Pubdate: Sun,  3 Mar 2002
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2002 The State
Author: Kevin G. Hall


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - With the United States focused on the war 
against terrorism, long-simmering problems in Latin America have 
boiled over.

Those woes could force President Bush to pay the sort of attention to 
America's closest neighbors that he promised during the presidential 
election campaign.

. Colombia, the world's largest producer of cocaine, has erupted into 
open warfare against Marxist rebels who are deeply involved in the 
drug trade. Government troops have started retaking by force a swath 
of the country that was ceded to the rebels in a December 1998 bid 
for peace.

. Argentina is in a state of near-collapse and has defaulted on more 
than $141 billion of government debt that it owes to investors in the 
United States and elsewhere.

. Oil-rich Venezuela, the third-largest supplier of crude oil to the 
United States, is close to anarchy, with army officers rebelling 
against leftist President Hugo Chavez, the CIA and State Department 

. Even in Brazil and Bolivia, countries that are following the 
Washington blueprint for economic reform, anti-Washington 
presidential candidates lead opinion polls.

Many experts on the region think U.S. inattention comes at a big price.

"If there is one lesson one can walk away with from Sept. 11, it is 
when the U.S. is distracted, it is not very good for Latin America," 
said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a 
Washington research center on the Americas.

Bush To Visit Peru

Hopes rose in Latin America in 1994, when President Bill Clinton held 
the Summit of the Americas in Miami and elected leaders from the 
region pledged to create a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone by 2005.

Yet Clinton's attention faded. For most of his second term, the chief 
policy adviser for Latin America -- the assistant secretary of state 
for the region -- was never formally appointed.

It took President Bush a year to get Otto Reich approved as assistant 
secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. There was no 
ambassador to Brazil, Latin America's largest country, for Bush's 
first year in office. One finally will arrive in April.

The absence of a clear policy leader for Latin America has left many 
governments in the region adrift, said Stephen Johnson, a Latin 
America policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative 
research center in Washington.

"There has to be a fence post against which countries developing 
their markets and democracies can lean," said Johnson.

In decades past, Latin American nations looked to Washington for aid. 
Now they are asking for trade, in the form of preferential market 
access like Mexico enjoys under the North American Free Trade 
Agreement. Access to the U.S. market gives countries the incentive to 
sign on to the market reforms that America demands and to turn away 
from producing illicit drugs.

The presidents of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia are expected to push for 
trade concessions when they meet Bush in the Peruvian capital of Lima 
on March 23.

It will be the first visit to the poor Andean nation by a U.S. 
president, and the Andean nations will seek trade preferences to 
offset the income their citizens are losing by not cultivating coca, 
the plant from which cocaine is made.

"The presence of Bush in Lima on March 23 is a great opportunity" to 
press for a new agenda, said Harold Forsyth, Peru's ambassador to 

Increasing U.S. Role in Colombia

Colombia itself could force the entire region back onto Washington's 
radar screen. Its civil war threatens to spill refugees and drug 
production into neighboring countries Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, 
Bolivia, Panama and Peru.

In early February, the Bush administration announced it wanted to 
provide almost $100 million to train and arm a brigade of the 
Colombian army to protect a pipeline that moves gas to a Caribbean 
Sea port for export to the United States.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana also has asked the Bush 
administration to lift a stipulation in the $1.3 billion Plan 
Colombia aid effort that restricts the use of U.S. military hardware 
to anti-drug efforts. The Bush administration is broadening 
intelligence sharing with the Colombian government and speeding up 
the delivery of replacement parts for Black Hawk and Huey helicopters.

The increasing U.S. involvement in Colombia's conflict makes some 
Latin Americans nervous, remembering decades of U.S. meddling and 
covert action during the Cold War era. The United States has promised 
that combat troops will not be directly involved in Colombia, but the 
advisers, military hardware and intelligence raise questions about 
where anti-narcotics efforts end and prohibited counter-insurgency 
involvement begins.

"Everybody knows that in Colombia it is very, very difficult to draw 
that line of distinction," said the Brazilian official, who was 
understanding of the Bush administration's quandary. "You know how 
sensitive public opinion is in Latin American countries to an 
American military presence in the region."

The Bush administration appears willing to take any heat for a higher 
profile in Colombia. U.S. military officers accompanied Pastrana on a 
tour late mast month of the former safe haven of the Revolutionary 
Armed Forces of Colombia.

"There is going to be an attempt to sell a broader presence than we 
now have in Colombia," predicted Coletta Youngers, senior associate 
at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights lobby in 
the capital. "That is going to be spark tremendous debate."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh