Originally: When It Comes to Latin America, Bush Is So Close and Yet So Far

May 4, 2003

It’s too bad that President Bush did not extend his visit to San Diego last week beyond a speech and photo op aboard a homeward-bound aircraft carrier. If he’d just taken a short auto trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, Bush could also have restarted an important process he had well underway before Sept. 11, 2001: building a new U.S. relationship with Latin America.

After all, with the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the focus of U.S. Mideast policy shifting to the “road map” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a peaceful domestic southern flank remains our most important guarantee of a safe, secure homeland.

With China now using its influence to defuse nuclear tensions with North Korea, I can think of no better illustration of how valuable friends and allies can be when it comes to international diplomacy, even for a superpower. And nowhere does the U.S. have as many old and trusted friends as it does from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego.

A visit to the southern border, if not to Mexico itself, would also have been a boost for the man Bush has nominated to be his new chief diplomat for Latin America, Roger F. Noriega.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee coincidentally began Noriega’s confirmation hearing the same day as Bush’s speech on the carrier Abraham Lincoln. There is little doubt that Noriega, who has been Bush’s representative to the Organization of American States, will be confirmed. But Noriega might have faced less skepticism from the committee, not to mention south of the border, if Bush had made even a small gesture to remind everyone how much attention the White House had focused on Latin America in the days before 9/11. It would have offered some hope that the progress begun back then might soon resume.

As it was, Noriega played it safe, mouthing cliches about how 9/11 and the war on terror have made progress on issues like an immigration accord with Mexico unlikely for a while.

That only gave ammunition to critics who see Noriega as more of a lightweight than Otto J. Reich, the political hack who preceded him.

In fact, Noriega has gotten good marks for his work at the OAS. He’s anti-Castro, like Reich, but he understands Latin America well enough to know that the sun rises and sets there on many more people, and issues, than Fidel Castro.

One would be Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, who could become a premature lame duck after this summer’s Mexican congressional elections unless he gets some help from Washington on a migration agreement to legalize the status of millions of Mexican citizens in the U.S. If the White House fails to extend a hand to Fox, the U.S. will have blown its last chance to strike a deal with the most pro-American president Mexicans have elected since World War II.

There’s also Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. A populist, Lula, as he is widely known, oversees Latin America’s second-largest economy and wants to modify some recent free-market reforms to spread more of his nation’s often ostentatious wealth to the many Brazilians who are desperately poor. Bush should work with Lula.

And when will Washington sign a long-pending free-trade agreement with Chile? Or conclude negotiations to expand free-trade rights to the five countries of Central America, including some that joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing” against Iraq? And what additional help can Washington give Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe as he struggles against the drug lords, guerrillas and death squads that have made his nation a charnel house? And what can be done to avoid civil war in Venezuela, a major U.S. oil supplier?

And what will Washington do if disillusioned voters in Argentina backslide on economic reform there by again electing a corrupt and discredited Peronist, Carlos Saul Menem, to be their president?

There is plenty of work south of the border to keep Bush busy as he awaits peace in the Middle East or progress on the Korean peninsula. Our friends in Latin America require very little encouragement to do the right thing; just some attention from their powerful neighbor. But it can’t come just from an appointee like Noriega. It must come from el Jefe.