Pubdate: Wed, 20 Dec 2000
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2000 The Miami Herald
Contact:  One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132-1693
Fax: (305) 376-8950


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- (AP) -- When George W. Bush was running for 
president, he vowed that Latin America would be no ``afterthought'' to his 
foreign policy. Now that he's been elected, he'll face some of his biggest 
challenges south of the U.S. border.

Bush led one of the biggest Spanish-speaking states as governor of Texas. 
As president-elect, he insists Latin America won't be overshadowed, saying 
he wants to promote ``strong partners'' and not ``weak neighbors.''

``Weak neighbors export problems: environmental trouble, illegal 
immigration, even crime, drugs and violence,'' Bush said on the campaign 
trail last August. ``Strong neighbors export their goods and buy ours, 
creating jobs and good will.''

``I will look south not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment 
of my presidency.''

It won't take long for Latin America's problems to land on Bush's desk: 
Colombia's cocaine trade is rising along with the bloodshed, beleaguered 
democracies from Haiti to Peru will be clamoring for attention, and then 
there is the question of free trade and illegal immigration.

Managing it all will be a tall task.

Soon after Bush takes office in January, a $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug 
initiative dubbed Plan Colombia will get under way, aimed at stemming the 
flow of cocaine and heroin to the United States. Bush supports the plan, to 
the praise of Colombian President Andres Pastrana.

``The good thing is there will be continuity in U.S. policy toward 
Colombia,'' Pastrana said last week after Bush's election was confirmed.

But Plan Colombia has raised fears the conflict might spill across borders.

Samuel Moreno, an independent lawmaker in Colombia, said Republicans 
generally have a heavier hand in military affairs -- a tendency that could 
throw a wrench into moves toward peace.

``The fact that a Republican has won means a much bigger commitment to the 
military aspect of Plan Colombia, something that is rather worrisome,'' he 

Elsewhere, shoring up democracy tops the agenda.

Chile, Argentina and Brazil long ago retired their dictatorships, but 
Paraguay has bumped from one crisis to another since military rule ended in 
1989. Ecuador struggled through a coup by military officers in January. 
Haiti has a still tenuous grasp on democracy. And Peru is bidding to put 
Alberto Fujimori's decade of autocratic rule behind.

Riordan Roett, a Latin American expert at Johns Hopkins University, said 
Peru's special presidential election in April bodes well but much remains 
to be done to rebuild weakened institutions there.

As for Haiti, muddling along after troubled elections, Roett said: ``I 
don't think anyone has an answer.''

Venezuela offers another challenge. President Hugo Chavez is a nationalist 
whose warm ties to Cuba's Castro have largely been ignored by Washington. 
But a new Venezuelan contract to provide subsidized oil to Cuba rankled 
Washington, because of the ongoing U.S. embargo on the island.

Still, U.S. officials are quick to emphasize there are more points of 
agreement -- including fighting drug trafficking -- than disagreement with 
Venezuela, one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the United States. But 
opinion could change should Chavez take his ``Bolivarian'' revolution abroad.

South America's largest economy, Brazil, offers Bush solid support.

``We are standing before an exceptional opportunity,'' President Fernando 
Henrique Cardoso wrote Bush. ``Together we can make this century, the 
century of the Americas.''

The United States, with an economy nearly five times bigger than the rest 
of the hemisphere combined, is Latin America's leading trade partner. Bush 
has said he'll seek fast-track negotiating authority from Congress to 
expand free trade across the hemisphere, shooting for a 2005 deadline.

The last George Bush in the White House launched the talks that led to the 
North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. But his son 
will have to be wary of the kinds of crises that can blow up quickly on a 
presidential watch.

For the elder Bush, it took a 1989 invasion of Panama to oust strongman 
Manuel Noriega. Some Panamanians say they hope the younger Bush will head 
off the inevitable problems before they become full-blown.

``I hope he's not coming in with the same ideas as his father,'' said one 
Panamanian, Jose Murillo, still angry over the invasion. ``We all suffered 
here and we lost everything ... because of the problem between the United 
States and Noriega.''
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom