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LATIN AMERICA

Bush's Game of Revenge

Mexico, Chile pay price for Iraq war opposition.

May 11, 2003|Peter Hakim | Peter Hakim is president of Inter-American Dialogue.

WASHINGTON — The first President Bush envisioned the United States and Latin America as a hemisphere-wide economic community. The second President Bush seems to have abandoned his father's vision and substituted a winners-losers game based on the question: Did you support me in my quest to oust Saddam Hussein?

That may seem the case to Chile and Mexico, the two Latin American members of the U.N. Security Council that opposed granting Bush the authority to use force against Iraq. Even before the administration set its sights on Hussein, Mexico's ambition for a new migration arrangement with the U.S. had been thwarted by 9/11. Then last week, the Bush White House canceled festivities honoring the Mexican -- and Mexican American -- holiday Cinco de Mayo, the first time it has done so. But the previous celebrations were before Mexico said no to Bush at the United Nations.

Chile has felt the sting of crossing Washington in a less-symbolic way. When negotiators put the finishing touches on the U.S.-Chile free trade agreement last December, White House and congressional approval was supposed to be swift and routine. Both Republicans and Democrats admired Chile for its vibrant democracy and its sterling economy. The U.S.-Chile free-trade agreement would directly serve American economic and foreign policy interests. And at a time of growing resentment toward U.S. hemispheric policy, it would reaffirm Washington's commitment to Latin America and regional free trade.

Then came the U.N. debate on the use of force against Iraq and Chile's refusal to jump aboard. The administration suddenly began to waver. A parallel agreement with Singapore was formally signed at a White House ceremony last week, but the pact with Chile remains in limbo, with no firm date for moving it forward.

Most Latin American governments opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but few proclaimed it. Argentina was the most outspoken critic, but U.S. relations with that country will be shaped more by the words and actions of the winner of next Sunday's presidential elections. Initially, Brazil vehemently opposed the war, but eventually adopted a more pragmatic approach and toned down its criticism. Brazil may escape Washington's wrath, however, because the leftist Lula da Silva government has been far more cooperative than U.S. officials had expected on an array of issues. Indeed, the Bush administration may conclude that Brazil is a more compatible partner than Mexico on many hemispheric issues.

There are more obvious winners. Colombia was the only South American nation that supported U.S. military action against Iraq despite the fact that 80% of Colombians, according to polls, opposed the war. President Alvaro Uribe was no doubt mindful of his government's dependence on U.S. aid to battle its rebels and keep its economy out of trouble. The White House has already rewarded him with a budget add-on of some $100 million. Although perhaps not as triumphant as expected, Uribe's welcome in Washington last week was warm and seems to have gone a long way toward ensuring continuing U.S. military support for his government's fight against criminal and political violence.

Other winners are the five Central American presidents who met with Bush during the war and gained his assurance that a free trade package for their region was on its way. Four of the five had endorsed the war against Iraq. Two others, Panama and the Dominican Republic, also backed the United States, and they are now likely to get their own trade agreements.

Although Chile may have to wait some more, Washington will probably sign the trade agreement rather than break its commitment to Chile. Latin America's trust in U.S. policy is already strained. Turning its back on the country that has most assiduously pursued the first President Bush's vision for Latin America would be widely interpreted as a retreat from that vision. The regional trend toward greater U.S.-Latin American cooperation, disrupted by 9/11 and the Iraq war, could come undone. That cost is too high.

Mexico is less vulnerable than Chile. The U.S. needs continuing Mexican help on security matters. The bilateral agenda is so critical for both countries that it creates strong incentives to cooperate. Perhaps more important, the U.S. presidential election takes place next year, and Bush will be seeking Mexican American voters. Expect a Cinco de Mayo party at the White House as the primary season unfolds in 2004.

Still, the winners-losers game the White House seems to be playing serves only to highlight the absence of a coherent Latin American policy. There is an opportunity to change this. The Western Hemisphere portfolio, which has lacked authority in recent years, will soon be taken over by Roger F. Noriega. His views are deeply conservative -- he was an aide to former Sen. Jesse Helms -- and his grounding in Latin American affairs is solid. Noriega also served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States. His first mission should be to persuade his superiors to sign off on the U.S.-Chile trade pact. Governments across the region would breathe a sigh of relief.

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