Latin America: The Bush Administration’s Disappeared Foreign Policy and Kerry’s Future Vision for the Region

  • Negative opinions of the United States have mushroomed in Latin America since George W. Bush took office.
  • The Bush Administration has done little to improve its strained relationship with the region; in fact it has increased tensions by offering pitiful economic assistance to the region, intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations, supporting coups d’état and insulting or threatening government heads and leading citizens in the region.
  • Candidate John Kerry’s “Community of the Americas” plan offers greater hope for the future of U.S. – Latin American relations.


What Latin America is Thinking

According to a survey recently conducted by the Santiago-based polling firm Latinobarometro, negative opinions of the United States held throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have doubled since President George W. Bush took office in 2001. Voice of the People, an international polling service, reported that only in the Middle East is the general attitude towards the United States harsher than in Latin America. Last March, these opinions were physically manifested when all across Latin America, tens of thousands of angry citizens took to the streets in fiery anti-Bush demonstrations protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq one year earlier.

Contempt for Bush is not only prevalent among ordinary citizens, but also can be witnessed among prominent politicians, academics and other elites. Argentine Senator Cristina Fernández, wife of President Néstor Kirchner, made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention in July. Maria José da Conceiao, of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies’ Foreign Affairs and National Defense Commission, told reporters that “the majority of Brazilian parliamentarians, including many conservatives, prefer Kerry, and are anti-Bush.” The same can be said about the attitude of most journalists writing on the issue. Sergio Gómez Maseri, correspondent for the major Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, in reviewing the recently concluded presidential debates, reported that Kerry “has demonstrated that he possesses presidential talent …and that his ‘flip-flops’ on issues like the war can be reconciled if he is permitted to give explanations.” Bush, on the other hand, “continues to show that he is a president with a one track mind. He believes, almost blindly, in a few principles and values and is willing to defend them even against the greatest political risks… [for Bush], the world is black and white, gray is dangerous territory.” Influential Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes recommended that, if elected, John Kerry should follow “a very simple recipe: always do the opposite” of George W. Bush. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez put it most bluntly when he told Al-Jazeera news service, “We do not prefer a certain candidate but no president can be worse than Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush has become the largest threat to the world.”

Bush’s Record on Latin America
During his four years in office, President Bush has done little to alter his markedly negative reputation in the region: when the Caribbean was devastated by the same succession of hurricanes that battered Florida, Bush initially offered only $50,000 in aid, compared to the one million dollars offered by Venezuelan authorities, to cope with the more than one billion dollars in damages. This action followed an earlier controversy when, in July, the Bush administration announced a new policy limiting the amount of remittances Cuban-Americans could send to their families back on the island, and making it illegal for them to return to Cuba to visit relatives more than once every three years. This has led to considerable resentment among the traditionally Republican Cuban-American community.

The Bush administration has also been accused of engineering regime changes in the hemisphere. Soon after the civil unrest in Haiti peaked last February, with a number of well-armed former members of Haiti’s brutal military surrounding Port-au-Prince, U.S. diplomats informed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that should he and his family remain in Port-au-Prince, “[the U.S] could not guarantee their safety.” These officials demanded that Aristide sign a letter of resignation before allowing him and his family to board a plane to safety. Washington then arranged the installation of an interim government headed by Gerard Latortue, a Haitian international agency bureaucrat and private consultant who had been a resident of Boca Raton, Florida, rather than Haiti, for decades. Most recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated charges (vehemently denied by Aristide) that the deposed president had ordered members of his Lavalas party to stage anti-Latortue demonstrations from his exile in South Africa.

The Bush administration’s record on Venezuela is little better. The White House publicly supported, and may have helped engineer, an April 2002 coup attempt against President Hugo Chávez. It is also being alleged that the U.S. may have supported strike actions by the country’s middle class-led opposition in hopes of undermining the Venezuelan economy and increasing social unrest, thereby bettering the prospects that the president would be voted out of office in last August’s recall referendum. Only when it became clear that the referendum would register strong support in favor of Chávez did the Bush camp briefly attempt to reconcile relations with one of the U.S.’ largest oil partners. By October, however, the Bush administration again reflected its anti-Chávez sentiment by accusing Venezuela of engaging in human trafficking, giving the U.S. reason to vote against hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Caracas being considered by international lending agencies. Many specialists are convinced that this judgment by the State Department was a political act and had no basis in Venezuela’s actual practices in regards to human trafficking.

Given this litany of negative actions by the Bush administration in Latin America, one wonders what the president has done to improve relations with the rest of the hemisphere. An accurate answer would have to be, very little. With the exception of Cuba, Latin America is not even mentioned on the official Bush-Cheney campaign website. Upon receiving a request for information on Bush’s stance on Latin America, the Bush-Cheney campaign obligingly sent the Council on Hemispheric Affairs a thirty page brief covering the president’s position on issues relating to Hispanics in the United States. Apparently, aside from trade, immigration and Cuba, the Bush administration has no structured policy on Latin America. One wonders how Bush can claim to lead the world when he appears to be either completely oblivious to, or arrogantly complacent about, the hatred he is arousing in his own neighborhood.

The Community of the Americas

The public stance of John Kerry stands in marked contrast to the Bush administration’s neglect and abuse towards Latin America. The title of Kerry’s plan alone presents a sharp contrast to the approach of his opponent: “The Community of the Americas” showcases Kerry’s platform of “partnership and mutual respect” in the face of Bush’s imperial disregard for the dignity and the intrinsic worth of neighboring countries. Among other reasonable goals, Kerry seeks to promote educational exchanges between the United States and the rest of Latin America in order to achieve greater cultural understanding between nations. His plan would also make it easier and less costly for immigrants to send remittances back to their native countries and would encourage that some of those funds be sent to “home town” associations to promote community development in poorer nations. In addition, Kerry has proposed a Social Development and Investment Fund, which would invest capital in education, healthcare and economic development projects, and work with neighboring countries to increase border security while at the same time facilitating legitimate travel by law-abiding citizens.

Kerry most sharply clarifies his differences with Bush in a section of his report titled “Strengthening Democracy.” In this statement, he promises that “the unequivocal support and defense of democracy and the rule of law will be at the core of his policy towards the Hemisphere.” Kerry promises to stay neutral in free elections, specifically citing the Bolivian presidential election of 2002, when Washington announced that it would cut off aid to the country if indigenous activist Evo Morales were elected. Most importantly, Kerry also pledges to support democratically elected leaders, “even an imperfect one such as Aristide in Haiti or Chávez in Venezuela.” As “interventionism” has become the most hated aspect of affairs with the U.S. in the past few decades, this promise of respect is especially crucial in restoring good relations with Latin America. Finally, Kerry takes care to note that he also supports non-violent opposition and internal dissent. In a concession to the Cuban-American vote in Florida, he specifically mentions support for Osvaldo Payá, who is currently conducting a campaign of peaceful resistance and petition inside of Cuba.

While never specifically addressing the North American Free Trade Agreement in his report, Kerry states that “free trade agreements should not mean that job gains in one country mean job losses in another,” and argues that the new Central American Free Trade Agreement “misses the mark on labor and environmental standards.” He promises to bring CAFTA and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas back to the negotiating table to resolve the inherent problems that can be found in them, particularly regarding controversial labor and environmental clauses.

Perhaps most significantly for peace and cooperation in the region, Kerry has listened and responded to Latin American criticisms of the U.S. He seeks to revoke the image of the United States as a maverick nation that is too arrogant to work with regional and international institutions, and promises to establish a common cause with other governments and with organizations such as the Organization of American States and the Carter Center to bring enhanced democracy to the hemisphere, particularly to Cuba.

Should Kerry wish to be successful in Latin America, it is important that he not simply follow his predecessors and relegate Latin America to a benign neglect. Latin America needs support from the U.S. not only to fight the wars on drugs, terrorism and human trafficking, but also to address the deeper problems of endemic poverty and desperately needed social reform. It is likely that if John Kerry were elected, he would experience an eased relationship overnight with Latin America simply because he is not George W. Bush. However, it is important that he take advantage of what will undoubtedly be a brief honeymoon period and act on what he has pledged. John Kerry’s plans, if implemented, could help the U.S. restore a balanced and constructive relationship not only with Latin America, but with the rest of the world.