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Latin America Wary About Candidates' Focus

U.S. Hispanic issues the key concern?


October 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 All Rights Reserved.

The two leading presidential contenders have made promises to please leaders of the barrios and the boardrooms, but Latin America specialists worry that neither campaign has yet to address long-term solutions to the region's political violence, drug woes and poverty.

Underscoring the sense that regional issues are filtered through the perspective of domestic Hispanic politics, both candidates have framed their policy statements by acknowledging the growth of Latin influence in the United States.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush began his signature speech on the hemisphere with a salute to the Latinization of ``the new America.''

Robert Pastor, Vice President Al Gore's point man on Latin America, spoke in similar terms at The Herald Americas Conference last month. ``Latin America can see its face in North America,'' Pastor said.

Bush relies heavily on two Cuban Americans for policy advice, Frank Calzón, who heads the nonprofit Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, and Otto Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela, in a team headed by Robert Zoellick, an undersecretary of state under Bush's father, former President George Bush.

But the emphasis on the merging of the two regions sparks misgivings on the part of some former officials who say that there are tough decisions that need to be made from a strategic perspective, not one designed to win votes.

``One [Bush] would Calle Ocho-ize foreign policy and the other [Gore] will barrio-ize it,'' said a former senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity. ``It will be looked at through the looking glass of domestic Hispanic policy. This is offensive to Latin America and to the Hispanic community.''

But Pastor, now at Emory University, said this focus is inevitable. ``In the post-Cold War era, there is for the United States a much more intense focus on domestic issues.''

With the notable exception of Haiti policy, where Bush has questioned military intervention to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, there is little difference on proposals. Both men favor strengthening democracy, a Free Trade Area of the Americas, combating illegal drugs, money laundering and corruption, more private investment and enterprise and no change in Cuba policy.

Bush proposes putting more agents on the U.S. borders and both discuss cooperation with Latin America to combat drug trafficking.

But David Rothkopf, co-editor of the recently published Cuba: The Contours of Change, said that the policy needs revamping since the next president is likely to preside during the fall of President Fidel Castro's Cuba. ``The question is whether it's a fast and tumultuous fall that creates an immigration problem or a soft landing,'' Rothkopf said. ``That depends on whether we have a hands-off stance until it's too late or not. The embargo should be lifted and we should increase our leverage to move things to our interests.''

Colombia is another area of agreement. Both candidates favor the $1.3 billion in military aid and training under Plan Colombia. But will it work?

``I am not sure either potential administration is grappling with coming up with a long-term view or strategy in Colombia,'' said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Both candidates champion the idea of strengthening democracy in Latin America.

Bush called democracy his first goal.

Pastor, a Gore advisor, called for a Hemispheric Community of Democracies, even suggesting a ``democracy clause'' could become a provision in the Free Trade Area of the Americas, now in preliminary negotiations.

Both Bush and Gore support free trade with the region.

Advisors to both candidates contend that their man would be the most likely to gain congressional passage of new trade legislation needed to energize lagging hemispheric trade talks. For the past seven years, both Republicans and Democrats have blamed each other for repeated delays in approving ``fast track'' legislation that removes most congressional oversight to trade talks and relegates legislative participation to a simple yes or no vote.

Bush, the Republican hopeful, made his mark by calling hemispheric relations one of his five policy priorities, then delivering an Aug. 25 speech on the hemisphere in Miami. ``Should I become president, I will look south, not as an afterthought, but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency,'' Bush promised.

Democrats remind voters -- and journalists -- that Gore not only has hands-on Latin American policy experience under his belt, but won the difficult passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in Congress in 1993 after a debate with former Reform Party candidate Ross Perot.

Both back the hemispheric trade pact, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, as their vision of bringing prosperity to the region.

The only question on trade seems to be which potential president will be more successful in gaining the votes on fast track. Gore maintains there must be some linkage between trade and environmental and labor safeguards, and many analysts believe he would be more successful in building a new coalition in favor of trade legislation.

Bush supports the Republican stance that trade should not be linked to such safeguards and any ``fast track'' legislation must be ``clean.''

It is not clear that the presidential voice will be the final word on trade.

``The politics of trade don't depend only on who is elected president,'' said Daniel Seligman, director of the Responsible Trade Program at the Sierra Club, which endorses Gore. ``There are policies that go deeper than who is in the White House. It depends on who is in Congress.''

These conflictive trade issues will also depend on the state of the U.S. economy, with everyone agreeing that an economic slowdown will raise concern about job losses to a new trade agreement with countries with much lower wage scales.

In his Miami speech, Bush made some specific proposals, such as $100 million in funding to micro-credit organizations and a similar amount to spend on debt reduction for saving tropical forests.

But only in Pastor's speech was there mention of the widening rejection of disaffected groups of the economic policies favored by Washington and multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

With many of the Andean countries suffering from economic slowdown and the economy worsening in Argentina, one of the new president's first tasks may be to quench financial fires in the region.

This is not the Latin America envisioned by either major candidate, who believe their first venture in regional policy will be the next hemispheric summit in Canada next.

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