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THE MIAMI HERALD
Latin America's Greatest Need: Real Opportunity
BY Myriam Marquez
January 15, 2004
President Bush left Mexico after patching up differences with Canada and allowing that country to bid for contracts to do rebuilding work in Iraq even though its leaders did not support the war. Welcome to the world order of global wheeling and dealing in the name of fighting terrorism. France, Germany and Russia may cash in next.
As for Latin America's economic future, which many had hoped to be the focus of the special summit of the Americas, Bush got an earful from leaders of the region about the fallacy of promoting free trade as the cure for what ails Latin America.
Not that most Americans care.
The U.S. buzz about the summit was Bush's immigration proposal delivered just days before heading to Monterrey. It certainly would help Mexican President Vicente Fox to have the United States allow some 8 million foreign workers, who have entered this country illegally, to get special work permits lasting three years. Fox's popularity at home has diminished. He hasn't been able to deliver the economic miracles he promised because his country's congress is controlled by the old protectionist guard of the opposing political party. Fox saw in Bush's proposal a glass half full of populist possibilities.
Most Americans aren't so sure. Bush's proposal is a transparent attempt to help U.S. companies keep cheap workers. Critics contend it's also a sop to Latino voters, though that's a leap for me. Polls keep showing that most Hispanic voters would like to close the immigration door, believing it hinders their own ability to get good-paying jobs when so many millions are willing to work for less.
Lost in all of this domestic angst about immigration is what the United States really should be doing to bolster the economies of struggling Latin American democracies. The wake-up call has been loud and clear. Latin American voters have turned to left-leaning, if not outright Marxist leaders, for relief during Bush's watch.
When Argentina fell into economic crisis, resulting in a revolving door of presidents who attempted to use U.S.-backed economic models that caused too much pain for the middle class, Bush did nothing to help that country climb out of the morass. Now Bush carries little clout with Argentina's left-leaning president Nestor Kirchner.
Brazil, meanwhile, has Lula, the shoeshine boy who used to train in communist Cuba, as its president. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva so far has played it safe, irking some of his old labor pals for not swelling government rolls with anti-poverty programs. Still, he's looking for ways to pull millions of Brazilians out of poverty without losing foreign investors. He challenges U.S. free-trade policies by currying favor with his country's business class, refusing to stop subsidizing certain industries. In a nation rich in natural resources, Brazil struggles with dire poverty built on an old oligarchy of large land owners. That's the reality Bush keeps running away from.
Trade and monetary policies that seek to have Latin American countries deal as if they have a thriving middle class, when they don't, only creates more have-nots desperate for a savior like Venezuela's petulant and divisive Hugo Chavez. It's telling that a country so rich in oil would have 80 percent of its people living in poverty. Chavez's Cuba model further wrecked the economy.
Free trade without other reforms, such as investments in education and subsidies and loans for homeownership, won't help the desperately poor any more than inflationary top-down socialist economic systems. Mexico knows. In this race-to-the-bottom global economy, China is making life miserable for Mexico's workers because China pays its workers even less than Mexico and can deliver cheaper goods.
Eventually, free trade can be a boon for all countries, as a more developed and educated Chile can attest. But not in countries with vast and deep inequities. Bush should be focusing on grants and loans to create good-paying jobs that can modernize Latin America.
Chavez points to America's New Deal during the Great Depression as the antidote to free trade. Of course, Latin America has had many new deals in the past 50 years, most of them leaving their leaders richer than when they went into office and their people poorer. U.S. policy should help get jobs directly to the people, cut out the corrupt government middlemen of the left and the right, to help build a secure middle class.
Trade is no quick fix without real reforms that expand job creation, small business opportunities and homeownership. Desperate people wouldn't be willing to die in the dessert or drown in the ocean to get here -- or turn to despots masquerading as democrats -- if they had real opportunity at home.