U.S. foreign policy looks in every direction except South
December 27, 2007 - Sun-Sentinel.com

Guillermo I. Martinez, Guimar123@gmail.com

As the year comes to an end, 2007 witnessed the first major battles for the minds and hearts of Latin Americans between those who believe in Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution and those who believe in democracy, free trade and a market economy.

The year saw Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez win several rounds. Two of his closest admirers were elected president -- Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Chávez also laid the foundation for creation of Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), a South American international lending institution.

An investigation by a South Florida federal grand jury into the alleged attempt by Venezuelans acting on behalf of the Chávez government to cover up a scheme to deliver a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 to the campaign of now-President Cristina Fernández Kirchner has delivered Argentina closer to Chávez.

Yet not all went well for Chávez in 2007.

High school and university students who opposed constitutional changes led the vote against Chávez in a referendum that would have given the Venezuelan leader the opportunity to re-elect himself indefinitely and the power to govern according to his personal whim. Chávez was defeated at the polls and his aura of invincibility came crumbling down.

The loss embarrassed the bombastic Venezuelan leader, but it wasn't his only defeat of the year.

His efforts to become influential in Colombia's internal politics by serving as President Alvaro Uribe's appointed mediator in a prisoner exchange program with Colombia's leftist guerrillas did not work. When Chávez exceeded the parameters to mediate that President Uribe had given him, Colombia's president fired him.

Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC as it is known in Spanish, promised to release three hostages to Chávez in an attempt to get the process started again, but President Uribe refused. By overstepping his authority, Chávez wasted a marvelous opportunity to dramatically improve relations with neighboring Colombia, the closest U.S. ally in the region.

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales faces the possibility that at least four of the country's richest departments want to declare their autonomy and are willing to fight for it.

All this because Morales tried to impose changes to Bolivia's constitution in a rump session of a constitutional assembly with the opposition members absent. Bolivia's new proposed constitution is almost a carbon copy of the changes that Chávez wants to impose in Venezuela.

Who will win the battle in the end is still uncertain, but those who follow Bolivian politics closely fear even the possibility of a civil war. All this sprinkled with growing evidence that the Venezuelan government is injecting dollars directly in an effort to buttress the Morales government.

In Nicaragua, President Ortega is trying to impose his own "constitutional coup" as his opponents call the creation of the Councils for Citizen Power under the leadership of his wife, Rosario Murillo. That would, in essence, create a parallel government, giving Ortega's wife unlimited power. Ortega first made his proposal in early December and already the opposition, which has a majority in Congress, has voiced its discontent, even considering the possibility of trying to constitutionally remove Ortega from power.

Moving most efficiently in his efforts to reform his country's constitution is Ecuador's Correa. Analysts say he has the public support to impose changes, which would let him re-elect himself indefinitely, and impose a more socialistic government in the country.

All this is going on while the American government looks every which way but south. Republicans and Democrats alike have ignored Latin America. The only worthwhile measure adopted in 2007 was the decision by Congress to approve a free trade agreement with Perú, which President Bush signed Dec. 14.

Pending are agreements before Congress with Panama and Colombia. While difficult to enact in an election year, an agreement with Panama is possible. Colombia is almost impossible with many Democrats opposed to alleged links of President Uribe's government and right-wing para military units.

Still, an article penned by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, gives hope that both American political parties are realizing that this country cannot continue to ignore Latin America. Their article urges the United States to re-engage countries in the region.

That gives one hope. If what Sens. Reid and Cochran say is not an empty promise, 2008 will not be a good year for Chávez and his followers. They will find that a truly bipartisan U.S. policy toward Latin America will make their vision of a confederation of socialist countries in Latin America harder to achieve.