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September 11 one year on Thursday, 5 September, 2002, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Argentines feel neglected
Anti-IMF protesters in Buenos Aires
Protesters took to the streets in Buenos Aires
It sounded so promising.

It seemed there really would be a United States for the Americas.

George Bush and Vicente Fox keyrings
Bush and Fox: Shoulder to shoulder
But Latin Americans may wonder exactly where George W Bush was standing when he pledged two years ago:

"Should I become president, I will look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment to my presidency."

Certainly, on taking office, Mr Bush was quick to welcome Mexico as US-soulmate number one.

His first official visit was to Mexico, and Mexican President Vicente Fox was the first state guest, early in September last year, to George W's US.

"There was a real love fest going on," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

Blunder before bail-out

Yet when, weeks later, Argentina collapsed, no US Cavalry appeared over the pampas.

When Brazil tottered, it seemed an eon before US support arrived.

(And this only after US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had alienated Latinos by warning that aid to Brazil could end up being diverted to "Swiss bank accounts".)

The US has hit Latin America through steel tariffs and farm subsidies, but made little progress on the Free Trade Area of the Americas set to extend the current Canada-Mexico-US trade bloc southwards by 2005.

Guerrilla threat

Was the change of heart prompted by the attacks which stunned the US, and the world, only four days after Mr Fox's "lovefest" visit?

Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Cardoso: Condemned US policy

"September 11 cut off US enthusiasm for Latin America," Mr Hakim said.

"The US adopted a framework for its foreign policy that simply had no place for Latin America."

Rather than looking south, the US peered east in the search to quash terror threats.

Even here, Latin America's most prominent guerrillas failed to get a look in.

"You might have thought Colombia would get more attention after September 11," Mr Hakin said.

"But while there might be three Colombian groups on the State Department list of terrorist groups, these are not the same brand of international terrorists with the Middle East stripe."

Latino anger

Against such a backdrop, it can be of little surprise that Latin American premiers have turned on the US.

Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso condemned Mr Bush for "knowing nothing" of Latin America, warning that the region was being relegated to "irrelevance".

Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde in July named "US ignorance and lack of concern" as his country's biggest challenge.

Policy switch

Yet while it is easy to blame the US neglect of Argentina on September 11, in particular, it is wrong, Mr Hakim said.

It is not the late 1990s any more. Money is not thrown around so liberally

Roberto Guevara, Merrill Lynch.

"Argentina was the one country for which September 11 made the least difference in relations with the US," he said.

The US was unlikely to have given Argentina the same assistance granted to Mexico in 1995, or Brazil in 1999, come al-Qaeda or not.

"The Bush administration came in with a more sceptical attitude towards bail-outs than its predecessor."

Certainly, the US last month offered support to Brazil and Uruguay.

"But the government of [Brazil's] Cardoso is a competent skilled administration, nothing like the regime of [former Argentina president] Fernando de la Rua and its successors."

Changing times

Mr Hakim's deduction was backed within Argentina by Roberto Guevara, analyst at investment bank Merrill Lynch.

"I wouldn't make a big point out of September 11 influencing policy towards Argentina," Mr Guevara said.

"I don't think this is a prevailing opinion here.

"September 11 may have made a bigger issue of national security.

"But whether Argentina would have had easier access to IMF money - remember the economic conditions are different as well.

"It is not the late 1990s any more. Money is not thrown around so liberally."

Good money after bad?

At the Economist Intelligence Unit, country expert Justine Thody added: "It is hard to say that if September 11 had not happened Argentina would have received more support.

Peter Hakim, president, Inter-American Dialogue
Peter Hakim: "Signs of change" in US policy

"There was this idea that if Argentina suffered, its collapse would not bring down economics in surrounding countries," Ms Thody said.

And given that Argentina had already won considerable IMF funds, and failed to secure its finances and break out [of] a recession stretching back to 1998, "it was always questionable whether another big bailout would have been in the pipeline".

"What would the money have done, beyond perhaps prolonging the collapse?"

Where September 11 may have contributed to Argentina's woes was in undermining the global economy, and with it a pillar which the country had hoped would support its revival.

Encouraging signs

A year after the terror strikes, with US attention still focused on the Middle East, what are the hopes of Mr Bush delivering on his promise to look south?

"There are some signs that things might be about to change," Mr Hakim said.

Besides the granting of bailouts to Brazil and Uruguay, rules governing anti-drugs aid to Colombia have been relaxed to allow it to be directed at fighting insurgents.

"There is an effort to take a position against any undemocratic change of government in Venezuela."

However, it is as yet unclear whether such initiatives are one-offs, or the start of a new focus on Latin America.

"Are we going to move forward on the Free Trade Area of the Americas? If Brazil continues to falter, will be come in more fiercely?

"There are openings which suggest the US may become more engaged, but the next few months will tell."

Bleak outlook

Prospects for Argentina, however, remain bleak, Mr Hakim added.

"The question is whether and when the US is going to realise that Argentina could turn into a deep political problem.

"You have the conditions where you could get the coming of a more radical government, at odds with its neighbours. An internal nastiness in its politics that demands some kind of response."

Communist Russia, Fascist Germany - history is littered with examples of questionable regimes helped to power by economic frustration.

"I see no sign yet of recognition in the US of how dangerous the Argentine situation is," Mr Hakim said.

New York despatches





See also:

04 Sep 02 | Business
26 Aug 02 | Business
06 Aug 02 | Business
07 Sep 01 | Americas
17 Feb 01 | Americas
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