Magazine article The World and I

Taking Latin America Seriously - for the Last Eight Years, the United States Has Lacked Leaders Capable of Thinking Seriously and Creatively about the Region

Magazine article The World and I

Taking Latin America Seriously - for the Last Eight Years, the United States Has Lacked Leaders Capable of Thinking Seriously and Creatively about the Region

Article excerpt

Just before the First Summit of the Americas in Miami in December 1994, London's Economist published a photograph of a perplexed President Clinton asking, "Where is Latin America?" During two terms his administration and many in both parties of Congress never quite figured that one out; the United States perpetrated conventional and even outdated policies that weakened the democratic and market reforms Washington said it supported.

What the United States tragically lacked was leaders who would or could think seriously and creatively about that region and implement their conclusions with the will to succeed. The basic problem was indifference born of ignorance of how much was at stake.

President George W. Bush won't have to ask that question before he attends the Third Summit of the Americas next month in Quebec. He knows, and so does Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose parents came from Jamaica. But will they get so wrapped up in the challenges of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that they shortchange Latin America?

Perhaps in a perverse sort of way it is good that Colombia is unraveling so tragically. That is a crisis Bush and Powell will have to face. If it is faced in all its dimensions, the new administration will have to confront (or deny) at least one of the most pressing major crises of the hemisphere, the war on drugs.

Lack of strategic vision

The fundamental flaw of Clinton administration foreign policy was its lack of strategic vision for the post--Cold War period, without which it was unable to ascertain real U.S. national interests. Add the traditional manipulation of foreign policy to serve domestic partisan interests and it is no wonder that in recent years priorities have often been wrong, commitment to important matters shallow, and implementation wrongheaded or inconsistent.

In Latin America, this meant that Clinton's sometimes positive rhetoric was not backed up with adequate political will, actions, and resources. Thus Clinton, generally with strong bipartisan support, pursued a decades-old "war on drugs" that has become less a war against drugs than an assault on the Latin American people, their institutions, and ourselves.

Clinton also failed to aggressively promote President George Bush's call in 1990 for a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone. Instead, Clinton squandered enormous time and resources on a quixotic crusade to "restore democracy" to Haiti and persisted in an outdated and increasingly counterproductive embargo of Cuba.

The first and fundamental challenge facing the new administration and the American people is simply to recognize the need to be serious about Latin America. Why is that importance so hard to see? Mexico is our second-largest trading partner after Canada, while U.S. trade with the region is already half again our trade with Asia, twice that with Europe, and growing the fastest of them all. All Latin American nations except Cuba are in varying degrees democratic today, while market reforms and expanding international trade have improved future prospects for hundreds of millions.

Very soon the largest minority in the United States will be Hispanics, and Spanish will be the country's unofficial second language. The United States has everything to gain in economic and security terms from promoting a stable and prosperous Latin America and perhaps even more to lose, due to economic downturn, regional instability, and massive immigration if Latin American leaders fail to provide for their own people.

While the ultimate success or failure of individual countries and the region resides with Latin Americans themselves, the United States by its actions or inaction inevitably plays a major role supporting or obstructing constructive change.

Clarifying U.S. priorities

What are America's top priorities? Nothing is more important than cultivating our complicated relations with Mexico, and prospects have never been as good as they are now with its dynamic new president, Vicente Fox. …

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