Bush's Last Latin America Initiative, the Path that Should Have Been
September 26, 2008 - Washington Post

By Marcela Sanchez, Special to washingtonpost.com

WASHINGTON -- President Bush this week launched what will surely be his final Latin American policy initiative. While in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Bush, standing with presidents and senior representatives of 11 countries, unveiled the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas, hailing it as "a forum where leaders can work to ensure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared."

The initiative harkens back to his early call in 2001 for an "age of prosperity" for the region. At the time, Bush said that through a dual commitment to democracy and free trade, new forms of cooperation would arise among the 34 democracies in the hemisphere despite a "history of rivalry and resentment." The administration then proceeded to produce trade agreements with nine countries.

Critics of these agreements have long complained that they make insufficient provisions to protect workers' rights, human rights and the environment. Democrats continue to tell prospective voters that they will amend these flaws.

Perhaps to take some of the wind out of their sails, Bush and his officials employ words such as "fair trade" and economic and social justice when discussing the Pathways initiative. It seeks to "accentuate the positive aspects while ameliorating the negative consequences of trade," said Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs, in an interview from New York. It is as if the United States is recognizing what so many countries in the region have been insisting on for some time: free trade alone doesn't cut it. If unaccompanied by social development priorities, trade benefits the few and worsens deep inequalities.

Yet it's hard not to meet such last-minute revisionism without significant skepticism. As it stands now, the initiative lacks anything concrete beyond calling for discussions at the ministerial level. While it acknowledges free trade's undesirable consequences, it outlines no mechanisms that might salve the wounds. That, plus the current U.S. financial crisis and Bush's limited time in office, make this week's event seem more of a high-profile attempt at a victory lap than anything else.

But that doesn't mean that Pathways is devoid of significance. It represents the triumph of more moderate forces over ideological ones within the administration who for far too long seemed intent on grinding axes with the region rather than wooing potential partners.

Among those countries signing onto the Pathways initiative is Chile, a country that five years ago was the target of Washington's disdain. Having abstained at the United Nations from supporting the U.S. call for invading Iraq, Chile was reduced to signing its long-awaited free trade agreement with the United States at a tea-and-cookies ceremony in Miami. This week, Bush lauded the agreement with Chile not simply for increasing trade by more than 180 percent, but "most importantly" for benefiting small-business owners, workers and farmers.

The changing relation with Chile has parallels with other nations that were in the Bush doghouse. Mexico, once shunned for the same reason as Chile, is now the main beneficiary of a new security assistance package that recognizes the U.S.' shared responsibility in combating Mexico's drug violence.

Clearly, a return to sensibility and moderation hasn't made dealing with Latin America's extremes any easier. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales continue to exploit hostility toward the U.S. for political gain, acting as if "diplomacy is all about using external factors for internal benefit," Shannon lamented.

Most recently, both Bolivia and Venezuela expelled U.S. ambassadors. And President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua declined to meet with Bush in New York, despite the fact that his country is part of the Central American free trade deal with the U.S.

For Bolivia in particular, Shannon has gone the extra mile, even agreeing to meet Morales at 5 a.m. during his last visit in July. Aware that any U.S. effort in Bolivia was becoming a political flashpoint, Shannon had been carefully courting support for alternative development initiatives from other countries. "It was our intent to hand over relationships that were functioning in the hemisphere," he said.

Had the Bush administration not been caught up in ideological squabbles so early, the later efforts from moderates might have been received differently. As it stands, the age of prosperity is still out of the reach of the majority of Latin Americans and the Pathways initiative is at the very least an acknowledgement of that fact.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.