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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2005

What about 'other Americas'?

Part of an occasional series

It sounds naive for the United States to expect the 34 countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America to march in lockstep toward a unanimous embrace of democracy, a liberal economy, and a more sympathetic and cooperative relationship with the United States.

That is nonetheless the U.S. policy goal in this hemisphere, based in part on a belief that these objectives are in the best interests of everyone concerned.

Assessing the string of eight elections and referendums that took place in the region in 2004 produces a very mixed picture.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whom the United States is accused of having tried to overthrow, won a referendum on his continued rule with 59 percent. Bolivia passed referendum questions that in effect re-nationalized its oil and gas industry. El Salvador's right-wing party, associated with earlier human rights abuses, won its elections. Panama elected as president the son of a former dictator.

U.S. policy toward Cuba remained the sterile, wait-until-Castro-dies approach that it has been for 44 years, reinforced by the Bush Administration's continued determination to cater to the Cuban-American voters and campaign donors of Florida.

Administration policy has come under increasing domestic political attack as U.S. farm states and their members of Congress become more interested in U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba. Castro, though 78, remains firmly in control, so 2005 promises more of the same in U.S.-Cuban policy.

President Chavez of Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, continues to define his administration's populist approach, cheerfully redistributing the country's oil wealth to its poor, as anti-American. He sees the U.S. as the root of his domestic political problems.

Mr. Chavez tweaked the nose of the Colossus of the North toward the end of the year by signing a special oil deal with China; he already supplies Cuba with cut-rate oil.

Americans of Latin American origin are generally good, taxpaying, law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, the idea of masses of low-education, low-skill, needy Spanish-speaking migrants swarming across the border continues to give U.S. citizens, including those of Latin American origin, a case of nerves.

Therein lies the origin of some U.S. problems with Mexico and of President Bush's own challenge in developing and marketing a coherent immigration policy.

The hemisphere's most intractable problem remains Haiti, residing in chronic economic squalor and plagued by political turmoil and violence. A multinational peacekeeping mission led by Brazil continues to wrestle with Haiti's security problems, in hopes that elections scheduled for 2005 will offer a ray of hope to the tormented population of the demi-island.

What U.S. relations with Latin America need most is attention, especially from a Spanish-speaking American president well suited to provide it.



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