A Latin American’s memo to Bush

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
9 March 2007

President George W Bush's politically even-handed, geographically-balanced, five-country trip to Latin America on 8-14 March 2007 is an encouraging signal of renewed interest from Washington after years of careless and dangerous neglect. Latin America hasn't been and won't be a United States (US) foreign-policy priority but is gradually becoming more relevant to the US, both domestically and internationally. The current inter-American agenda is rich - a selective list includes democracy, illegal drugs, trade, migration, environment, organised crime, energy, corruption, employment, globalisation, human rights, the rule of law, and poverty. It is also directly intertwined with a multiplicity of US interests, policies and actors.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is professor at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal"
(30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America"
(29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle"
(9 February 2007)

The US's newfound attention is a good thing, but the country comes late to the party. Several state and non-state forces have increased their presence in the hemisphere (among them China, Iran, India, extra-regional investors, centre-left European parties, anti-globalisation movements, and global NGOs) while the US government has been unwisely obsessed with Iraq. The reason others have been more successful at finding fertile ground in Latin America is quite simple: transnational, fundamentalist, Islamic terrorism is not a crucial, overriding issue in the area: Latin America is the only region in the world that has not suffered a terrorist attack linked to al-Qaida and its affiliates since 11 September 2001. Yet this fact, instead of generating fair and improved hemispheric ties, has paradoxically led to disdain and detachment in Washington.

The promise of Bush's trip is that it begins to reverse this trend. After all, it takes place in a context that is in four significant respects very different from that prevailing in the early 2000s.

First, unilateralism in not working anywhere and Washington needs, more out of necessity than conviction, to save face through some form of multilateralism (whether modest or robust).

Second, the project of a grand Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is, fortunately, dead: thus, Washington can now concentrate on political matters which are at the centre of gravity of Latin American dilemmas and challenges.

Third, the presence of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and his Bolivarian revolution demands new thinking both from the US and other Latin American governments. A return to a cold war centered on Caracas could be even more destabilising and polarising for Latin America than the one focused on Havana. At this time, US strategic interests may even suffer.

Fourth, the US needs the support of several key Latin American countries, because no hemispheric leader individually - neither Bush nor Lula, nor anyone else - has the political initiative to rival the broad range of proposals and symbols that Chávez has activated.

Thus, if the US government is indeed committed to a new political dialogue, is willing to explore multilateral initiatives, and is interested in preventing major security setbacks in the region, this week-long visit could actually achieve some concrete results. If President Bush and his advisors are really serious and are able to think strategically, they would be wise to commit some important "don'ts" to memory:

Also in openDemocracy on George W Bush's tour of Latin America:

Justin Vogler, "Bienvenido, Señor Bush" (8 March 2007)

▪ do not try to weaken Mercosur (the president is traveling to two member-countries, Brazil and Uruguay, and he should resist the temptation to push Montevideo into deserting the group)

▪ do not give a blank cheque to President Álvaro Uribe in Colombia (whose peace process with the paramilitaries may end up empowering a ruthless, narco-criminal elite in the country

▪ do not alienate the fragile governments of Mexico and Guatemala by defending the indefensible - namely the proposed wall along parts of the US-Mexican border

▪ do not invoke the well-known, and mistaken, "you are either with me or against me" stance when the US president discusses with Latin American friends how to cope - through a mixture of flexibility, pressure, and moderation - with the Bolivarian revolutionary experience in Venezuela.

It is richly ironic that at this particular juncture the US needs Latin America more than vice versa. The US president's visit is an opportunity to show that the early 21st century may finally witness the beginning of a mature western-hemispheric community.

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