July 1st, 2007
The two signature issues of the Bush administration's policy toward Latin America -- immigration reform and fast-track authority to sign new free trade deals -- died a sudden death last week, leaving the United States with little to offer at a time of growing anti-Americanism in the region.
The collapse in Congress of the administration-backed immigration bill, which would have allowed a path to citizenship to 12 million undocumented migrants to the United States, has fallen like a cold shower in Mexico and Central America.
It is no coincidence that Mexican President Felipe Calderón chose to be standing next to leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on Thursday when he told reporters that the Senate's failure to pass the immigration bill had been a ``grave mistake.''
Closing the door to a new legal migration system will lead to more illegal immigration, more deaths along the border and more exploitation of undocumented migrants, Mexican officials say.
It will also limit the impact of the $60 billion a year in family remittances to Latin American countries. If most of this money were sent by legal U.S. residents through regular bank accounts, it could be a major engine of economic development in Latin America, allowing millions of poor to use it as collateral for loans to build homes or start small businesses.
Meantime, the June 30 expiration of the congressional authority for Bush to sign new free trade agreements left the administration without what had been the centerpiece of its policy toward the region.
While Congress last week extended a four-country Andean Trade Preference Act, and most Latin American countries that wanted free trade deals with Washington have already signed them -- Congress has yet to ratify trade deals with Peru, Panama and Colombia -- the ability to expedite trade deals was the administration's main carrot in the region.
So what will happen next? Most well-placed U.S. watchers of Latin American affairs agree that the administration should focus its energies on getting Congress to approve the pending free trade deals, and setting the stage for bipartisan policies in the next U.S. administration.
Arturo Valenzuela, a former Clinton White House chief advisor on Latin American affairs, proposes a top level bipartisan Commission on Latin America, co-chaired by a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican.
That would also help give Latin America a higher priority in Washington, Valenzuela says.
Otto Reich, a former Bush White House chief advisor on Latin America, proposes that the administration concentrate on enforcing existing policies that are not being fully implemented, such as rules that allow the State Department to yank U.S. visas of corrupt foreign politicians.
''In Latin America, the right has lost respect for us, and the left has lost fear of us,'' Reich said.
``I would try to restore a little bit of both by enforcing our policies.''
Others say there is a silver lining in the recent immigration and trade setbacks -- a less proactive U.S. role in the region may force Latin American governments to stop blaming Washington for their problems, and start working to become more competitive in the world economy, like China, India and Eastern Europe have done.
My opinion: The Bush administration should focus on getting Congress to ratify the three pending free trade deals with Latin American countries. And, sure, it should convene a top-level bipartisan task force on Latin America -- ideally led by former Presidents Clinton and George
H.W. Bush to seek a consensus on future U.S. policies toward the region.
WORK WITH BRAZIL
Meanwhile, Bush could leave the closest thing to a legacy in the region by building on his recently announced partnership with Brazil to jointly produce sugar-based ethanol in Caribbean Basin countries.
That would kill three birds with one stone: Help reduce U.S. oil dependence on Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist leader Hugo Chávez (whose megalomania is being fed with $32 billion a year in U.S. purchases of Venezuelan oil) while drawing Brazil -- South America's biggest country -- closer to Washington and helping prop up stagnant Central American and Caribbean economies.
Beyond that, I'm afraid there is not much more that this administration can do in Latin America over its remaining 18 months in office.