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Our Neglect of Western Hemisphere Is Justified

Many leaders haven't kept their end of the bargain.

September 10, 2002|ERIC FARNSWORTH

Do Latin America and the Caribbean merit greater attention from the United States? During my most recent travels to the region, I was told repeatedly that our neglect of this area is harming prospects for the future.

Indeed, several recent actions by the United States, including the farm bill and steel tariffs, have caused massive ill will.

There is palpable fear that the pending Free Trade Area of the Americas is really a stalking horse for a renewed bout of U.S. economic imperialism. Coupled with regional economic collapse, repeated challenges to democracy and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the U.S.-led war on terror, this has caused a rapid deterioration in relations.

The question nobody asks, however, is whether, in the current global environment, relative neglect of the hemisphere is justified. Despite a new commitment to democracy and significant economic growth across the region in the 1990s, Latin American and Caribbean leaders mostly have failed to implement true institutional reform.

Consider:

* Despite Argentina being named a "major non-NATO ally" of the United States, corruption remains endemic as the leadership class argues among itself, pursues vendettas against those out of power and refuses to subsume personal gain for the good of the nation.

* After Alberto Fujimori fled Peru in disgrace, new President Alejandro Toledo announced his own arrival in power by giving himself a huge pay raise. Many in the Peruvian Cabinet have since left, and Toledo struggles to remain in office.

* Hugo Chavez's "total war" on corruption and the entrenched political class in Venezuela has degenerated into a systematic dismantling of democracy and an emerging cult of personality while he plays footsie with Iraq, Libya and Cuba.

* Guatemala, Nicaragua and Trinidad are struggling with crises engendered by congressional or other leaders more interested in their own well-being than that of their people.

And on it goes, as the region cascades down the latest backside of its traditional boom-and-bust cycles.

Of the larger economies in Latin America and the Caribbean, only Mexico and Chile, whose leaders took aggressive actions to open their respective economies and fundamentally reform and strengthen their democratic institutions, are in decent shape.

Which raises the question of priorities for U.S. foreign policy.

Regional leaders decry the perceived inattention of the U.S. over the last year without understanding how profoundly the vicious Sept. 11 attacks affected the American mind-set or how focused we have become on the national security challenges so clearly before us.

Simply put, leaders who are preoccupied with their own political fortunes or with distributing the spoils of governance do not make strong partners. The region could certainly stand a renewed dose of responsible engagement by the U.S.

If there is to be a true partnership, however, Latin American and Caribbean leaders must recognize that the worldview of the public and policymakers in the United States has changed, and respond accordingly.

*

Eric Farnsworth, a Washington-based international strategic consultant, was an advisor to the White House on Latin American and Caribbean affairs from 1995 to 1998.

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