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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 December 2007, 01:45 GMT
US ties to Latin America: Cool or cordial?
By Lourdes Heredia
BBC Mundo, Washington

The response was largely silent when I asked commentators about the achievements of the Bush administration during 2007 towards Latin America.

President George W Bush embarking on a tour of Latin America in March
Mr Bush's trip to Latin America in March had little impact, analysts say

In March, when President George W Bush travelled to Latin American countries, the expectations were that Washington was going to pay more attention to the region, after six years of neglect.

Now 2007 has come to an end and these expectations have vanished.

"Bush's Latin America trip was neither a great success nor a failure, more than anything else, it reflected the opportunity Washington lost to engage the region after 9/11," said Michel Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue policy centre.

Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), felt that the trip was meticulously planned and executed.

It was a success from the diplomacy point of view, but had "a perfunctory feel to it and has been followed up by few policy initiatives".

"The fact that it has been largely forgotten now in both Latin America and the United States suggests how little substance there was behind it and how little influence the US currently has in most of Latin America," she said.


The Bush administration highlighted the passage of the free -trade agreement with Peru as one of it successes in Latin America, although Colombia and Panama are still waiting for theirs to be approved by Congress.

Workers of the Peruvian Food Industries Corporation process mango for export
Peru's free trade agreement was signed in December
"Across this hemisphere, people are watching what Congress will do... in regards to the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama," Mr Bush said when he signed the accord with Peru on 14 December.

"The champions of false populism will use any failure to approve these trade agreements as evidence that America will never treat other democracies in the region as full partners," he said.

He had no need to name Hugo Chavez to make it clear this was a reference to the Venezuelan president.


After his trip to Latin America, Mr Bush seemed to erase Mr Chavez's name from his vocabulary, even when questioned directly about the Venezuelan leader.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (left) and acting Cuban president Raul Castro (right) in Cuba
Venezuela and Cuba are two foreign policy headaches for the US

With or without a name, the impact of Venezuela and its president on US-Latin American relations is undeniable.

"The lack of the Bush administration in the region created a void that was filled by Hugo Chavez," New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez told the BBC.

At least, the Bush administration did not repeat the mistake of 2002, when President Chavez was briefly overthrown in a coup that received tacit US support.

This year, during the referendum in Venezuela on President Chavez's reform plans that included an end to presidential term limits, Washington kept out of the public debate.

"Interfering, or being seen to interfere, in the democratic political processes of other countries is bad policy. The Venezuelan coup of 2002 damaged American standing in Latin America, and by keeping a low profile in the run-up to this year's referendum, perhaps US policymakers took some steps to repair that damage," said Ms Olson.    

The Bush administration did, however, welcome the defeat of Mr Chavez's plans as boding well " for the country's future and freedom and liberty".

More than commerce

Experts feel that the US agenda for the region has not advanced beyond the issue of free trade and free markets.

George W Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon
The US and Mexico have agreed a joint initiative against organised crime

"Mr Bush's failure in Latin America is the lack of a broader agenda. We do have to talk about trade and drug trafficking, but we also need to talk about economic development," said Mr Menendez.

He pointed out that Latin America receives less than 1% of the estimated $160bn a year the US is spending on Iraq.

But what can we expect in 2008, especially when the US is going to be immersed in an electoral process both presidential and congressional that does not end until November 2008?

"Overall we are going to have a transitional year," said Mr Menendez.

Given the struggle between the parties within Congress, any controversial bills are likely to provoke protracted negotiations and debate. For example in 2007, despite the explicit support of Mr Bush, immigration reform failed.

Analysts say that there might be a window for approval of the free trade agreement with Colombia in March, but the odds are against it.

Demonstration against illegal immigration
Immigration is set to be a key issue in the 2008 election

Plan Merida, the security assistance package promised by Mr Bush for Mexico and Central America, will have probably more chances to get the financing it needs from the Congress.

No changes are expected in US policy towards Cuba, where Raul Castro has been acting president in place of his brother Fidel since the end of July 2006.

In October 2007, in his first major address on Cuban policy in four years, Mr Bush adopted an uncompromising stance towards the leadership of Cuba.

"As long as the regime maintains its monopoly over the political and economic life of the Cuban people, the United States will keep the embargo in place," he said in a speech at the US State Department.

"The most disappointing aspect in 2007 was the inability to make any progress on Cuba question," said Mr Shifter, echoing the view of commentators who feel that Washington lost an opportunity to influence the political changes in Cuba.

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14 Mar 07 |  Americas


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