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Quiet Successes and Future Challenges

by Hal Brands

The deterioration in U.S.-Latin American relations during President Bush’s first term has been reversed during the second, this essay argues. Difficult issues persist, however, and his successor will need to deal with them. Specific recommendations are offered.— Ed.

The dramatic rescue of 15 high-profile captives, including three Americans, in Colombia on July 2 did not just mark the end of one of the world’s longest-running hostage dramas. It also ranks as the most recent indicator of a dramatic (yet largely unnoticed) turnaround in U.S.-Latin American relations over the last several years. While this relationship reached a post-Cold War nadir during George W. Bush’s first term, a decline symbolized by U.S. support for an unsuccessful effort to oust Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2002, the U.S. position in Latin America has now improved to the point that it constitutes one of Bush’s more significant foreign policy achievements.

Since 2004, several sustained, positive trends have characterized U.S. relations with Latin America:

1) The Bush administration has secured ratification of free trade agreements with the Dominican Republic, Central America, and Peru, and negotiated similar pacts with Colombia and Panama.

2) The Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which in 2002 controlled 40 percent of the country, have suffered a series of staggering blows. The Colombian army has driven the rebels from the areas around Bogota and decimated the upper echelons of FARC leadership, and the number of guerrillas under arms has fallen by nearly 50 percent since 2000.

3) The government of Felipe Calderon has proven itself the most energetic Mexican administration in recent history in combating the drug trade. Calderon has deployed the armed forces to combat police corruption and drug-related violence, and remains committed to a sustained offensive against the cartels.

President Chavez

4) Chavez has lost his aura of invincibility, and now confronts immense difficulties. His bellicose foreign policy has alienated many neighbors, and the defeat of his proposed constitutional reform in late 2007 (which would have allowed him to seek indefinite reelection) showed rising domestic disapproval. While Chavez still boasts allies in Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, his signature initiatives like the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and the Bank of the South have gotten little traction.

5) Fidel Castro, the Caribbean bete noire of every president since Eisenhower, has ceded power to his brother Raul. There have been no signs of meaningful political change in Cuba thus far, but Raul — thought to be more pragmatic and less ideological than his brother — has implemented a series of modest reforms aimed at liberalizing the island’s economy.

President Uribe

Many of these developments have been beyond the control of Washington, of course, but Bush’s role in this turnaround must not be ignored. The current administration has doggedly backed free trade despite domestic opposition, and lent crucial support to the Colombian military and President Alvaro Uribe. Since 2005, Bush has avoided unwinnable diplomatic rows with Chavez, allowing the voluble yet erratic leader to discredit himself.

While Bush has often been accused of ignoring Latin America, his record in the region of late is actually one of considerable success.

These gains notwithstanding, significant challenges remain in U.S.-Latin American relations, and Bush’s successor will confront a number of difficult issues. The trade agreements with Colombia and Panama are stuck in Congress, and even NAFTA has come under fire from leading Democrats. Despite recent progress in Colombia, cocaine and heroin still flow into the United States, and violent gangs have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. For all its successes in dealing with Latin America, the Bush administration was caught flat-footed by the Cuban succession, and Washington has yet to develop a policy for dealing with the new government. Finally, the stability of the region as a whole is not assured, as many Central American states are still shattered from the civil wars of the 1980s, and huge numbers of Latin Americans languish in poverty.

The next president will therefore face five essential tasks in Latin America.

o First, with respect to the omnipresent problem of drugs, he must build on what has worked and learn from what hasn’t. Either Obama or McCain would do well to continue the counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency programs that have so weakened the FARC. But it would also behoove him to redress the niggardly approach to economic development that has impeded efforts to spur greater prosperity and thereby undercut the financial incentives for coca cultivation and drug-related corruption. In short, tackling narcotics issues in Colombia and elsewhere will require a balanced and comprehensive approach to the problem.

o Second, the next administration must not turn its back on free trade. During the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama opposed the trade agreement with Colombia and threatened to renegotiate NAFTA. Such a stance makes little strategic or economic sense. Most studies conclude that free trade with the smaller economies of Latin America only strengthens U.S. prosperity, and these agreements are central to supporting Uribe and other important partners in the region.

o Third, leave Chavez be. The oil-rich Venezuelan can still make plenty of mischief, but of late his antics have proved best suited to isolating himself from regional opinion. Outspoken U.S. opposition to Chavez, rather than firm but quiet diplomacy, will only allow him to rally anti-American sentiment and perhaps salvage his deteriorating position.

Raul Castro

o Fourth, the new administration must address the changes taking place within Cuba in an imaginative and effective manner. Raul Castro is no democratic reformer, and the Cuban government remains thoroughly thuggish. But for decades, the chief effect of the economic embargo on Cuba has been to provide the Castro dictatorship with an ideological raison d’etre and an all-purpose political scapegoat. Regardless of who becomes president in January 2009, the new administration must avoid giving Raul this same gift. Cuba’s persistently woeful economy offers Washington a point of leverage in dealing Raul’s regime, which either McCain or Obama should exploit by launching a process of negotiation aimed at producing a gradual, measured move toward more normal relations. The Bush administration has done precisely this with respect to a far more repugnant regime in North Korea, and there is little compelling reason to maintain a more rigid stance with respect to Cuba.

o Fifth, and perhaps most important, the United States needs to engage and support the majority of leaders in the region that are neither opponents like Chavez and Castro nor allies like Uribe. Brazil’s Lula, Chile’s Michele Bachelet, and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are populists who frequently criticize U.S. policy. But they are more wary of Caracas than Washington, and their commitment to the free market is beyond question. Indeed, the mix of economic liberalism and social welfare that these leaders deploy represents the best long-term hope for hundreds of millions of poor Latin Americans, and therefore for the overall stability of the region.

The recent tide of events in Latin America has been quite favorable to the United States, and Bush has built a solid foundation for future gains. Regardless of who succeeds him in the Oval Office, the task will thus be to build on these achievements in order to meet the continuing challenges of U.S.-Latin American affairs.End.

Hal Brands is the author of From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World. He currently works at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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