October 05, 2006
IF THERE is one thing that Latin American politicians and pundits tend to complain about more than Uncle Sam's meddling in their affairs it is his apparent neglect of them. And ever since September 11th 2001 they have perceived just such a neglect. Leave aside that George Bush has acquired other distractions; the complaint overestimates the power of his administration to get its own way in foreign policy.
The first striking thing about the United States' policy towards Latin America just at the moment is its multilateralist tone—something for which it has not always been famous. Take the issue of how to contain Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's noisily anti-American president. In the past, the administration has been clumsy in its handling of him, failing to condemn a short-lived coup against him in 2002 and engaging in pointless verbal sparring. The policy now puts much more stress on working with allies in the Organisation of American States (OAS) both to try to support democracy in Venezuela and to blunt Mr Chávez's efforts to expand his influence.
In December Mr Chávez will seek a new six-year term in an election in which the fractious opposition has managed to unite behind a single candidate. Venezuela's willingness to invite the OAS and the European Union to observe the election will be the “indicator” of its fairness, says Thomas Shannon, the State Department's top diplomat for Latin America.
To the anxiety of some in the Bush administration, Mr Chávez's friend, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader who was a foe of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, leads the opinion polls for Nicaragua's presidential election next month. American officials make no secret of their preference for other candidates. But, as they hope to do in Venezuela, they are relying on an OAS observer mission, in the hope that it will neutralise the apparent control of the electoral authority by Mr Ortega and his allies.
The main thrust of the administration's policy in the region, according to Mr Shannon, is to work with other countries to consolidate democracy, broaden economic opportunity and fight terrorism and drugs. “The vast majority” of countries “can fit into the category” of partners in this, he says. So far, they include Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales, a socialist president of indigenous descent and another ally of Mr Chávez. “We've established a good dialogue with them on the important issues,” Mr Shannon says. “Bolivia can either be a South Africa or a Zimbabwe—it's still in the balance and that's why engagement is so important.”
Yet when it comes to the things that Latin American countries want from the United States the Bush administration is sometimes a prisoner of Congress. Take Mr Bush's plan for an immigration reform combining tighter border security with steps to encourage legal migration. Congress has passed only the first half of that proposal and, with an eye on next month's mid-term elections, the Senate has now approved a House proposal to build up to 700 miles (1,100km) of fencing on America's southern border.
The same goes for trade. Under a 1991 trade law designed to stimulate alternatives to drugs, the Andean countries sell duty-free several billion dollars' worth of “non-traditional” exports to the United States a year, ranging from Ecuadorean flowers to Peruvian asparagus and Bolivian textiles. The law expires on December 31st. Peru and Colombia have negotiated free-trade agreements as a replacement. Yet sources on Capitol Hill say that these will not be discussed until next year. Rising protectionist sentiment means their approval cannot be guaranteed, especially if the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives next month. Nor is it clear whether trade preferences for Bolivia and Ecuador will lapse or be renewed.
In these matters, Congress often follows rather than leads public opinion. “Domestic politics are the dominant factor influencing policy towards Latin America,” says Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think-tank. He notes that the power of the farm lobby means that the trade agreements with developing countries in Latin America are “ungenerous” with little scope for concessions. In its battle with Mr Chávez for the hearts and minds of Latin Americans, the United States sometimes undermines its own best efforts at being a good neighbour. The lesson for Latin American governments is to pay as much attention to Congress as to the White House.