Pubdate: Sun, 10 Feb 2002
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2002 Cox Interactive Media.
Author: Mike Williams, Cox Washington Bureau


Miami - Latin America and the Caribbean seemed to drop off the U.S. radar 
screen after Sept. 11, but the region's problems could easily entangle the 
United States in the coming decade.

Marxist guerrillas and cocaine cowboys in Colombia, an aging but crafty 
dictator in Cuba, an anti-American populist in Venezuela, economic and 
political paralysis in Haiti and the recent Argentina collapse are clear 
warning signs that America's own back yard shouldn't be ignored, experts say.

''The biggest challenge in Latin America over the next decade is the 
aftermath of Argentina,'' said Bruce Bagley, a Latin specialist at the 
University of Miami. ''We're likely to see more rejection of market 
reforms, a growing questioning of democracy and the emergence of more 
populist leaders. The U.S. talks a good rhetorical game on free trade, but 
in reality we're protectionist on textiles and agricultural goods. We're 
going to have to alter that, even if it means job losses at home.''

The fear of a fresh wave of instability sweeping Latin America isn't new. 
U.S. interests hit a high-water mark in the region in the mid-1990s as 
market reforms and democratic elections took hold and long-simmering 
conflicts in Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were settled.

But lately the pendulum appears to be swinging back.

In 1999, Venezuela elected as president a populist firebrand and one-time 
coup-plotter named Hugo Chavez, who has made Fidel Castro his biggest 
friend and the United States his biggest rhetorical target.

Last year, Peru managed to replace Alberto Fujimori, a corrupt dictator, in 
a democratic transition, but now faces severe economic problems.

Ecuador, meanwhile, saw a president deposed in 2000 by mass street protests 
brought on in part by popular discontent with free-trade policies.

But Latin American dangers suddenly took on new urgency late last year when 
chaos erupted in Argentina, a longtime U.S. ally and economic powerhouse.

The country has seen a revolving door at the presidential palace and is 
staggering under a giant debt load even as its economy is in shambles. The 
current leader, Eduardo Duhalde, has called for a rollback of market 
reforms, setting off jitters throughout Latin America.

''The Andean countries are very fragile,'' said Jennifer McCoy, director of 
the Americas Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta. ''The problems of 
corruption and ineptness and the feeling that the free market model isn't 
helping people's lives could create other implosions like we're seeing in 
Argentina. It wouldn't be sudden like Sept. 11, but it would be a real 
question of U.S. leadership. Will the U.S. lead or turn its back?''

Other experts single out Colombia as the region's powder keg. Marxist 
guerrillas in the troubled Andean nation have tapped the lucrative drug 
trade as a source for finances.

''After Sept. 11, people here are looking at the Colombian conflict with 
different eyes,'' said Mirko Lauer, a columnist for the La Republica 
newspaper in Lima, Peru. ''It put recent revelations that Colombia's 
Marxist guerrillas have ties with Basque terrorists from Spain and the IRA 
in a new light.''

Other analysts say the United States doesn't have to look so far from its 
own shores for a potential crisis, however.

''Mass emergency refugee flows,'' said Mark Krikorian of the Center for 
Immigration Studies, a Washington-based policy group. ''Two good 
possibilities are Haiti and Cuba. I feel Cuba is guaranteed, because Castro 
is going to die. No matter who takes over, there could be a melee and 
controls could break down. It would be an unholy mess. Hundreds of 
thousands of people might want to leave and many of them already have 
relatives in the U.S.''

Krikorian also warned that Mexico could falter as it struggles to reform 
its corrupt economic and political system, and that could also spawn a new 
wave of immigrants to the U.S. Such a crisis could dwarf the Mariel 
boatlift of 1980.

Another analyst points to U.S. oil dependency as a potential flashpoint. 
Michael Skol, who runs a consulting firm after a career as a Latin American 
specialist at the State Department, noted that Venezuela is a vital 
supplier of petroleum. Continued problems there, coupled with instability 
in the Middle East, could spawn a new U.S. energy crisis, he cautioned.

''I'm not predicting crisis in Saudi Arabia, but there are tensions there 
like the ones that led to the rise of the Taliban,'' he said.

Wherever the next crisis breaks out, analysts agree that the United States 
must improve its image in this hemisphere and in the developing world as a 
whole, combating a widespread perception that America is a bully that talks 
of freedom but invariably enforces its own self-interest.

''It seems to me that what is wrong are U.S. priorities,'' said former 
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. ''Terrorism is one of many challenges to 
humanity, but the basic threats to world peace are poverty, inequality, 
illiteracy, disease and environmental degradation. In the face of this, the 
U.S. spends $350 billion a year on defense and just .1 percent of GDP on 
foreign aid. The biggest enemy is poverty, which prevails in 80 percent of 
the world. Poverty needs no passport to travel.''

Mike Williams, based in Miami, is Cox Newspapers' Caribbean correspondent. 
He also traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan after Sept. 11, covering the 
December siege of Tora Bora.
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