lunes, noviembre 01, 2004


November 1, 2004

A strategic supplier of oil, natural gas and other raw materials, the source of potentially destabilising financial shocks and illegal migrants; not to mention the fact that as many as 40m Americans have Hispanic origins: there are reasons enough for Latin America and the Caribbean to occupy the attention of any US leader. But the region traditionally seen as a "backyard" has steadily slipped down President George W. Bush's agenda and has hardly figured in the election campaign. Whoever wins tomorrow needs to take a new look.
It is understandable that in the wake of the New York attacks the president quickly reviewed his commitment to make relations with Mexico and other countries in the hemisphere a strategic priority. And it is true Mr Bush's record has not been entirely negative. He has taken forward the free trade agenda, securing one deal - with Chile - and advancing others with the Andean and Central American countries.
But in too many areas, the administration has combined complacency with ideological obsession. It is too positive in its assessment of the impact of market-based reforms and has overlooked a potentially dangerous growth of economic and social tensions. Too much energy has been spent on measures to appease constituencies, such as right-wing Cuban exile groups.
In particular, it is time to recognise that the 43-year-old economic embargo against Cuba has failed. Measures, such as those further restricting travel by Americans to Cuba, have made ordinary Cubans' lives more difficult without bringing the end of Communist party rule any closer. They have made it easier for Fidel Castro to justify economic restrictions, such as last week's decision to outlaw circulation of the US dollar. Instability is important to the US given Cuba's proximity and its potential to generate flows of desperate migrants. This is all the more important given the recent natural disasters and deterioration of security conditions in neighbouring Haiti.
Further south, anti-Americanism is gaining ground and high commodity prices are allowing leaders such as Hugo Ch�vez of Venezuela to develop much more nationalist policies. In these circumstances the growth of Chinese influence in the region is something Washington ought to pay more attention to. Too often China is seen in the US simply as a cheap labour-based competitive threat to US allies such as Mexico and smaller countries in the Caribbean basin. It would be sensible to look more closely at the potential synergy between resource-rich Latin America and resource-hungry and capital-rich China.
Neglect will inevitably encourage Latin Americans to look for strategic partners elsewhere, potentially undermining US interests. The new White House incumbent will have pressing issues elsewhere, but he would be wise to give greater priority to relations with neighbours in the hemisphere.