March 22, 2002

March 22, 2002 | Commentary on Latin America

President Bush's Trip: Helpful Hints

During his visit to Mexico, Peru and El Salvador, President Bush finally has a chance to abandon the seat-of-the-pants approach to Latin America that typified his predecessor. Instead of using crisis-response to deal with our southern neighbors, the president can set us on the far more productive path toward forging partnerships that promotes security, trade and democratic reform.

To that end, here are some helpful suggestions.

At the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, President Bush and other leaders of industrious democracies will find themselves pressed to contribute more money to alleviate world poverty. Even though he recently pledged $5 billion over three years in new development funding, President Bush should explain that:

  • Political and economic freedom -- not handouts -- produce prosperity;
  • The world's most repressive regimes also are the least prosperous.

That may not go over well with some of the failed states and dictatorships attending the Monterrey conference, but most Latin American countries (except Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela) are trying to move beyond first-generation democratic and free-market reforms. They need assurances that what they're doing is right, and that homegrown reform is the only sure path to development.

Later, President Bush will meet with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, to discuss border security and an offer of $30 million in U.S. aid to Mexico. That's not much when you consider that countries such as Colombia get $1.3 billion. But Mexico is at peace, has a wealth of natural resources and overflows with talent. Rather than encourage Mexico to be a supplicant and send its unemployed workers to us, President Bush should:

  • Urge President Fox to press forward with campaign vows to end monopoly licensing, abolish burdensome business regulations and provide access to credit for small enterprises. Such steps can help lift Mexico into the ranks of developed nations;
  • Promise to reward such reforms with greater U.S. investment.

In South America, President Bush will get an earful from the presidents of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru about the resurgence of drug trafficking and the terrorist threat posed by Colombian rebels and self-defense groups. In Peru, where the leaders will meet, coca production is back on the rise, and the Shining Path guerrilla movement, defeated in 1992, is making a comeback. Moreover, these nations are struggling to fight off drug traffickers and/or terrorists in the middle of a global economic slowdown, as evidenced by the car bomb that blew up near the U.S. embassy in Lima on March 20.

The president should:

  • Announce plans to expand counternarcotics support to include counterterrorism. The United States has an interest in helping friendly democracies defend themselves, and the narrow anti-drug policy of the past needs improvement;
  • Reward Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru for their commitments to defeat drug trafficking and terrorism by offering to negotiate free-trade agreements in return.

In Central America, President Bush will see a region opening its markets and become more democratic. But rising crime, drug traffickers invading from Colombia and lagging efforts to educate labor forces are scaring away investment. All of this puts pressure on workers to migrate north to Mexico and the United States. What should President Bush do?

  • Use this meeting to promote his proposed U.S.-Central American Trade Agreement (CAFTA) as a reward for continuing reforms. Free economies and greater trade will boost local employment;
  • Promise support for training more professional law enforcement personnel to control rising crime and repel drug traffickers;
  • Encourage Central American leaders to develop human capital through education reform. Poor schooling is responsible for the large pool of adults who are unemployed -- and often unemployable.

One more thing: Should President Bush encounter Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, he shouldn't shake hands. Chavez rules by decree and by bullying opponents, and he belongs with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Haiti's Jean Bertrand-Aristide on the list of pariahs. A friendly gesture toward Chávez would undermine the spirit of partnership that President Bush's trip promises to bring -- both to the United States and to its democratic southern neighbors.

Stephen Johnson is a Latin America policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America

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