For the first time in five years, the United States has a Senate-approved assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs. The end of partisan bickering over who should fill the position may be enough to get the Bush administration's "Century of the Americas" agenda -- sidelined since Sept. 11 -- back on track.
But that may be optimistic. Unfortunately, the horse-trading that resulted in Roger Noriega's confirmation guarantees that he will be stuck in a domestic policy dispute before he can tackle urgent regional issues.
And make no mistake: Latin America faces significant problems.
In South America, Colombia is only now beginning to win its fight against narco-trafficking terror groups. Next door, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is resisting a recall vote against his autocratic presidency and allowing Colombian guerrillas to train in his country's territory. Meanwhile, Brazil and Argentina are seeking to undermine the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas in favor of advancing their own customs union, Mercosur.
In Central America, chaotic Guatemala is on the verge of electing a former right-wing dictator. Nicaragua's fledgling democratic institutions are dissolving amid disputes between corrupt party leaders. And international drug gangs are overpowering the isthmus's pitifully inadequate police forces.
According to the polling firm Latinobarómetro, Latin Americans have become increasingly disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. Half-implemented reforms don't allow full citizen participation in politics or markets. Few countries, except Chile, enjoy checks and balances to keep their governments honest or a rule of law to protect the majority against minority privilege. On average, Latin American economies have been shrinking for almost three years.
Although Latin America's well being is not necessarily the responsibility of the United States, Washington wields tremendous influence, and the adoption of electoral democracy and free markets as political and economic models owe a great deal to U.S. leadership and persuasion in the 1980s.
But just as elections and limited market openings got a toehold in the region (except in Cuba), Washington diverted resources for those programs to support reconstruction in Eastern Europe and Russia after the fall of communism.
After that, aside from occasional initiatives such as the successful North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, support for Colombia's fight against narco-terrorism, and the misguided restoration of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office in Haiti, the United States paid little attention.
Coming into office in 2001, President Bush announced his "Century of the Americas" agenda to promote better governance, economic development and free trade. Despite new demands created by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration still concluded a free trade agreement with Chile and started negotiations on a U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). But further progress may be doomed if Latin America dissolves in political chaos.
While Noriega might like to devote some attention to getting the President's agenda back on track, domestic politics beckon. His Senate approval was made possible by an agreement with Sen. Max Baucus of Montana to drop a "hold" on confirmation in exchange for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee vote to lift travel and trade sanctions against Cuba -- to the benefit of U.S. tourist and farm industries.
Such a measure could pass in committee, but end up mired in controversy in both houses of Congress. Members may object that it also rewards dictator Fidel Castro by giving his regime a windfall of American tourist dollars and credit, just after he jailed 80 dissidents. The debate will grind on, while more serious problems boil over down south.
No doubt, the administration will need to maintain a veto threat over bills that would aid Castro. But it can recover lost momentum on other hemispheric goals by using Noriega's confirmation to renew support for second-generation democratic and market reforms as well as to combat international crime and narco-terrorism.
Overall, Latin American assistance needs to be better focused and public diplomacy efforts need to be strengthened. The White House should encourage Noriega to clearly state U.S. goals and interests in public as well as in private.
A decade ago, few thought the Middle East would command America's attention the way it has now. Without consistent U.S. engagement, Latin America could wind up in similar straits.
Originally appeared on FoxNews.com