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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2005

Strained relations with Latin America

THE level of political upheaval in Latin America has risen significantly in the past few years. Aside from the chronic problems of Haiti, there has been some instability in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela, to cite the most dramatic examples. There has been fairly radical political change, from right to left in general, in Brazil and Uruguay as well.

A second striking phenomenon is that U.S. influence has declined under the Bush Administration to the point that it has little ability now to affect events there. This unpleasant truth manifested itself during the largely unsuccessful venture of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Latin America last week, following on a previous unsuccessful trip by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Ms. Rice's trip took her to Colombia, Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador. The main objective was to push for a new secretary-general of the Organization of American States who was more rather than less agreeable to the administration.

She failed miserably in that endeavor, not for want of strenuous personal diplomacy, but rather because of the considerable unpopularity in Latin America of the policies of the administration she represents.

The battle started when the previous OAS secretary-general, who had taken office last year with U.S. support, the normal pattern, resigned to face charges of corruption at home, thus forcing a special election.

The U.S. first choice for the post, former Salvadorian President Francisco Flores, had to drop out when most of the 34 OAS members made it clear they saw his U.S. support as a payback for El Salvador's having provided troops for the Iraq war. That left two candidates, Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza and Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez.

The Bush Administration likes Chile, but doesn't like Mr. Insulza because he is a socialist, favors bringing Cuba back into the OAS, and has good relations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, the Bush oil gang's favorite Latin American enemy. U.S. support thus shifted from the eliminated Salvadorian, Mr. Flores, to the Mexican, Mr. Derbez, in the process sinking his candidacy like a stone.

The Chilean, Mr. Insulza, was chosen informally on Friday with Secretary Rice in attendance, her efforts to torpedo his election having failed. He was ratified formally on Monday.

The fact that the United States normally contributes some 60 percent of the OAS budget and that the organization is headquartered in Washington raises the question of how this particular train wreck occurred. It isn't that there is anything terrible about Mr. Insulza, but it is clear that the OAS rejected two Washington-backed candidates to choose him instead and that the last act took place with President Bush's handpicked secretary of state on the spot to wield North American influence.

The real problem is that the Bush Administration's domestic political agenda - Florida Cuban exile-based opposition to normal relations with Cuba and U.S. oil industry-based opposition to President Hugo Chavez and Venezuela - is damaging U.S. relations with Latin America in general.

There is no need for this. Castro continues to run what is certainly a pestiferous, poverty-ridden dictatorship near our shores. But the fundamental question remains: Where would Cuba be 15 years after the end of the Soviet Union and global communism as a threat if we had treated the tiny Caribbean nation normally? Is there not reason to believe that normal U.S. influence on south-of-the-border nations would have brought about positive, incremental economic and political change in a nation so close to the United States? Should Americans be proud that our political and economic isolation of Cuba has kept or made its people poor?

Venezuela and Hugo Chavez present another kind of issue, but the administration approach is the same and almost certainly doomed to failure. It would like OAS members and especially Venezuela's neighbors to isolate and otherwise push on Mr. Chavez and his country.

The OAS, uncomfortable for years with having forced Cuba out of the organization, is certainly not going to add Venezuela to the list, even at the price of diminished U.S. budget support. What is more likely is that the OAS will pocket the victory that Mr. Insulza's election over U.S. opposition represents and re-admit Cuba.

What lies behind Bush Administration anger at Chavez and the Venezuelans is that Citgo Petroleum, the large gasoline marketing and refining company owned by the Venezuelan government, is based in Houston, Texas. Citgo is the fourth-largest gasoline retailer in the United States; it also owns six refineries. Last month it announced plans to sell two of the refineries and, over the past two years, has fired seven of its eight board members and many of its Houston-based top executives.

The bottom line for Americans, beset by gas prices that reflect a 22 percent rise in oil prices in the first three months of this year alone, is that it doesn't matter a hill of beans that Citgo's stations and refineries are controlled by a Venezuela with Hugo Chavez at the head.

The idea that Mr. Chavez is a bad guy doesn't sell well in much of the rest of Latin America in any case, because at least the face of his government has been policies designed to uplift the poor of his country. He also suggests that the United States may be cooking up a Bay of Pigs-type invasion of Venezuela from neighboring Colombia.

The U.S. should lay off the anti-Castro and anti-Chavez rhetoric, keep Mr. Rumsfeld and Ms. Rice out of the region, and let the OAS countries and its new leadership deal with Venezuela and Cuba in their own way.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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