupt governments be left out of future trade agreements and summits. Latinnews.com reports:

"Another problem is the US insistence that countries which do not clamp down on state-sector corruption should be liable to exclusion from the FTAA process and future summits. Brazil has responded, shrewdly, given the Enron and other corporate scandals in the U.S., by calling for equally tight rules and penalties for private sector corruption, especially involving large multinationals."

A recent proposal by Bush to provide millions of illegal immigrants to the U.S. (mostly Mexicans) with temporary work visas may sit well with the Mexican president, Vincente Fox. Fox’s public statements about the proposal, initially tepid, were upbeat and optimistic at the Summit. There's advantage in the proposal for both leaders, says the Washington Post:

The embrace between the two leaders on the immigration issue is politically crucial to both, since Fox can claim his patience with Bush has paid dividends and Bush gained a high-profile lobbyist for a plan that is a low priority for the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. is experiencing friction with other nations too. U.S. officials called for Argentina to speed up fulfillment of debt conditions in the wake of the country’s economic crisis, and criticized the foreign minister for dealings with Cuba. Not prepared to take the U.S. lecture, the Argentinian president Nestor Kirchner said he would win the debate with Mr Bush in their one-to-one meeting in Monterrey "by a knockout."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called the U.S. national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, "a real illiterate" after she condemned his closeness to Mr Castro and reluctance to call a leadership referendum.

Canada, which was left out of an opportunity to bid for a part in the reconstruction effort because of their opposition to the war in Iraq, will take the issue up with Bush here.

So, whether he likes it or not, President Bush is going to have to address a whole host of issues he'd rather not tackle. But the challenge may also be an opportunity. As the Miami Herald, Bush needs to patch things up with these countries, and the summit might be a good place to do it:

"Before 9/11, Mr. Bush had made clear that he considered Latin America a priority. History had other plans, but it isn't too late to salvage this important relationship. We hope Monterrey marks a new beginning."