February 16, 2001

February 16, 2001 | News Releases on Latin America

Time for U.S. Officials to End "Benign Neglect" of Latin America, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2001-Thanks to the work done by his father and President Reagan, President George W. Bush will deal with a far more democratic Latin America when he meets with the region's leaders in April. But its more persistent problems, from political unrest to drug-related crime, can't be solved without renewed U.S. leadership and cooperation, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

A new approach is sorely needed, says foreign policy analyst Stephen Johnson, a former State Department official. Despite its geographic proximity, its $2 trillion economy and the fact it already has replaced the Middle East as America's major petroleum supplier, Latin America's strategic importance largely has been neglected in recent years.

Which makes it all the more important for the Bush administration to help officials there root out corruption that plagues many governments in the region, eliminate rising levels of poverty and confront the transnational threats-specifically, the cocaine and heroin trades-that leave them helpless against foes that are often better financed.

The solutions won't be simple, Johnson acknowledges, but President Bush can take a necessary first step on April 20 when he meets with Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. That critical step: a clear statement from Bush that improved relations with Latin America will be a top foreign policy commitment for his administration.

The region's greatest challenge is a billion-dollar transnational crime industry, centered in the Andean ridge, that stretches north through Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, and south through Brazil and Paraguay.

President Bush should use the Quebec City summit to open talks on a region-wide response to drug production and trafficking, emphasizing cooperation between countries and between military and civilian agencies, Johnson says. "With local roots, profits rivaling the economies of small nations and a global reach, it falls outside the purview of strictly military or police solutions," Johnson writes. "In the past five years, narco-corruption has undermined the sovereignty of Colombia, and related violence has displaced more than 1.5 million people-many of whom have fled to the United States."

The drug problem is spreading. A recent investigation by the government of Brazil implicated more than 800 people-among them mayors and three national legislators-in drug-based crime networks. Traffickers have compromised all but the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement. Haiti serves as a transshipment point for one-seventh of the cocaine that enters the United States. And northeastern Ecuador serves as a rest and resupply hideout for the FARC, the drug-dealing Marxist insurgent group that controls much of the Colombian countryside.

Past anti-drug efforts have failed, and working bilaterally with Colombia has unsettled its neighbors. Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, angered at being left out of U.S.-Colombia planning, convened his own summit last August and announced his own anti-narcotics plan to address drug-bandit violence spilling over the border.

But Colombia should be at the focal point of any anti-drug effort, Johnson says. Because it supplies 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, American officials must make a concerted effort to help Colombia's government strengthen the judiciary, clean up law-enforcement corruption and assert authority over national territory.

In addition, Latin America can reach its potential as a trading partner not only by raising levels of education but also by curbing corruption throughout its political institutions, justice systems and business dealings, Johnson says. Mexican President Vicente Fox has addressed the issue by calling for an end to payoffs and patronage and requiring that cabinet members swear to a code of ethics. Johnson says the United States can help by strengthening exchange programs and educational efforts to help Latin American nations develop competence in core administrative functions.

Moreover, the United States should promote more modern civil and criminal codes, the separation of prosecutorial and judicial functions, the adoption of standard rules of evidence and other measures. Johnson cites a program in Colombia called "houses of justice," where the poor can receive public defender and mediation services and enjoy access to a judicial system usually available only to the wealthy.

As for economics, the United States should urge that property rights laws be simplified and strengthened so that property can be used as collateral more effectively, Johnson says. Beyond that, the Bush administration should adopt a self-selecting global free trade association (GFTA) model which grants free trade status to countries that implement measurable economic reforms.

Time is running short to make free trade a reality, Johnson says. The Brazil-led Mercosur, or "Southern Cone" common market-a protectionist union of nations that extends around the southern end of South America-soon will require that all trade pacts by member nations be negotiated through it.

"The United States needs a strategic policy that pushes for basic political and economic reforms, recognizes the virtues of long-term cooperation and encourages Latin America's nascent democracies to be authors of their own success," Johnson writes. "Like welfare, foreign aid should not be accepted as a permanent state of affairs. Political will is the primary requirement for countries to establish the rule of law, liberalize their economies and create political stability, which are the true keys to development."

About the Author