June7, 2002

Snow Job – Bush Courts Latinos as Latin American Ties Worsen

By Andrew Reding

As he was wooing Latino voters in the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush pledged to make relations with Latin America a “fundamental commitment of my presidency.”

The president’s ongoing courtship of Latinos — which includes speaking to Latinos in Spanish, alluding to his brother’s half-Mexican children, showcasing his friendship with Mexican President Vicente Fox – is clearly succeeding. A new Sergio Bendixen opinion poll finds support among Latino voters up by almost 30 percent, driven in large measure by a perception that Bush cares about them, and that he has a special affinity for Latin America.

Yet — paradoxically — U.S. relations with Latin America are deteriorating, amid signs that President Bush’s “commitment” to Latin America is more about seducing votes at home than it is about clear and strong foreign policy in the hemisphere. Are Latinos, who care enough about their families in their countries of origin to send billions of dollars in remittances every year, being hoodwinked?

The president’s selection of Otto Reich as top state department official for Latin America caused consternation in Latin American capitals. Reich is an extreme right-wing Cuban exile whose appointment pleased only one constituency — Miami Cubans, whose votes tipped George W. Bush into the presidency.

Reich helped steer the administration into a serious blunder during April’s failed military coup against the elected president of Venezuela. With Reich as primary cheerleader, the administration briefly backed an interim president who immediately dissolved the nation’s Congress and Supreme Court, and is now on the run.

Latin American leaders, almost all of whom immediately condemned the coup, were appalled. Under the Inter-American Democracy Charter adopted last Sept. 11, the United States and 33 other countries had made a joint commitment not to recognize any government arising from a coup.

But the coup in Venezuela is not the only Bush administration misstep in Latin America.

Argentines, suffering a deep economic crisis, feel betrayed. Throughout the 1990s, Argentina aligned itself with the United States, enacting economic reforms favored by Washington, even pegging its peso to the dollar. Now, with its economy — the third largest in Latin America – in meltdown, the Bush administration has refused to extend a helping hand.

Brazilians are also feeling double-crossed — in this case by the president’s decisions to slap tariffs on steel and to support increased subsidies for U.S. farmers. “Trade, not aid” is a favorite Bush motto. Behind the rhetoric, however, Latin Americans are seeing the reality of greater protectionism, oriented to securing votes in key congressional districts in an election year.

Chile, the region’s star economic performer, has for years been promised a free trade agreement with the United States. All it has gotten so far is a contract for the purchase of F-16 fighter planes it can neither afford nor justify in a region where armed forces have until now been downsizing. Instead of negotiating a trade deal with Washington, it has just done so with the European Union.

In Colombia, President-elect Alvaro Uribe wants to capitalize on the U.S. campaign against terrorism to obtain direct U.S. involvement in the country’s decades-long civil war. The Bush administration seems only too willing to oblige, even though such intervention will cause the war to spill over into neighboring Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.

Even President Fox is now openly sharing his misgivings with the Bush administration. In a May 9 speech to the Council of the Americas in New York City, Fox said progress in U.S.-Mexican relations had “stalled” with the White House’s failure to deliver on immigration reform.

Considering all the favors Fox has done for Bush, he has every reason to feel slighted. Fox has arrested the leaders of the most important Mexican drug cartels. He has extradited hundreds of fugitives from U.S. justice. He has dramatically changed Mexico’s historic supportive policy toward Cuba, having his country vote for a U.N. probe into Cuban human rights violations. All of these actions have boosted Bush’s standing north of the border, with important sectors of U.S. voters.

What has Fox gotten in return? Nothing but smiles and handshakes.

With even Fox beginning to ask where’s the beef in the Bush taco, shouldn’t Mexican-American and other Latino voters be asking the same question? No one likes to be used. While is nice to have a president who finally pays attention to Latinos, it would be even nicer to have one who delivers on his promised “commitment” to Latin America.

Andrew Reding. Reding (areding@earthlink.net) directs the Americas Project of the World Policy Institute in New York.

Return to the Frontpage