Stony silence greeted President George W. Bush when he declared to the heads of more than 30 Latin American nations at a Jan. 12-13 summit in Monterrey, Mexico, that "trade is the most certain path to lasting prosperity." Instead of nodding in agreement, skeptical delegates called for the U.S. to slash its farm subsidies and open its own market more as part of future global and hemisphere-wide trade talks.
The defiant Latin reaction highlights the growing split between the U.S. and its neighbors to the South. More than two years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, diverted its foreign-policy attention from Latin America, the Bush Administration is witnessing the consequences of its neglect. The U.S. trade agenda is stalled, Washington's influence over the policies of debt-burdened countries such as Argentina is diminished, and its relations with several regional leaders are testy. Mexican President Vicente Fox is an exception: He warmly welcomed Bush to Monterrey. By contrast, a recent Zogby International poll of Latin opinion shapers gave Bush an 87% negative rating.
The core of the problem is that Latins have stopped believing in the American agenda. "U.S. and Latin priorities [are] more divergent than at any time since the end of the cold war in 1989," says Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. For a decade, Latin nations followed Washington's advice to balance their budgets, privatize state-run companies, and open their economies to foreign competition. Now, a new generation of left-leaning leaders has concluded that free trade rarely benefits the poor -- who total half the continent's population. They're searching for ways to boost spending on education and job creation while distributing wealth more equitably.
Increasingly, Latin America's leaders are standing up to the U.S. Argentine President Néstor Kirchner has been openly hostile to Washington, even though Bush helped broker Buenos Aires' debt-restructuring deal with the International Monetary Fund. It didn't help that Roger Noriega, the State Dept.'s new Latin America point person, recently said he doubted Argentina's economic rebound would last. Now Kirchner is resisting U.S. pressure to negotiate better payouts for holders of the country's defaulted bonds. Meanwhile, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is determined to be a counterweight to Washington on trade issues. He wants the U.S. to remove restrictions on key Brazilian exports before he will sign off on the hemisphere-wide trade pact due to be completed next year.
With the U.S. election so close, Bush can't offer much on trade without riling industrial or farm lobbies at home. And there's scant budget for additional aid. The U.S. could score points by supporting efforts to resolve tensions in Venezuela and Colombia. And Bush's new proposal to provide legal residence for migrant workers will improve relations with Fox. But to really mend ties with Latin America, Bush will have to do more than attend summits and make nice with Mexico. That may have to wait until after November.
By Geri Smith in Monterrey
Edited by Rose Brady