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US-LATIN AMERICA: Next President Must Pursue “Fresh Approach”

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 18 2007 (IPS) - With Washington’s image in Latin America at its lowest ebb in memory, President George W. Bush’s successor must pursue a “fresh approach” to the region – one aimed, in particular, at reducing poverty and the yawning gap between rich and poor , according to a new report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) released here Tuesday.

The 14-page report, “Forging New Ties: A Fresh Approach to U.S. Policy in Latin America”, argues that 20 years of U.S. economic prescriptions for the region, often called the “Washington Consensus”, have “done little to improve the lives of ordinary Latin Americans”, with the result that the U.S. has looked “at best indifferent” to their plight.

The failure of such policies has strengthened populist and social democratic movements, some of which rely on anti-U.S. sentiment, throughout the region, according to the report. Instead of portraying these movements as potential threats to U.S. security, Washington “should respond positively to the impulse behind (them).”

“Fear-mongers think these (movements) are threats from the region, but the fundamental issue is poverty and inequality,” said Geoff Thale, WOLA’s policy director.

“U.S. policy-makers have yet to grasp the magnitude of the new dynamics in the region and the implications for our own country,” according to the report, which noted that, while Bush himself gave lip service to the cause of social justice in a trip to Latin America earlier this year, little has changed in policy terms.

“Our media and politicians need to think about Latin America in terms that go beyond the current debates over immigration issues or the drug trade,” according to the report. “Old approaches need to be discarded and new relationships forged.”

The report, which is designed to spur debate on Inter-American relations among the already crowded field of presidential contenders for the November 2008 elections, comes amid growing concern among Latin America specialists and policy-makers about Washington’s image and continued influence in the region.

A BBC poll released earlier this year found that majorities of respondents in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico held “mainly negative” views of the U.S. influence in the world, while a combined average of only about one in five respondents in the four countries said their views were “mainly positive”.

While those perceptions are explained in major part by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and other actions related to Bush’s “war on terror”, including the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, according to Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group (ICG), other factors relating directly to Latin America have also played a role.

He pointed most recently to Congress’ handling of the increasingly divisive immigration debate here which “ended in the default decision to build a high wall along the border. The Berlin Wall was a symbol of a failed Soviet policy, and this border wall will be a symbol of a failed immigration policy,” said Schneider.

A former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Schneider coupled his endorsement of the report with a call for Washington to adopt a “New Deal” for the Americas similar to that adopted by Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The report stressed that U.S. policy initiatives in Latin America should be based on three over-arching principles: pursuing economic growth strategies to promote greater equity in the region’s societies; increasing support for programmes designed to improve the rule of law and public security; and promoting the consolidation of democracy and civil society and respect for human rights.

Washington must recognise, according to Thale, that poverty and inequality are two of the main driving forces for immigration to the U.S. To address the issue, Washington should focus its aid and its influence in multilateral development banks on advancing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Latin America for reducing poverty, disease, and illiteracy.

In particular, the U.S. should make a much greater commitment to rural development, which has been sorely neglected in Latin America over the last 20 years; focus, in particular, on efforts to reduce poverty in indigenous and Afro-Latin communities; and adjust existing and pending trade agreements with Latin partners to ensure greater protection for worker rights, small producers, local communities, and the environment.

The rise in violence and crime has become a major issue throughout the region should also be addressed more effectively by any new administration in Washington. In particular, the U.S. should increase its support for violence-prevention programmes, the professionalisation of civilian-based policing, judicial reform, and universal primary education.

Washington should also adopt more effective drug-control strategies, beginning with enhanced efforts to reduce demand in the United States; crack down on the trafficking of weapons from the U.S. to Latin America; investigate drug-trafficking networks; and promote alternative livelihoods and crops for small farmers.

To promote more democratic governance, Washington should begin by closing down the Guantanamo detention facility; make clear that its human rights assessments will not be manipulated for political reasons or applied selectively against governments considered hostile to the U.S.; and increase support for democratic institutions, including parliaments and civil society.

Among other measures, the next U.S. president should within the first 100 days of his or her administration travel to the region to articulate the new approach; announce aid programmes geared to meeting MDGs in Latin America; engage Congress on passing comprehensive immigration reform that will normalise the status of undocumented Latin Americans in the U.S.; propose an inter-American summit to reconsider drug strategies; and call on Congress to lift the ban on travel to Cuba, according to the report.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based think tank co-chaired by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carla Hills and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, praised the report’s recommendations. However, he cautioned that a new administration will find it difficult to translate them into policy, particularly given the likelihood that the new administration will still be focused much more on the Middle East than on Latin America.

“It’s very hard, for example, to see where the resources will come from for agricultural development; they’re all going to the Middle East,” he told IPS, noting that Bush himself sought a more liberal immigration policy and a reduction in U.S. agricultural subsidies without success. “Whoever’s elected next year is going to face those constraints as well.”

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